Becoming a curator

Bookmark and Share

 

Graduate Iona Farrell describes how passion, persistence and hard work paid off in her quest to find a museum job

Image 1: 1950s sateen and lastex swimsuit by duCros from the Plume collection

Image 1: 1950s sateen and lastex swimsuit by duCros from the Plume collection, Southend Museum (image by author)

I graduated in 2016 from Brighton’s BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History degree and am now Assistant Curator of Social History at Southend Museum, where I work with the social and local history collection as well as the extensive costume archive. Highlights of the collection include the EKCO radio archive and the Plume swimsuit archive, the largest collection of swimwear in the country.

Brighton provided me with the starting step to pursue a career in museums. What I most enjoyed was how tutors encouraged primary research through visiting archives and using the University’s Dress History Teaching Collection. This approach has proved useful within my current role, where I am often handling artefacts. In a recent donation to the museum I used my undergraduate training to explore a beautiful silk chiffon dress. The garment’s delicate stitching showed the handiwork of a skilled dressmaker, whilst a tiny tear on the fragile hem pointed to a heel catching in the fabric, perhaps when the wearer was dancing. Details like this will inform how the garment is stored, as well as providing a ‘biography’ of an object crucial for creating an exhibition narrative.

Throughout my time at university I loved uncovering stories like these and spent many an hour at St Peter’s House Library using its extensive periodical and microfiche archive. One of my favourite projects was researching the clientele of 1920s couture, which meant poring over the Vogue archive. At times like these I knew I had chosen the right degree! For all current students, I really recommend making the most of these brilliant resources and, being a current Masters student, I must admit I miss the well-stocked shelves of St Peter’s!

Image 2: 1930s guides to Southend from the archive, Southend Museum (image by author)

Image 2: 1930s guides to Southend from the archive, Southend Museum (image by author)

In my second year I started research for my dissertation, which explored the performance and liminality of 1950s swimsuit pageants. I was keen to ground my writing in archival research and this led me to Southend Museum’s swimwear archive. Being from Southend, it was fantastic to discover the wealth of the collections and this inspired me to start volunteering. A major project I undertook as a volunteer was cataloguing over 500 swimsuits from the Plume collection. Along the way I assisted in exhibition installations and co-curated an exhibition on the history of toys, allowing me to build up a diverse range of skills. Volunteering seems to be a prerequisite for gaining paid work in Museums and local museums truly can provide brilliant opportunities for anyone intent on working in the sector.

After graduation I worked part-time for the University of Essex Library and started a Masters in Museum Studies, a distance-learning course, which has allowed me to continue to work. I must admit studying for a Masters, whilst being in employment and trying to gain entry into the museum sector was a challenge! As many have probably experienced, gaining work in museums can feel like an uphill struggle of endless online application forms. But I must stress that it will happen eventually! Always take whatever opportunities come your way, whether this means volunteering in your local museum like me, or gaining hands on experience within an archive: it’s all relevant experience and it’s fun.

Image 3: Inside the costume store, Southend Museums (image by author).

Image 3: Inside the costume store, Southend Museums (image by author).

By volunteering at Southend I was able to build up a large amount of experience and apply for the post of Assistant Curator. It’s fantastic to work now with such a wide-ranging collection and every day is different, whether this be accessioning donations, undertaking exhibition research, taking part in school visits or co-ordinating a touring exhibition. A major responsibility is undertaking the rationalisation of the social history collection, ensuring it is relevant and usable for generations to come. An upcoming project, Snapping the Stiletto will see museums across Essex collaborate to celebrate Essex women and dismantle the ‘Essex Girl’ stereotype. I am excited to build strong partnerships across Essex and the culminating touring exhibition and events across the county are something that people should look out for in the coming year.

It’s fantastic to be in an industry that is so creative, one that has the ability to tell so many stories and to inspire so many people. I am so glad that I applied to Brighton and grateful for the starting step it gave me.

A prize-winning return to university study

Bookmark and Share

 

Thinking of studying as a mature student? Wendy Fraser, a finalist studying BA (hons) History of Art and Design shares her experiences and celebrates her recent success.

Wendy Fraser and Andrew Davidson, Celebration Event

Figure 1 Wendy Fraser and Andrew Davidson, Celebration Event, University of Brighton Grand Parade. Photograph: Philanthropy Department.

