Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, Manchester

Case study: hands-on training

Helen Wilkinson, 16.05.2011
Anthea Jarvis combined hands-on work with written "how to" guides to train new members of staff at the Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall in Manchester

Anthea Jarvis undertook her Monument Fellowship at the Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall in Manchester, part of Manchester City Galleries, for 60 days between from October 2007 and January 2009.

Jarvis had worked at the gallery from the mid-1960s until she retired in 2006. After her retirement, her colleague and fellow curator Miles Lambert was promoted to replace her. But he was replaced in turn, not by another curator, but by three part-time junior gallery assistants.

As part of her fellowship, Jarvis trained the new gallery assistants in identifying, understanding and caring for historic dress, and mounting it for display. She also acted as an adviser on a photo archive project, funded by the Getty Foundation, training two assistant staff in identifying and dating the photographs.

Having Jarvis back to work with the assistants gave them an immediate confidence and knowledge boost. The training she was able to offer has helped to ensure that all three gallery assistants have stayed with the museum.

Jarvis’s approach to knowledge sharing combined hands-on collections work with the preparation of detailed “how to” manuals, which provide a long-lasting legacy from the project. To share her knowledge of the dress collection, she planned a series of small group sessions with the gallery assistants, investigating selected items illustrating a theme or period.

Jarvis discussed the objects with the gallery assistants, passing on her knowledge and inviting their comments or questions. She then prepared a series of notes and information sheets, based on suggestions from the gallery assistants about what they would find helpful.

For her work with the photography archive staff, Jarvis prepared a series of “crib sheets” and worked with the documentation assistants to date and describe a wide range of photographs. From the gallery's point of view, this combination of first-hand sharing of knowledge, backed up by written reference notes, has worked well.

Jarvis has since led a series of six master classes, which were attended by more than 60 curators from across the UK, most of whom were social history curators or other non-specialists in charge of costume collections.

Jarvis says: “The master classes have been particularly successful because there is such a demand now for practical ‘hands on’ training in curating and interpreting costume and textiles, and there are few specialist costume curators left with the expertise to pass on.

"Most regional museums have a costume collection, but recent cuts in curatorial staffing levels mean that curators’ expertise has to be spread thinly over many disciplines. The enthusiastic response from the participants indicated that the information I provided was really useful to them, and I was aware of their needs, having been in the same situation 40 years ago.”

This case study is an edited extract from the Monument Fellowship Toolkit, written by Helen Wilkinson. Click here to read the report