As part of my Art Gallery and Museum Studies masters program I had the chance to complete a placement to gain valuable experience and knowledge of working in the museum sector. The placement module had been a big factor in me choosing to do this MA because I felt it was a chance to be able to gain experience that is often not offered in ordinary volunteering roles and by gaining practical experience at the same time it would support and inspire my further studies.

Manchester Art Gallery Artist Files
Files in the Manchester Art Gallery archives

I chose to apply for the placement at Manchester Art Gallery in the role of Documentation Research Assistant. I was interested in the role as it detailed working with KeEmu, a collections management software, which I had learnt a bit about using as part of the managing collections and exhibitions module. I was eager to learn more about how the system is used in a professional setting.

Manchester Art Gallery has an amazing Fine Art collection consisting of over 14,000 works. It is renowned for its collection of 19th Century British art works including the collection of Pre-Raphaelite works. The main tasks of the placement were to explore the gallery’s British artist files. It was an amazing opportunity to explore these art works and learn much more about the histories of the artists and works.

The artist files contain information and documentation about the artworks and artists in the collection. They are a fascinating source of information that gave a completely new insight and new stories to the art works. The files are filled with article cuttings, curator’s notes, conservation reports, loan records, correspondence and images. My task was to sort through the files to make them easier to use for curators, staff and researchers. Over the years the files have been filled with duplicate documents and lots of handwritten notes which were to be sorted through to conserve space. The other main task was to add all necessary information to the KeEmu records, updating and improving the entries where possible. Being able to go through the files and read all the information and correspondence was fascinating and really made me realise the depth of information that is involved with collections management and cataloguing.

The correspondence in the files were often handwritten letters between the artist and then director or curator of the gallery. They gave a wonderful insight to the past workings of the gallery, with letters detailing personal visits to the gallery or the artist’s home studio and wonderfully long letters of thanks written in return. It gave an entirely new personality to the art works and much more a sense of the social history that accompanies the workings of a gallery.

My supervisor spent a lot of time going over the workings of KeEmu with me, explaining how the system works and what this means for the gallery. The KeEmu records keep all the collections information as part of the object catalogue and also form part of the online collections access on the website, so by adding to these records it is improving the online collections access.

I learnt so many great skills over my time at the gallery and because of my experience gained using KeEmu I have now managed to gain a job as a casual catalogue assistant at the Manchester Museum of Medicine and Health.

I really enjoyed my time at the gallery and feel like I learnt many important skills and experienced what it’s like to be behind the scenes in a gallery assisting in collections management.