The ICP Work Placement module was one of the major lures of the Art Gallery and Museum Studies MA at Manchester, and it has proved to be an invaluable learning experience. What appealed to me most about the placement offered by Elizabeth Gaskell’s House was that it was such a new institution. It opened in October 2014, and with the placement starting in November, I was excited to be involved with developing a brand new project. My previous work placements had all been at well-established institutions, so I thought this would be a great new experience. I am also a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, so when I saw the placement listed I knew it was for me.
I was working with the Audience Development and Learning Coordinator to develop a storytelling activity for children under five, particularly aimed at the local community. The House is situated in Ardwick, a community that is quite deprived and disengaged from museums and heritage. For the first year of opening, local people are a key target audience in an attempt to establish the House as an active part of the community. This aim was the main drive behind my project.
Because it was such a newly opened institution, it took a few weeks for everyone – staff and volunteers as well as myself and my fellow placement student – to settle in and for the general running of the house to go smoothly. I had experiences of so many aspects of the day-to-day running of the House in the first couple of months, from evaluating events, writing activity proposals and assisting with educational visits; to working front of house and engaging directly with visitors. These first few months were valuable orientation for everyone involved, not just for the placement students, and to be involved with this transition period taught me a lot about the operating of museums.
I was given the brief for my project at the beginning of February, and the first Storytime was held on 25th March. This first event had a relatively small turnout – four mothers and their young children – but I was pleased with this since the event was not marketed extensively, and the House does not have a ready audience base like more established museums do. We read rabbit themed stories in the Drawing Room, then moved to the Servants Hall for a craft activity I had devised, making bunnies out of envelopes (note the link to Elizabeth Gaskell’s letter writing!) The mothers gave very positive feedback, and those of us from the House who were involved thoroughly enjoyed the event. The craft activity was even put on repeatedly over the school Easter holidays.
In developing this project I have prepared the groundwork that can be built upon in the future. I established connections with the local community through the organization SureStart, who invited me to have a stall at an International Women’s Day event in the area, at which we met many local women, and promoted the house and the Storytime activity. I have also carried out extensive research into what activities are already available in Manchester so that Elizabeth Gaskell’s House can offer something new and different, as Storytime becomes more established.
I feel proud of my involvement in the early life of this new institution. I have had the opportunity to develop valuable skills that I can take forward into the workplace, such as engaging children in educational workshops, establishing professional relationships with neighbouring organizations, and, most significantly, developing a project from scratch. Aside from that, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is one of the most friendly and welcoming institutions I have had the good fortune to work in.