As the recipient of the 2014 International Museums and Collections Award, I was lucky enough to spend a month over January/February of 2015 working with the museums and cultural collections at the University of Birmingham in the UK. I am currently studying for an MA in Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne. When I first heard about the Award, which constitutes a unique cultural exchange between the two universities, I knew it would be a wonderful opportunity to broaden my knowledge, gain practical experience and extend my skill set. I also saw it as an invaluable chance to build meaningful connections within the international museum profession and strengthen the relationship between the Universities of Melbourne and Birmingham. It’s been just over a month since my return from the UK so I’ve had a chance to reflect upon my experience at the University of Birmingham and on the many things I learned during my busy placement. In this report I will highlight the projects I worked on and how the Award has helped me develop, both professionally and personally.
I was made to feel welcome as soon as I arrived at beautiful Redmarley, the home of the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural Collections department and my base for the duration of my placement. In the first few days I learnt about how the team manage many of the campus collections and engage both the student population and the wider community, explored their numerous object storage areas and sat in on some object handling and collection interpretation teaching sessions.
With RCC as a supportive home, I was able to explore and work with the university’s numerous and varied cultural collections. An element of the Award that I particularly appreciate is the fact that the host university (in this case, the RCC team) endeavours to incorporate the recipient’s interests into the placement program but also encourages them to extend beyond their comfort zone and learn new skills. I feel that my own program of projects perfectly reflected this aim, with all my tasks either building on prior experience and knowledge or introducing me to a new element of collection management or interpretation.
I am studying conservation so I was naturally very keen to gain some experience in the Wilson Conservation Studio. Housed in the Cadbury Research Library, the Studio provides paper conservation services for the extensive collection. As a student of object conservation, paper is not a material I have had much experience with, so while my learning curve was steep it was an immensely enjoyable one. For example, on my first session conservator Marie Sviergula immediately had me washing delicate illustrations in water baths, which is a very scary job for the uninitiated! My main task was to assist Marie with preparations for an upcoming exhibition about Sir Oliver Lodge, the University’s first Principal. One particular task I oversaw from start to finish was the treatment of a letter written by renowned scientist Marie Curie. The steps included: carefully cutting the letter from its folio, cleaning the surface of the paper with a smoke sponge to remove dirt, applying a gel poultice to the tape to soften the adhesive and aid its removal, humidifying and pressing the letter to remove creases and fabricating a mount for display. Seeing the letter in the exhibition at the end of my placement made me feel very proud and my time at the Wilson Studio really reinforced my passion for the conservation of heritage material. Gaining knowledge and experiencing the practical treatment of paper will be an invaluable skill for my career.
Another project that was particularly rewarding was a collection survey I carried out for the Research and Cultural Collections’ Heritage store, which holds objects relating to the history of the University of Birmingham. I’d had little prior experience with collection management and was keen to learn more. My task was to check if the items were in their correct place, to record any objects that had been moved or loaned and to identify those that required accessioning. I created a spreadsheet to record each object and, by the end of the project, documented over 400 individual items; needless to say, keen concentration and an investigative spirit were invaluable. RCC always has objects from this store on display around the campus and regularly uses a number of them for teaching, so my task really made me appreciate the importance of maintaining meticulous documentation and carrying out regular surveys of collections. It was an added bonus to be able to handle significant items from the University of Birmingham’s fascinating 115-year history.
I was lucky enough to spend some time at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the campus’ beautiful art gallery. I spent some time with the Learning and Access team, observing all the work that they do to create engaging and diverse public programs. They asked me to produce a fact sheet on a recently conserved panel painting by Mannerist artist Jan de Beer to facilitate the delivery of future gallery talks on the piece. I am not very familiar with religious subjects so it was fascinating to explore the iconography of the painting. I also worked alongside coin curator Jonathan Jarrett, assisting with updating the documentation of the Barber’s ancient Greek coins. While their coin collection is exceptional, the Greek coinage was in desperate need of some further research and for its documentation to be made more accessible. While I studied ancient Greek history at university, learning the ancient alphabet and numismatic terminology, as well as navigating the database’s many fields, was a difficult but rewarding experience.
It is possible to see many likenesses between the cultural collections of Melbourne and Birmingham, both in content and use, but I was also interested to work in collections that are not at all or not as comprehensively represented at Melbourne. I spent some time at Winterbourne House and Garden, an Edwardian house with period Arts and Crafts features, and the Lapworth Museum of Geology, the most extensive geological collection in the Midlands; collections that both differ from those present in Melbourne. At Winterbourne I prepared a children’s pamphlet for an upcoming World War I exhibition. Being so used to writing in an academic style it was initially difficult to write for a young audience but I thoroughly enjoyed the task. As my own interest in museums and galleries was sparked in primary school, I greatly appreciate the importance of encouraging children and teenagers to engage with cultural institutions. During my time in Birmingham, the Lapworth Museum of Geology was undergoing a full redevelopment. I was able to learn about and observe the fascinating process of relocating the collection and redesigning the museum space, something I may not ever have the chance to experience again.
The Award helped me gain hands-on experience but it also allowed me to fully immerse myself in the visual and historical culture of two foreign countries. I was able to spend some time in Paris and London prior to my placement, during which I visited some of the cities’ iconic museums, galleries and historical sites. While I was based in Birmingham I explored the city’s vibrant cultural scene and took trips to nearby Stratford-Upon-Avon, Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent. Visiting other cultural institutions complemented my learning at the University of Birmingham and helped me to develop greater understanding of museum practices outside of Australia.
While I learnt beneficial practical skills and gained invaluable insight into the museum profession, the Award placement has also benefited me in many personal ways. For example, travelling away from my family and home to learn new things in a foreign place has allowed me to become more independent. More importantly, testing my prior knowledge, drawing on new skills and working alongside industry professionals has helped me to feel more confident in my own abilities and opinions. I believe I contributed in a professional capacity to the museums and collections at the University of Birmingham and I am very proud of this achievement.
I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to everyone involved in the International Museums and Collections Award exchange; the University of Melbourne’s Cultural Collections team for making my trip possible and supporting me while I was away, the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural Collections team for caring for me during my time in the UK, my patient and generous placement supervisors at UoB’s museums and collections and the friends I have made along the way. The Award has truly enriched my life, both professionally and personally, and I know it will continue to benefit me for years to come. It has inspired an even greater passion for conservation and collection management and has strengthened my desire to work within the museum sector. I’m looking forward to applying my new knowledge and skills here in Australia and I wish the best of luck to all the future recipients of this wonderful Award!