For more than three decades, students from the University of Leicester have carried out work placements in museums and galleries across the UK. Each year postgraduates from the School of Museum Studies continue their programme through work-based and profession-facing learning, joining an array of institutions – large and small – in all parts of the country.
Traditionally, these eight-week summer modules have not only given the school’s students an opportunity to apply ideas from their course to real-world museum and gallery settings, but every year they have provided more than 100 institutions with the energy and insights from an international, multi-disciplinary cohort.
In summer 2020, as our museum sector worked its way through the extreme challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, students made a different and unique contribution through their placements. An unprecedented intervention for an unprecedented time.
Working closely with staff from their partner institution, supervised by academics from the school and guided by a series of online tools and resources, students undertook their placements “virtually”.
In this article, some of the students reflect on this experience, what they will take away from it for their careers, and how this love of museum practice continues to drive them.
Ross Parry is the deputy head of school and professor of museum technology at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester
I have always loved history and immersing myself in the events and perspectives of the past. This has drawn me to museums as they made learning about the past an interactive experience, where you can engage with real artefacts and objects rather than just reading about them.
I want to work in museums so I can create the same experience for others and foster the same joy and insight I have gained from going to museums. I am interested in museum work related to audiences, specifically audience development and engagement, as I want to encourage people to engage with heritage.
During my placement at the East End Women’s Museum in London I was fortunate enough to support the museum with its audience engagement and development objectives, which was extremely beneficial for my career development.
While I was with the museum, I created an easy read guide for neurodiverse visitors and/or visitors with learning difficulties that will be hosted on the museum’s website.
I also conducted research focusing on its local audience in the London borough of Newham. From this research, I produced two reports; one identified potential Newham-based collaborators while the other highlighted key information about the local population and made recommendations on how to best engage with them.
Working on the Newham population report was a real eye-opener for me, as I learned more about the different types of barriers that prevent people’s engagement with heritage and museums. Some of these barriers I was unaware of or simply had not considered, such as the gender-based challenges facing some women in Newham. This has made me more focused on addressing such barriers in my work as I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to access and engage with heritage.
Due to my experience at East End Women’s Museum I feel better equipped to move into audience engagement and development work as I am now aware of how to best approach and manage it.
During my placement, I learned more about the museum’s mission, aims and values. I was really impressed to find out about its social justice mission, its commitment to challenging gender inequalities and stereotypes, and the support it gives women and girls to share their own stories and find their civic voice.
It was amazing to see a museum that was not only focused on engaging and educating audiences but also being an advocate for them. As someone who identifies as a minority, I am passionate about building representation for social groups that historically have not received much recognition, so I really identified with the museum’s mission.
It also reminds me of what excites me the most about the sector – the fact that museums are more than just collections and archives, and that they can be active participants in social justice. I am now seeing more museums using their historical knowledge and collections to address issues of the past and present and working to present more diverse narratives. This makes me proud to be involved in the sector.
In the future, I hope to work in an organisation that is as socially minded as the East End Women’s Museum, as I want my work to educate and advocate. I also hope to have a role where I will be reaching out to and actively engaging with museum audiences. I am particularly interested in working with audience groups that are perhaps less likely to attend museums and addressing the barriers that might be stopping them from attending.
In Italy, my native country, museums are still often considered temples where objects are to be preserved. Despite this, I have always seen cultural institutions as places for conversations, inspiration and for feeding one’s curiosity.
I started my bachelor’s in art history because I wanted to become a tourist guide and to talk with people about art.
Throughout my studies, I tried to define and shape my ideas of museums until I found some stimulating inputs in the area of digital and the opportunities that technology opens to enrich the visitor experience and make collections accessible to everyone. This path finally brought me to a master’s in museum studies at the University of Leicester.
There, my knowledge and comprehension of contemporary museology expanded enormously. I learned about decolonisation and repatriation, activism and social justice, and my understanding of digital technology has evolved and broadened.
This opportunity to see different perspectives, face new challenges and imagine solutions is what excites me about being part of the museum community. My knowledge, perceptions and critical thinking can grow together with a sector that has to respond to continuous change.
