Reflections

Almost a month from coming home from the exchange, my work for Melbourne has come to an end. I have decided to post a copy of my report, in the hope that it might benefit future applicants, or for anyone that wanted a quick summary of my time spent in Melbourne.

From July-August 2014 I embarked on a life-changing experience to the University of Melbourne. I was the fortunate recipient of the Universitas 21 Museums and Collections Award, granted to me by the University of Birmingham. I am a postgraduate student studying for an MA in Heritage Management at the University of Birmingham linked with the Ironbridge Institute for Cultural Heritage.  It was a unique opportunity to work with the collections, staff, and students at Melbourne; and to share knowledge, expand skills and use the theory work from my course in a professional heritage environment. Having returned from the placement three weeks ago, this report presents the opportunity to reflect on the experience as a whole, and to chart my personal development before, during, and after the placement.

Firstly, it must be stated that the collections at Melbourne and Birmingham are remarkably similar. Initially a teaching collection, they have diversified to create varied collections which reflect the evolution of knowledge and scholarship with unique material that is often not available to see in a conventional museum. Having volunteered with collections in Birmingham for two years, my placement in Melbourne allowed me to view University Collections with a newly found respect. It has become clear to me how important these collections are, and how integral their place is in the wider picture of cultural heritage. My projects covered aspects of heritage management including documentation and cataloguing, conservation, research, and interpretation. Being familiar with university collections and how they were managed, proved to be a considerable asset.

However, my Mondays spent with the Cultural Collections Projects Unit were illuminating, as I was introduced to several new approaches to collections management designed specifically to suit the universities environment. I arrived at a particularly busy point for the team, with several festivals and event days approaching which were utilising the university collections. I was allowed to sit in on meetings regarding these events, including planning for their next exhibition ‘Aftershocks: Experiences of Japan’s Great Earthquake’. It was fascinating to have a general overview of large scale exhibition planning as it complimented the theoretical approaches I have been exposed to on my MA course. My project was to create an outreach activity for use on community days such as open days or student services events. It was a project that completely removed me from my comfort zone, but it is also one that I took the most from. It taught me about budgeting, resourcing, demographic profiling, marketing, and designing with challenges to overcome and deadlines to meet. The feedback and support from the cultural collections team, with their years of experience, was a fantastic asset. They helped sculpt my vision into what was realistically achievable within the timeframe. The result was an activity where students had to match the name of the collection with a picture of one item from the collection, which was used on the university’s open day.

In contrast, my project with the special collections team was firmly within my comfort zone. My principal duty was to conduct research on William Blake. The analytical and research skills from my undergraduate degree in ancient history and the knowledge of how to interpret information from my MA greatly helped this task. I worked on two engravings – Grandison and The Beggar’s Opera –  both of which he created during his 7 year apprenticeship with Basire that commenced when he was just 14 years old. It gave me an insight into the early, progressive years of the renowned painter and poet, one that I previously was unaware of. I was also given the fantastic opportunity to work with precise, beautifully made facsimiles of some of Blake’s more famous pieces made by the Trianon Press; culminating in a blog about the rare, unique collections held by the University of Melbourne. Furthermore, I gained hands-on experience and skills through making book cradles and exhibition labels. While shadowing professionals, I was able to witness the challenges of having a rare, fragile work on loan. In this case, it was the world famous Guttenberg Bible that had come from Manchester to go on a short term exhibition in the Baillieu Library. There were significant issues such as transfer, storage, security, and access that the team had to overcome, as well as the standard exhibition planning. It highlighted to me how much responsibility curators have, and the attention to detail required to make an exhibition a success.

When applying for the award, the prospect of having my interests incorporated into my placement was exciting. To say they fulfilled my request would be an understatement. I indicated that I wished to work with the Classics and Archaeology Collection at the Ian Potter Museum of Art following my ancient history degree. Upon arrival, I was shown the large teaching collection of antiquities, among which was a large box of 150 cylinder seal reproductions. Nothing was known about the collection, where they came from, how they were made, what they depicted, or what was important about them. I was tasked to uncover their provenance and establish their significance in the teaching collection. Having specialised in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and learnt Cuneiform, the ancient writing system used on the seals, I managed to identify 50 seals; considerably more than the staff at the Potter had considered possible within the 3 day time frame. To ensure that I saw the project through to the end, my 4th day was dedicated to being thoroughly trained in the KE Emu database where my findings became immortalised in catalogue entries that I had created. This project was extremely satisfying as it showed that I could utilise my existing skills in a professional setting whilst knowing that my input was appreciated by the staff. It stands as an excellent example of how volunteer programs can be of benefit to both the student and the organisation.

