My name is Suzanne Bowling and as part of my MA degree in Art Gallery and Museum Studies I undertook a work placement module at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is a new house museum, due to open in Manchester in October 2014, with a focus on the 19th century novelist and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, and the cultural, social and political life of Manchester during this period. This placement was very appealing to me because I have a passion for 19th century literature and for historic house museums, and so I could combine these two passions. Furthermore, as Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is a new institution I felt this placement would provide me with a unique opportunity to be involved in the development and creation of a new museum and its interpretation.
My role at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House was as a research and interpretation assistant, with a focus on 19th century Manchester. My main project was to create an interactive map of Manchester from 1860, showing the buildings Elizabeth Gaskell and her family would have been familiar with in the city. This project required me to research 37 buildings and institutions within Manchester to find out when they were built, who built them and why, what they were used for and if they had any particular links to the Gaskell family. I wrote a description of each building (150-200 words) and found images of either the building or something relating to it. It was a challenge to find images for some buildings or institutions because they have long been demolished and there is little information about them. These challenges however allowed me to do some more in depth research into the archives at local libraries, discovering old Manchester history and Manchester walking tour texts. This map will provide visitors to the museum with much information about Manchester at the time Elizabeth Gaskell lived there and so will help them to place the House in its context within the city. Highlighting the links between Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Manchester and the local communities is an integral part of the vision of the House, and my project was central to realising this vision.
Whilst this was a highly individual project, with research being carried out independently due to the house being closed for restoration, a part of my placement included visiting the house whilst it was being restored. This was very exciting and allowed me to get a real feel and understanding of what was being done to the house and what it was going to look like once it was finished. Being involved in the project from this stage means that I can track the development of the restoration project and be intrinsically involved in the interpretation of the House, particularly of the development and integration of my 1860 Map of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester. This placement has provided me with much experience of professional practice in relation to opening a new house museum, as well as an opportunity to develop my research skills.