As a history student here at the University of Winchester, I decided early on in my course that I would ideally like a job working where I could apply my knowledge and expertise in promoting the benefits of historical knowledge and education to the general public. To that end, I’ve been building up experience by training with the National Trust (when I haven’t been working on my degree) for the past three years through voluntary training at Stourhead, Wiltshire to working four days a week this year as a House and Collections intern at Montacute House (living on site) in South Somerset in the hope of building a career path in the sector. Although I’m at the very start of my journey with an initial two years of experience, it’s been an interesting experience so far that other students might want to consider looking into after reading this brief overview.
Although many people completing a history degree consider it (however fleetingly) as a career option, a job in heritage is a demanding role which is very different to navigating an academic environment, even at the lowest levels of responsibility. Working within a historical building does require that you have a good academic command of wider and local historical knowledge, but the job also requires a completely separate skill set that includes an enormous variety of tasks, although there are more than a few similarities with field archaeology.
It’s an environment in which it pays to be pragmatic, friendly and adaptable. Typically, I’ve been assigned to House and Collections as an assistant during the open months to the rest of the House team in a semi-rural location. This is inevitably a “Swiss army knife” type of role. You have to be prepared to deal with absolutely anything, from a catastrophic disaster such as fire or flood to a sudden biscuit shortage. Alongside more everyday concerns, the challenge of constantly contextualising and revising your knowledge of the building and the entire collection of artefacts within is a significant one, along with fulfilling the demands of visitors, volunteers and the conservation requirements of the property. The weather can also be an unexpected challenge. Storms can mean a severe drop in visitor numbers and older houses such as Montacute are unavoidably temperamental during wet weather. Outside communication can also be problematic. Heavy stonework is also exceptionally good at blocking mobile phone and Wi-Fi signals.
Despite these unusual hurdles, the jobs are typically very rewarding. It’s a real privilege to be given a fair amount of responsibility early on, in that you’re expected to use your own judgement to keep the house running smoothly on orders from the House and Collections manager or curator, depending. There is always backup at the end of a radio or pager if you need it, though. Sometimes the historical environment itself does actually help you with day-to-day tasks. The former servant tunnels and passageways under and around Stourhead itself proved invaluable for getting around in a hurry.
A regular open day in the summer for me starts out with a fairly mundane “hands-on” two and half hour session in which the house is checked for discrepancies (monitoring humidity, light levels and temperature alongside checking security measures) and then set up for visitors after the standard “Plan B” daily dust and vacuum clean. This is then followed by a quick bit of volunteer co-ordination to set up room guiding for the day. We then move onto visitor opening for around six more until the house is shut down, which for the house staff means plugging gaps in the rota, interacting with visitors, resolving any unforeseen problems, fielding e-mail and working on future plans for the property. Winter cleaning is an entirely different challenge, involving detailed conservation of one room at a time in the colder months, but it’s very likely you won’t see this in detail until much later in your career.
On a regular day, this means that you could easily be fielding both the gallery hoovering and a detailed hour-long discussion regarding eighteenth century art history with a visitor within the space of one day, depending on how things go. It’s not the type of job that would suit everyone, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge of combining some very different intellectual and manual tasks to create a rewarding end result. It also helps to have an open-minded but formal outlook in my experience, as that seems to work best in an environment concerned with public history.
Of course, the really interesting bit is working with the collections. Stourhead was focused on the English Enlightenment, due to being the former seat of Sir Richard Colt-Hoare, who was one of the first archaeologists to attempt to scientifically examine Stonehenge as well as an avid art collector. With three centuries of occupation, there was plenty of room to explore with verbal and written interpretation for visitors within the complex and overlapping narratives attached to the property, but it’s impossible not to have favourite “case studies.”
Even without contextualisation, the “Pope’s cabinet” at Stourhead is a spectacular example of late renaissance furniture, with an estimated c.120 drawers and over fifty unique types of geological samples present within the woodwork. But with a quick bit of thoughtful expansion on the nature of the base artefact, you could easily generate historical debates, such as the questionable authenticity of its ownership (allegedly it once belonged to Pope Sixtus V) and it’s reflection of the values of the counter-reformation and the sumptuary laws. It’s in these debates that the value of conservation becomes worthwhile. As well as inspiring pieces of art, artefacts encourage people to think about the past in a more philosophical and analytical sense, regardless of age or level of interest.
Montacute house was practically a gift in terms of linking it’s significance to wider British history, with a history that really began in the Jacobean period. The initial owner, Edward Phelips, helped to prosecute both Guido Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh at the turn of the seventeenth century, and Lord Curzon (responsible for the partition of India) occupied the house as his third home at the turn of the twentieth. The interlocking threads could become tricky to navigate (particularly with artefacts linking to further threads outside of direct contact, such as portraits) but I managed to quickly adapt. It’s actually helped with presentations at University; the ability to maintain a good flow of speech while discussing a complex subject from memory cannot be underestimated.
While some visitors will come to marvel silently at the art and architecture (often with extensive background knowledge of their own) others will want to engage you on the subject or learn from you directly It’s always rewarding to see a visitor leaving with a better understanding of history than when they first entered. Having an extensive library at Stourhead also added to what was possible in terms of interpretation; my mini-presentation on Hogarth utilized an actual late eighteenth century binder of his work. While that sort of presentation isn’t feasible as a constant feature, exceptional added value like that can really add to the visitor experience on a day in which we’re expecting heavy footfall. Special events such as open days are also a significant feature of the heritage calendar. While tiring, they can be great fun to participate in as an organiser.
If you’ve read this far and are still considering a career in heritage based on my student experience, I’d recommend seeking out a voluntary position, as I did, to see if it’s the right sort of job for you. My brief summary doesn’t really do the inherent complexity of the kind of roles available justice, so the best way is to experience it for yourself. Bear in mind tour guiding and outdoor work are two completely different skill sets again, but ones which can be equally as rewarding.
If you’re interested, join in and find you enjoy it and can keep up with the fast pace of work, keep at it! It’s a competitive job market (as in many other sectors) but plenty of jobs within historical houses, castles and museums do exist for those who are committed and willing to learn. Regardless, interning or volunteering at as many locations as possible will raise the quality of your application to any job. I’ve really enjoyed my time so far, and I’ve been lucky enough to be tutored by two fantastic bosses who have both taught me an enormous amount. After hearing about what some former interns at Montacute have gone on to do, I’m cautiously optimistic about my future prospects…
If you’re interested in seeing a few more of the historical items I’ve worked with so far, http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/ contains a detailed database of items for both Stourhead and Montacute and a bit more information than I’ve discussed here.