In particular, the pandemic has put the spotlight on the digital culture and infrastructure of our organisations, capturing the tangible and hidden issues. It will be crucial to collectively rethink our understanding and relationship with digital.
I aim to continue my studies around digital transformation and apply the knowledge and experiences I have gained to conduct research and projects that can help institutions reimagine their work and organisation.
My summer placement was very constructive in this area. I worked at Barker Langham, a cultural consultancy that develops projects for museums, cultural organisations, national and local authorities worldwide. It boasts an international, diverse and interdisciplinary team of which I immediately became part. I took part in different live projects for which I conducted research of various kinds.
I enjoyed working on a wide variety of tasks and projects. The dynamic and complex workflow helped me refine and develop several key skills for the sector and gave me a comprehensive understanding of project planning that will be essential in my future career.
Furthermore, the open-mindedness of the teams encouraged me to think outside the box and to bring new perspectives on the table. As I got more involved in the consultancy’s work, I engaged in great conversations with many colleagues, shared ideas and finally overcame the challenges of working remotely.
Reflecting on my overall experience, I learned more than I expected to. At Barker Langham, I found an environment that ensures open communication, sustains collaborative practice, and looks after people’s wellbeing by organising informal community activities to encourage socialising. This experience really set an example of the organisational culture I would like to foster and create.
I hope to continue my professional and personal growth in an environment and community that will be more conscious in recognising people’s value, job and wellbeing in order to generate virtuous behaviours as we enter the next phase.
Although the pivot towards digital happened overnight and was disruptive for many, we now need to support each other in moving further together and reshaping our sector.
Sitting in my bedroom, staring at my laptop on the first day of my placement at the Pen Museum in Birmingham I had a niggling thought in my head: how is this going to work? Our whole year at Leicester had been building up to our summer placements, where we had been intending to spread out across the country to work at various institutions. However, Covid had other ideas.
The brief from the Pen Museum was to curate an exhibition looking at the lives of women and children workers in the pen factories of 19th and early 20th-century Birmingham. The museum already did a fantastic job of introducing visitors to the manufacturing processes and the pen factories, but this exhibition was going to have a distinctly social history focus, shining a light on those groups often hidden from history.
As I looked at the project outline, I was full of enthusiasm but also apprehensive. Just how would it be possible to create an exhibition remotely in eight weeks? But once I got started, I realised not only was it possible, but it would be a thoroughly enjoyable experience that would allow me to reflect on museum curation.
The project started with getting to know the institution and some background research. The amount of information available through digitised records astounded me; parliamentary reports, newspaper articles and factory inspections provided a wonderful starting point.
In our group, we decided to each focus on one specific area, mine being female workers in the 19th century. As the weeks progressed, I built up a picture of the lives of these women – the monotonous toil, the strict rules and the demands placed on them as working mothers.
Once all the information was collected, we set about designing the exhibition. As a group we each harnessed our individual strengths, whether that was graphic design or exhibition text writing, utilising skills that we had honed while at Leicester. Cutting down my pages of research into 500 words of text was undoubtedly the hardest part of this project. Nevertheless, after many, many, redrafts, it was finished!
We also decided to produce a complementary booklet, allowing visitors the opportunity to explore the exhibition further.
Working on this project truly reinforced my passion for the sector and my reasons for wanting to work in museums. It made me see the wonderful things that are possible when we step out of the shadow of traditional historical narratives and explore the stories that have been sidelined.
This project could easily have slipped into the realm of exploring conventional notions of the Industrial Revolution, focusing on economic power and powerful men. Instead, it uncovered the women and children who deserve to have their stories told. It allowed their voices to come to the forefront, when previously few had heard them. At the time, their lives were spoken about on their behalf by men, so to uncover their true voices was very special.
This made me see just how wonderful modern museum practice is, how its desire for inclusivity means that a platform is given to all voices, and all experiences are deemed as valuable as each other.