In December, I was honoured to receive the Khadija Saye Visual Culture Breakthrough Award 2016/17 for my performance in the second year of my History of Art and Design degree. Khadija Saye, in whose name the award is presented, was a young photographer from London whose work was included in the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. Tragically, Saye died along with her mother in the Grenfell Tower fire, in the twentieth-floor flat that she also used as her photographic studio.

I am thrilled to have received the award, which is validation for the decision I made to come back to university as a mature student. I wrestled with different ideas of what to embark on next in my life, flip-flopping between a business plan or further education. My first experience at university was embarking on a degree in English Literature and History of Art at Edinburgh University when I was 19. At the time, I regretted the choice of Edinburgh as a University and English Lit as my subject but rather than make changes I left at the end of the first year. Retail jobs led to a career in fashion and giftware wholesale as an Account Manager with trade shows and twice-yearly travel to the Far East, which was creative and fun but ultimately intellectually unfulfilling. After the births of my daughters I juggled lots of part-time jobs to fit in with them – selling on Ebay, baking cakes for cafés, a sales role for a Childrenswear brand and supper club hostess.

I knew that I had not reached my academic potential and it would become a regret if I did not act upon it. The degree programme has exceeded my expectations and I have really appreciated learning about so many different aspects of visual and material culture. It has been a joy to have a legitimate reason to visit so many galleries and museums, rather than just as entertainment. My confidence in my subject has grown incrementally, helped in part by my volunteering roles at Charleston and at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, which we were encouraged to do in first year. Amazingly being a ‘mature’ student hasn’t made me feel awkward and my fellow students have been really inspiring – I have learned a lot from them and really enjoy their company.

The Khadija Saye Visual Culture Breakthrough Award was given at a ceremony in the Sallis Benney Theatre where students from across the University received Breakthrough Awards, Merit Awards, International Scholarships, Sports Scholarships, Enterprise and Employability Grants and Santander-funded awards. The donor of my award is Andrew Davidson (pictured with me above), a University of Brighton Alumnus who studied Visual Culture and is now an Education and Communications Consultant. I was awarded £500, which I plan to use towards a trip to the 2019 Venice Biennale, inspired by Khadija Saye’s achievement. This will be my first experience of an international biennial and further my understanding of contemporary art exhibitions. I haven’t been to Venice since I went on a three-week trip to look at as many examples of Titian’s work as I could before enrolling at university first time around, so this will be a memorable and beneficial use of the award money, representing my circuitous journey back to the History of Art.

 

Volunteering: where might the ‘positive feedback loop’ take you?

Bookmark and Share

 

Lisa Hinkins, currently in her final year studying BA (Hons) History of Art and Design, gives an update on the diverse volunteering opportunities available via the University of Brighton  – and the unexpected places they have led…

In my first year of the BA (Hons) History of Art & Design course, I was asked if I could write for our blog about my experiences of volunteering. In it I mentioned the ‘positive feedback loop’ from my experience of coordinating volunteers at a Scrap store I ran, to my volunteering with Photoworks and Fabrica. Since then, I have participated many hours of learning and creating within my voluntary roles. On the way, I have met and made friends with many different people. Fabrica has been a refuge from many stresses and an outlet to experiment in writing for their Response magazine, create workshops and interact with the public in Front of House duties for exhibitions.

The initial few months of volunteering within the arts gave me the confidence to apply for a job at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery as a casual gallery explainer. For nine months, I was part of a team working in the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition, following which I worked with the Constable and Brighton exhibition. While engaged with the Museum, it has led to some other opportunities within the organization, which have been very interesting and invaluable learning experiences. So, my volunteering led to a positive outcome of a paying job.

Not only have I been able to earn money from something I enjoy, I continued my volunteering during my second year of study. Somehow, I managed to rack up over 90 hours of volunteering! It has been important to keep in contact with Kat (neé Turner) Saunders, Volunteering Project Officer for Active Student Volunteering Services, as she was able to ensure I received continued opportunities with Photoworks, which included creating a workshop during 2016’s Brighton Photo Biennial at the Ewen Spencer installation at Fabrica. Another benefit of keeping registered with the university Volunteering Services, is that your volunteering hours are officially recognized by it, so for the past two years I have received certificates recognizing my dedication.

In June, I was completely taken aback when Kat Saunders sent me an invitation to attend the Mayoral reception for University of Brighton student volunteers, part of celebrations for National Volunteers’ Week. Around twenty students were invited from across the Brighton campuses to the reception in acknowledgement of the many hours of dedicated service in organizations across the city. It was an honor to be asked and to represent the City campus. It was also a great excuse to eat far too much cake in the Mayor’s Parlour in the Town Hall! And it was a delight to meet the exuberant Mayor, Mo Marsh, who took time to speak to all of us about our experiences and thank us.