Another aspect of collections that I asked to participate in was conservation. Prior to the exchange, all of my conservation knowledge came from academic books and brief training in basic paper conservation. Being the area where I had the least experience, it was where I grew the most. The Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC) was an astounding hands-on experience in a dizzyingly busy environment. I assisted in a wide variety of tasks including brush-vacuuming, corrosion reduction, solubility testing, humidifying, immersion baths, and paper consolidation using Japanese tissues. It shed light on how the profession has different expectations to meet in the UK and Australia. In contrast to my research projects which were wholly concerned with the historicity and interpretation of artefacts, the work with CCMC allowed me to be immersed in the care and treatment for the object. It made me appreciate materials, textures, and lifespans of objects far more and will inform my consideration of cultural heritage in the future.

Throughout the entirety of the scheme I was given a large amount of creative freedom and was allowed to work independently, knowing that support from the extremely friendly and informative staff was available. This independence was even apparent on my special ‘one-off’ days at the University Archives, and Herbarium. These were two similar, self-contained projects that were principally concerned with updating the material held in the collections. At both, items in the collection needed finding, rehousing into new archive grade storage, then updating or inserting onto the online catalogue. My time here challenged my conceptions that archives were static store houses where items went and were scarcely moved. They were vibrant, busy, ever-changing environments where there was a constant need to improve the service to aid accessibility for users.

The importance of the extra-curricular activities should also be highlighted. The creation and upkeep of blog about my experiences has been an essential tool upon returning to the UK. Not only did it keep a detailed account of what I achieved and my journey to achieving it, it is also a highly sought after skill in an age where social media and outreach is key to the success of a heritage business. Furthermore, the cultural experience of Melbourne and surrounding areas must not be undermined. Although the award is primarily about the placement at the university, the wider cultural landscape of Australia is fascinating for any student engaged in museum studies. The award presents a unique opportunity to see and feel how another culture interprets and engages with their cultural heritage – especially given their inextricable connection to English history. Australia’s cultural landscape therefore added another layer of interpretation, and aided in my understanding of the university’s collections within that context.

It has become clear that one of the greatest benefits of this scheme is the exchange of knowledge. The international collaborations with the U21 network is an ambitious project to see heritage break free of individual, institutional constraints and to engage young, keen minds away from the authorised heritage discourse. I was able to transfer my own experiences and interpretations of heritage, whilst also taking on the expertise and resources from an unfamiliar and culturally contrasting surrounding. The award was designed to cater to my existing skills, but also to lift me away from my comfort zone, to boost confidence, to identify my strengths and weaknesses, to expose me to the daily workings of a university collection, and to give me the tools to shape my experience to suit my interests. Therefore, the award is not simply about the physical collections, but the student. It is symbolic of the relationship between a museum and its audience on a local, regional, national, and international level. The achievement of being granted the award, and completing the placement is not an end in itself, rather it is the beginning of another partnership that is instrumental to the development and expansion of discourse in the heritage industry. The award has not only enabled me to gather research and contacts for my MA thesis on university collections or expanded my skill set, it has also given me something immeasurable and invaluable – confidence and determination. Working with so many enlightened and experienced heritage professionals has been a privilege, and has consolidated my plans to pursue a career in the heritage sector. As a result of this placement, I have an entire new range of skills that I am able to highlight to future employers, and I have applied for collections assistant roles that I would never have deemed myself suitable for before. It has been an honour to be a part of the Melbourne team and the expanding U21 network, and I wish to convey my deepest thanks to all those involved in the scheme in Birmingham and Melbourne. May the award continue to enrich the lives of future participants as it has mine.

Also, a final thank you to everyone who followed this blog during my journey, it’s been a blast!

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