The staff at the Pen Museum were fantastic and this project, exploring the hardships of those in the past, felt especially poignant given the hardships we are all facing. I am proud to have worked on this project and am so excited to see the exhibition installed in the museum when it reopens. I hope, going forwards, that giving a voice to marginalised groups will be a pillar of my work as a museum practitioner.
I decided to become a museum professional after studying a master’s in anthropology and history at the University of Aberdeen. I did an internship at the Ethnography Museum in Budapest to further my anthropology studies, and through that position I fell in love with the collections and social history of the museum.
After the internship, I realised that the two areas of studies that I loved, anthropology and history, combined with collections, are what museums are all about: cultures, people and history.
My main interest is social history and engagement as I love the stories that bring objects to life, as well as what connects people to the objects and museums. I also love how different cultures, traditions and beliefs are represented in museums through objects that offer a worldview while reassuring us that we are all unique individuals who belong to diverse cultures.
The last module of my master’s at the University of Leicester, studying museum studies, was an eight-week placement. I feel very lucky that this was at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, a contemporary and forward-thinking institution that supports and encourages inclusion and local connections, and continually rethinks what gallery and photography practices are for.
This gallery is a place that connects people, ideas and art through photography as well as an organisation that facilitates community-based socially engaged photography projects. It is a great example of how cultural institutions can integrate care, and respect for their communities – which is something that I only learned in theory throughout my studies.
During my placement I was working on various tasks ranging from research, social media engagement, responsive programme planning, selecting photographic works, interviewing an artist and the development of creative content.
I aimed for my engagement projects to be accessible and amusing, making sure that they would be easy to understand and relate to, therefore connecting people with shared experience and interesting ideas. Through these tasks, I learned more about socially engaged practice, contemporary photography and museum practices and, more importantly, I learned to work with and for the people of Open Eye Gallery.
I feel that the best thing I achieved during this placement is the part I created for the newest activity pack Open Eye released. I designed it to be on the topic of lockdown so people could reflect on positive aspects of their experiences.
The activity pack contained workshops that aimed to make people think of what they missed and what new skill or activity they started during the pandemic through their photos, as well as stories that would explain how and why these activities made them happy. I feel that spreading positivity and connecting with others are more important now than ever, particularly because of Covid.
My hopes for the future have been interrupted by the pandemic as it has made it harder to start my museum career. At the moment all I wish for is a steady job and to be able to see my family and friends. The lockdowns in the UK made me realise how quickly life can change so I am still working on a mindset that is flexible and adaptable.
In the near future I aim to further my skills in digital aspects in the sector as well as marketing and education. I want to offer a well-rounded skillset to museums. I am excited and eager to start working in a museum, but I expect it will be a slight wait due to the uncertain state of the cultural organisations all over the world.
Looking back at the summer of 2020, the most exciting thing was my online placement at the Gardens, Libraries & Museums at the University of Oxford. During the internship, I found an area of work that I love and encountered many challenges. This experience gave me new interest and ideas about the sector.
Before coming to the UK, I worked at the Shandong Museum in China for some time, and the work was similar to that at Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries & Museums. It involved going deep into museum management, conducting audience surveys and data analysis of the museum, and organising it and registering it in the archives of the museum.
The only difference is that the internship at the Shandong Museum involved measuring, sorting and registering ancient cultural relics, while the task of the Gardens, Libraries & Museums was to classify visitor information collected each day by the museum.
In these two tasks, I encountered many difficulties. But under the patient guidance of the supervisor, I also learned a lot, such as a specific understanding of the museum’s internal management system and how the visitor information was evaluated.
For me, the most exciting area of museums is curating exhibitions, because it is work full of unlimited imagination and various styles. But I decided that I needed to understand museum management first. The essential management work may seem simple and boring, but it tests people’s patience.
To give me a chance to get in touch with the collections and understand the views of visitors on the exhibition will undoubtedly help me plan exhibitions in the future.
In future, maybe I will become an administrator sitting in the office organising collections files, or perhaps an intern in the exhibition hall. The placement opportunity at Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries & Museums and the experience of studying in the UK are the best memories of my life. I will continue to advance in this sector, looking for more fun and meaning in life.
