The opportunity to participate in a work placement was a significant factor in my choice to study Art Gallery and Museum Studies with the University of Manchester. While I am currently employed by the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art and Chetham’s Library, I have an interest in diverse areas of practice: preventative conservation, collections management, contemporary art, curation, ethnography, community engagement and research, to name a few. The course and work placement have helped me to hone in on which area I’m most suited to, and to identify which of my skills require improvement.
I chose the placement as Collections Assistant at Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, working within the decorative arts department. This placement was ideal for a number of reasons – the gallery’s decorative arts collection is broad, containing a range of materials and artefacts of varying ages. I could explore objects I had no prior experience of working with – including fashion, ceramics and even toys. Furthermore, it was important to me that the Walker is a national institution. I wanted to understand standardised, widely used policy and practice that would be transferable for me in future employment. Lastly, decorative arts are defined as objects that are both beautiful and useful. I have always been drawn to objects that have a social history context: objects that are mundane or ‘everyday’; that speak of both intimate personal histories and broader societal contexts; and that have been used, worn and circulated. In short, objects that can tell stories and somehow connect me to people past and present.
I completed a number of tasks during the placement, including participating in a research project of Jewish fashion makers, documenting commemorative ceramics, and upgrading the storage of wedding accessories and textiles. Whilst handling such a large quantity of objects, I utilised and applied the theory I had been studying during the course, by asking questions of the objects. How was a piece of wedding cake from 1901 preserved? How did it arrive in the gallery’s collection? Who founded the company that made this 3-piece suit? Where is this documented? Why would a gallery collect a seemingly mundane jumper that is not in perfect condition? Who wore it? How does policy support this? Whose heritage is preserved here?
I was able to interact with objects in a meaningful way, and have learned methods for recovering the narratives inherent in them. In the short time I was on placement at the Walker, I learned fundamental collections management practices. Yet I also accomplished techniques that are uniquely suited to my own sensibilities. I relished the opportunity to spend time with my work place supervisor, the Senior Curator, who possesses extensive knowledge and expertise and who helped me to recognise the potential of clothing, which was a completely new subject for me. After this experience, I will continue searching for employment in a curatorial role, with renewed vigour and confidence.
Abbie Hawkins is a student on the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies.