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Liz - curator
Name: Liz
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: Heritage
Year of graduation: 2004
Date of Interview: 30/06/2008

Now Playing: Liz - curator
Liz gives an insight into her current role as a Curator within a commercial environment. She describes her day to day activities and responsibilities and her working environment.

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Can you tell me what your current position is? 

I'm now a curator in a commercial environment though not in a traditional heritage site and I look after the substantial library that's been collected gradually over the last one hundred and twenty odd years and a large collection of silver.

How long have you been working in your current position and in the organisation?

For nearly three years now.

And can you tell me in some detail what your job involves?

In terms of looking after the library and the collection, obviously conservation and care of the collections is quite a substantial part of my role. I also have to think about issues of access to the collections so in terms of the library that might involve a member of the public or someone who is conducting research who's found out that we've got books on a certain area that interests them might contact me and I'll have to facilitate their use of the library and supervise them if they're working with historic volumes especially if they're working in our archive. We've got a large archive built up of a substantial amount of documentation from the last, over two hundred years and of course those are one off documents so readers working with those need to be supervised quite closely. Of course I use the library myself when I'm doing research. I also have to think about access to the collections, so that involves the working at the coal face of heritage in terms of doing talks and giving guided tours to visitors. I do that here but I also go out and do that by outreach. I also do quite a bit of work with schools because there's both the scientific and an artistic aspect to my job. It's quite good to get involved with schools because it's either, art teachers can make use of what I do and it can be useful to their students or the scientific side is also very useful to schools. I've built up quite a substantial educational program while I've been here and because it's a commercial working environment I have to do a large part of my school work with schools by outreach. Because of health and safety issues and insurance issues we can't have large groups of schools here, as you would if you were working in a dedicated heritage site. The organisation was founded in the late eighteenth century and the person who was responsible for our founding is quite celebrated in the area where we are and in the region. I've been involved with local heritage sites, the museum in the town centre, working on a project for the bicentenary of this man's death. I've also been working with an AHRC funded project that was about collaborative workshops, where our education institution people (whether it be lecturers or research fellows or whatever) worked with the heritage and museum practitioners to investigate the problems of research in the various aspects of this man's life; and then to see, how, when it comes to next year, we can best translate that into the best interpretation that we possibly can for the large exhibition that's planned. Then we have to communicate that to as wide an audience as possible, so there's all that aspect to my role. I also do things like write for our news letter, which is quite fun after you've done a PhD because it means you can write in ordinary language because you want to communicate with ordinary people. That's quite good; I do that once a quarter. I will also do things like take our commercial customers around the collections because we feel quite strongly here that our integrity as a business is underpinned quite substantially by the two hundred and fifty odd years of history that we have so I do get to have contact with our commercial customers which is quite good and I think that's enough for just four days a week.

On a day to day basis, what would you be doing directly?

That's one thing that I did actually forget to say. I do, because of the nature of the business here, answer a lot of enquiries, on a day to day basis, from the public. If I say that I'm in the area of precious metals, so I get a lot of enquiries from the public about dating pieces of jewellery that they may have inherited or antique silver and can I tell them anything about the manufacturers and such like. So that's a large part of my job each day. Then, for example, today I've had a group of people from another higher education institution in the region that were also partners in the AHRC funded project, that's how I've made contact with them, they've been today to look at the possibility of reproducing a piece from our collection of silverware but by eighteenth century methods and techniques. That took up quite a large part of today but it was very interesting. I can say that each day isn't the same at all. There may be a request from somebody who thinks we may have records here of a relative, or some records pertaining to them and could I tell them what we've got. Everyday is different, very much.

You mentioned that sometimes you're doing your own research.


What kind of things might you be working on?

At the moment I've just finished writing a chapter for this eighteenth century individual's bicentenary, there's going to be a big exhibition planned at the museum here in the city centre and I've actually just finished writing a chapter about his part in the establishment of our organisation here and also about pieces from the collection that were made by him. And my research skills have been very useful, I have to say, for doing that part of my job, the skills I gained during the PhD.

Can you tell me what your work environment is like?

I work in a beautiful office that's full of books with some purpose-built wooden shelves, in the eves of a building that was purpose-built for the organisation in 1878. I suppose to a lot of people it's absolutely luxurious and if you adore books then it's spectacular. That's the physical environment but the cultural environment can be quite difficult because as I have said it's a commercial organisation and it can be quite hard because a lot of the time I have to justify my existence. My job does bring some money into the organisation because we charge visitors to come on the guided tour or for other services that I might provide but it brings in nowhere as much as the commercial aspects of the organisation and their bottom line here is the economic bottom line and it is very very hard to make my role contribute much more than I do already so I have to work hard to justify my existence.

How autonomous can you be in your job?

I am extremely. My day is my own but then of course that has its downsides. It's great because I come in in the morning and I think 'Oh yes I'll do that job today' or 'I don't want to do that, I don't fancy doing that job today' and I don't have to unless it's something very pressing. The downside to being almost a hundred percent autonomous is that you have to motivate yourself and sometimes that can be hard. When I was an undergraduate and then when I did my PhD you're driven by deadlines and it's someone else giving you those deadlines. I don't have that now, not all the time, not with every aspect of my job and it can be quite hard sometimes, it's very tempting to just pick a book up off the shelf and sit and read. I don't think that's always ok, sometimes that's ok but I don't think my employers would be too happy if I did it too often.

