When speaking with many people, the grouping of the words new and heritage seems problematic. How can something that is categorised as heritage, a term associated with inheritance from the past, be classed as new?
However it is this association between new and heritage which has played an interesting and insightful role in my work placement module at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Having recently undergone a £2.5 million restoration project (kindly financed by those folks at the Heritage Lottery Fund) Elizabeth Gaskell’s House opened in October 2014 to become part of Manchester’s increasing cultural offering.
I’d heard a lot about the House prior to starting my placement, as my lecturer Helen Rees Leahy had acted as a Curatorial Advisor during the development process. During a seminar earlier in the year she had informed a group of us about the House, its aims and objectives and the interesting approach it was taking to interpretation. For those of you who haven’t been I’ll give you a bit of background – but I suggest you visit (if nothing else the tea room serves fantastic coffee and cake).
As opposed to creating an environment where objects are encased in glass, or furniture is behind rope cordons, the house successfully recreates the feel of a family home, encouraging visitors to sit on furniture and touch objects. Of course it’s at this point I feel obligated to point out that staff have not completely thrown the conservation handbook out the window (and a listed window at that)… as whilst all objects in the house are authentic, the majority are not original. Regardless, it is this feel of a family house which for me, and many visitors, has come to embody what Elizabeth Gaskell’s House represents.
During my 20 day placement at the House I gained a great insight into what it was like to be involved in running a new cultural organisation. My placement had been titled ‘Audience Development’ – a rather broad and all encompassing title – represented by the variety of jobs I was involved in. This ranged from designing and conducting evaluations of a theatre performance, to developing a guest list for an event which would showcase the House as a luxury venue for hire. In between these jobs, my main responsibility was to assist Angela Whitecross, the House’s Audience Development and Learning Co-ordinator, develop a range of educational activities that could be offered to local schools.
As I possess no experience of working with children I was incredibly conscious how useful my input was going to be. However after assisting my placement supervisor deliver several educational workshops I became increasingly confident and subsequently worked with her to design and develop a range of educational activities. Over the course of the placement we faced a range of challenges – most of them linking to the fact that the House was a new organisation. However upon completion of my placement I feel like I have developed a broad range of skills that will really benefit me in the future.