On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London I had the opportunity to see the Disobedient Objects exhibition. This was my first look at how museums could address issues of social justice and be a platform for narratives not normally told through the authorised heritage discourse.
Never before had a museum exhibition hit me to my core like this one. I instantly knew that I wanted to be a part of an institution that produced exhibitions as moving as this one was.
It is this potential to create thought-provoking, and potentially action-provoking, exhibitions that still excites me about museums today. I am particularly interested in how museums can expand their interpretation and offerings to create a more polyvocal and representative space for their communities, and how feminist curatorial practice can aid this.
After completing this placement and my master’s during such an unprecedented year, my hope for the future is that museums will continue having the difficult conversations that were sparked this year and will become the leaders for social change. Museums are incredible spaces to foster conversations and debates about so many topics. I look forward to being a part of those museums and making real change in our society.
Growing up in Canada I had always loved visiting local historic sites and houses but had never ventured much towards museums. My interest in museums, and the work that they do, did not emerge until halfway through my BA in fashion and dress history at the University of Brighton.
On class trips to London, where I visited the National Gallery, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Museum, I was in awe of the artefacts and objects on display, the architecture of the buildings, and the messages that museums can convey to their audiences and communities.
As my time at Brighton progressed, I began to visit museums on my own in the south-east of England and London – mostly those with fashion or art exhibitions – which further triggered my interests in wanting to become a part of the behind-the-scenes teams that created exhibitions.
I’m excited by the current changes facing the museum sector in relation to museums addressing their colonial pasts and the steps towards decolonisation, an increase in polyvocality, museums as spaces of activism, and museums adapting and utilising the fast-changing digital technologies.
Looking towards the future, the sector has lots of challenges awaiting it, but also has a lot of potential to continue to make a difference.
It is certainly exciting to be entering the sector at such a pivotal moment in museological history and I look forward to sharing my voice with my future colleagues in regard to how museums can continue to evolve and adapt to these challenges. Regardless of the size of the museum, they all have a role to play to educate and serve society to their fullest potential.
Amelia Taylor and Caroleen Molenaar
Spending eight digital weeks with the Salisbury Museum was an incredible experience, despite being roughly 6,000km apart. We both gained a tremendous amount of respect for the dedicated team at museum, and for those working at other small to mid-sized local museums with very limited budgets and staff.
There was such pride for the city of Salisbury, and such great enthusiasm for its history, both with local visitors and those from across the UK and beyond. Working closely with the passionate staff and volunteers made it very easy to develop our own passion and pride for the museum, its collection, and the programmes without ever setting foot inside the physical space.
We both look forward to returning to the UK as soon as possible and finally getting to see the beautiful building, the museum’s collections, and its surrounding areas.
During our placement we worked with two other Leicester students at tasks focused on the museum’s National Lottery Heritage Fund project. Our four-member University of Leicester team was tasked with researching best practices for digital engagement, including digital exhibitions, social media, YouTube and websites, with the two of us focusing on social media and digital exhibitions.
After researching the good and the bad of digital engagement, we conducted an audit of the museum’s social media platforms and current digital exhibition, and we suggested what steps the museum should take going forward.
Still thinking about digital audience engagement, our tasks pivoted, and we began to think about digital learning resources in museums, with a target audience focusing on families and formal education. We looked at what other museums had created during the first lockdown period and those that had been shortlisted for the Family Friendly Museum Award to inspire our brainstorming ideas for PDF activities for the museum website.
We came up with nine possible activities which we narrowed down to three to develop further. One of us created a learning package based on the many coins the museum has in its collection, including an arts-and-crafts and a math activity; as well as a story-writing activity based on the drainage collection.
The other researched some of the many beautiful paintings in the collection and developed a cryptographic-inspired learning activity that teaches different aspects of art history through the depiction of different locations in Salisbury, as well as brainstormed ideas for a potential video series regarding the evolution of everyday objects.