A week later our group photograph with the Mayor was featured inside The Argus newspaper. Rather embarrassingly the callout for students to send a few words about their volunteering experiences, for the article seemed to result in only mine being published, but Fabrica director Liz Whitehead was truly delighted that her organization got a mention in my statement.

That positive feedback loop has endured: volunteering, job, celebration, recognition, continued volunteering. I would encourage my fellow students to sign up with Active Student Volunteering Services. It has been one of the best things I have done during this journey through my degree.

 

Mass Observation: Objects in Everyday Life

Bookmark and Share

 

How can historians investigate what people wore in everyday life and what it meant to them? Hannah Smith (MA History of Design and Material Culture) explores some of the many micro-histories contained in the Mass Observation archive…

For my MA dissertation I have researched practices of dress in everyday life as presented within the Mass Observation Project Spring 1992 and Spring 2006 ‘One Day Diary’ directive responses. Housed within the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep near the South Downs in Sussex, it is made up of handwritten letters, typed emails, photographs and drawings, produced at the hands of the hundreds that make up the panel of writers known as ‘Mass Observers’. This material is divided into the Mass Observation Archive (1937 – early 1950s) and the Mass Observation Project (1981 – present). It is the latter Mass Observation Project (MOP) that I have been using in my research.

The MOP defines itself as a ‘national life writing project’. Former director of the project, Dorothy Sheridan described it as, “…ordinary people observing and reflecting on everyday life…” (Sheridan, 2000:10). The intent of both the Mass Observation Archive and Project was to give voice to the ‘ordinary’ everyday person, giving them “the authority over knowledge” (Sheridan, 2000:10). Mass Observers are sent up to three sets of ‘directives’ a year with the invitation to write about a wide range of themes and events. Examples have included “Gardening”, “The Refugee Crisis” and “Your Home”.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

My interest in the MOP came about during my first year on the MA History of Design and Material Culture at the University of Brighton. We were encouraged to use the MOP as a primary resource for a group project entitled ‘Interior Lifestyles’. Using the directives ‘Objects about the House’ and ‘Collecting Things’ we explored the relationships between the Mass Observers and the objects they decorated their homes with. Aside from the aforementioned project, the ‘New Years Eve’ and ‘One Day Diary’ directives that I had had the opportunity to look through particularly inspired me. As a researcher of dress and fashion in everyday life, here was access to narratives of real experiences of living, breathing people interacting with dress and fashion, rather than a constructed representation or media ideal. I therefore initially assessed these diary-format directives and developed my own methodology for using the MOP within a material culture study, ultimately leading to my dissertation research in practices of dress.

As well as being able to track the Mass Observer’s use of dress as they weave amongst different contexts throughout the narrative of their day, it has given me rare insight into the ‘wardrobe’ moment – the moment when which the bricolage of the visual self we see in more public spaces is created. Through using Mass Observation, I have been allowed the opportunity to explore not only how people use dress in more public spaces, but also in move private spaces – whether that be their dressing gowns, pyjamas or nothing!

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Initially, I was overwhelmed due to the vast amount of material and its seemingly limitless capability for endless threads and tangents of research. By reading as much as possible about how other researchers had used the material, I was able to see that every Mass Observation researcher has shared the same struggles and frustrations. Through learning from their problem solving, I was able to tailor their theories to my research interest and develop my own methodology for using the material as well as providing a structure for sampling.

With its interdisciplinary appeal the material transcends boundaries, making it an exciting resource that can always be further explored. Whilst students, academics, media researchers and the public have taken advantage of the unique collection – it is ultimately a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in everyday life. For a researcher of design history and material culture, it provides a rare platform to witness the reality of objects interacting in everyday life. Since I’ve been working with the material, the Mass Observation staff, and the staff at The Keep, have been incredibly helpful and approachable. There is an openness towards anyone that is interested in engaging with the material.

As much as it may seem intimidating during an initial encounter, this should never prevent anyone that is interested from engaging with the material. Now more than ever Mass Observation provides an important platform for recording the reality of lived experience, giving voice to the micro-histories that grand-narratives have tendency to silence. It is inspiring to know as an individual in society, as well as a researcher, that there is a space for your voice to be heard and a space that seriously considers what you have to say. Working with a collection such as this is incredibly important if we are to understand the reality of how we negotiate lived experience and exist as a society and as individuals.