Do you have any opportunities to work with the other employees in your organisation?

Yes, I do and I'm very fortunate, I'd have to say. I wouldn't want to imply that my job is totally solitary, a lot of it is but because it's only a small to medium enterprise, it employs about a hundred and ten people. Our business is very seasonal so that's at full whack, a hundred and ten is when we've got all our temporary workers here when we need them. When they're not here it's quite a substantial amount of people fewer than that but because it's small enterprise I work very closely with the marketing department. In fact I come under the marketing department and I report to the marketing director but I work very closely with them. It's great because there's no red tape because it's small enterprise so if suddenly a marvellous story about the heritage of our region or our area breaks but other people don't know much about it and I've only heard about it through the heritage grapevine, we can really go to town with it on our website and do things with it. We don't have to have anyone's approval, I just go to the marketing manager and say 'I would like to do this. Don't you think this is great?'  I'm very fortunate in that the marketing manager is very much into the heritage of the place and thinks it's very important and we can just do things in a spontaneous way. So yes I do work closely with other people here and also because I've done a lot of science work with schools I've worked very closely with the laboratory staff here as well to do that.

What are working conditions like? And I'm thinking in terms of the hours that you're expected to work and the flexibility and remuneration and those kinds of things.

I think it's important for people who do PhDs, in the arts especially, to understand that you can't necessarily expect to command the kind of salary that a lecturing post would pay you, if you don't go into lecturing. Obviously lecturing is not an option for all of us because everyone knows that lecturing jobs in the arts are thin on the ground and of course people like myself who've got a family can't just up sticks and move to the other end of the country to take a lecturing post when you finish your PhD. I think people need to be aware of that. I don't get paid anywhere near as much as an ordinary lecturer grade would but then I don't work as hard, I have to say. People I know who are lecturing generally work to six or seven days a week, ten or twelve hours a day, which I don't have to do. I don't work that hard at all. I go out and give various talks to groups and  sometimes that has to happen in the evenings, or has to happen at weekends, we have events that we're involved with, exhibitions because of course it is a commercial organisation and sometimes they want a heritage flavour to whatever they're doing so I'm expected to join in and do my part.  I am expected to be very flexible with my hours but then I think that is not, that's not to do with heritage, I think that's the same in most jobs now, I think flexibility is just something that is just expected by employers. I'm also expected to be quite flexible not just in terms of my hours but if I've got a week that's not particularly busy, another part of the building or our operation might be very busy and I'd be expected to go and give them a hand and help because we are a small enterprise. Aside from that really, I have to say that, because of the area of commercial enterprise in which I work, salary is not good, terms and conditions are not particularly good but then you have to weigh the negative aspects of one's employment against the positive aspects; and I work in a beautiful library lined with books and I get to work with people at university or in the region or the next day I might be going out and talking to fourteen year old school children. It's a very varied, very interesting post, so you have to weigh the one up against the other I would say.

Can you sometimes work from home?

Yes I can work from home. When I was recently writing a chapter for a book on the person who founded our organisation, I did work from home when I was writing that up. Yes it is quite flexible in terms of that. Of course, electronic technology has made that difference to a lot of jobs. I can sit and word process wherever I am.

And check your emails.

Yes, of course.

What would you say then are the best things about your job? What do you enjoy the most?

The variety. My PhD was in English literature and I looked at sociological documentation as well and cultural commentary of the time. I found it quite taxing working within English literature because I felt, at times, that I was having to make so much more of the words on the page maybe than was there. At the time, I remember being quite envious of colleagues who were doing PhDs in history or sociology because they could write in quite plain language and didn't have to make it lyrical as we were expected to in English literature, sometimes. And the best part of my job now is that research that I do is history and it's with original historical documentation and historians tend to write in quite plain terms compared to literary scholars and I enjoyed that very much. I also enjoy working with historical documents but I found my PhD in English literature very useful because I look at those documents and see them as texts that have a context and author and that were written for an intended audience at the time whereas lot of people who I know who work in historical research look at them and see them as fact. Now I think my way of approaching them from a literary, cultural studies, or sociological point of view is much more useful and I think it brings a whole other dimension to any piece of work you might produce. I do enjoy that part of the job very much. Because parts of the job are quite solitary and I'm on my own, I enjoy very much all the partnership because I'm involved with higher education institutions, the heritage providers, other groups in the region. I find that really rewarding and all the partnerships we're involved in for a big bicentenary next year, in 2009, here in this area, have been very productive. We have got a fantastic legacy because the actual workshops we were involved in, that built the partnership in the first place, have long since finished but we're all still working partnership and I find that really enjoyable I think and it's exciting.

And what are the biggest challenges in your work?

Because I am a curator doing a job that's essentially a heritage role, in a commercial environment, the biggest challenge is constantly having to justify my role and my existence because the actual ethos of heritage is not to do with making money. If we were in America it may well be but not here, in Britain. And of course it's all about issues of access and you'd like to be able to not have to charge people for heritage services because you want to create as wide an access as you can.  If you charge, you're putting up economic barriers and arguably when you charge you're also putting up intellectual barriers because a lot of potential audience will think 'Oh that's probably a bit high brow for me.'  It's hard to make heritage pay but in a commercial environment I have to constantly justify my existence and I do find that very difficult. Partly because I'm so proud of the history of the organisation that I think that everyone else should share that pride and of course, they don't always so that's one of the biggest challenges I think that I face.

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