I recently got in touch with one of the deputy curators at the Royal Engineers museum to ask some questions about museums. As an historian who has found his field of study in memory and nation making, I am very interested in museums and I thought you guys might be interested; so for all you who are thinking about a career in curating, and those who want to know more about how curators work, then go no further!
Could you introduce yourself? What is your job title and what do you do at the museum, and perhaps what is the museum about?
My name is Danielle Sellers and I am the Deputy Curator (Collections Management) at the Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive. I have worked here for just over three years, starting as the Assistant Curator then moving into my current post about a year later.
As with any Museum the collection is at the heart of all we and it is continuously growing as the history of the Corps progresses. Collections Management is fundamental to our work preserving the collection and making it accessible to all of our users.
Collections Management is the term used for all of the work undertaken on the accurate recording and cataloguing, photographing and scanning, packing and storage, auditing and location control of every item in the collection. The role also involves managing donations offered to the Museum as well as all loans, incoming and outgoing. Hand in hand with these activities is the careful handling and conservation of items as well as the monitoring and controlling of the environmental conditions of our stores and displays.
I also line manage the Assistant Curator and supervise around 40 volunteers in my other role as the Volunteer Co-ordinator.
The Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive holds one of the foremost historical military collections in the country. Designated in 1999 as a museum of outstanding national and international significance, it traces the Royal Engineers roots from William the conqueror in 1066, through the Victorian period to modern conflict in Afghanistan. The story also includes the social and biographical histories of the men and women serving in the Royal Engineers as well as the history of their role, responsibilities and experiences within the British Army and the development of British military engineering.
What made you want to be a curator?
There is not a singular moment that made me think this is what I wanted to do, it was more of a gradual realisation. I had a love of Museums and Galleries from an early age and eventually realised that I wanted to immerse myself in this world. Initially I had no clear idea of what area I wanted to focus on but volunteering allowed me to work in a few different areas. I seemed to gravitate naturally to Collections Management, a role that allows direct contact with the collection, the heart of the Museum.
What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is getting to work with such an interesting collection, apart from the obvious items you expect to find in a military Museum we also have quite a good World Cultures collection including Chinese Silks, Zulu jewellery and First Nations clothing. One of my favourite parts of the collection though is the photography archive, we have over 600 albums and thousands of loose prints dating from 1850s onwards.
What is your most favourite item in the collection?
That is a very difficult question, it can vary depending on what I have been working on recently. I have already mentioned the photography collection and I am also fascinated by the weapons collection we have. However, there is one item that is always in my mind, it might not be what I would call a favourite but it is an object that has stuck with me since I joined the Museum. One of the first items I catalogued was a French prayer book from the Frist World War that had been used to record a Sappers thoughts and feelings. It was not a journal as such but somewhere he could record the horrors he had seen, he even noted down that if he died while at war he wanted this little book buried with him.
What does the RE museum try and present to the public?
Our role is to preserve and present the military and civil heritage of the Royal Engineers, promote scholarship and provide an excellent, accessible, relevant and stimulating education experience for today’s audience, including the public, students, schools, the Armed Forces and the Corps and to contribute to the recruitment, motivation and inspiration of today’s soldier.
You get a lot of items donated to the museum, how do you decide what is valuable to the collection and what isn’t?
Yes, the Museum still receives a lot of donation offers, this peaked in 2014 with the Centenary Commemoration with an average of 30 individual offers a month. Deciding what donations to accept into the collection can be complicated and it is very difficult saying no to anything offered to the Museum. You are aware that the material being offered to you is normally very important to the person but unfortunately there is criteria that needs to be met and there is also a physical limit on the amount of material we can store. As such the Museum has a Collections Policy in place which states what we will collect and what we won’t, this also takes into account having the right staffing levels to allow the correct recording, storage and care of the material.
The decision process is taken by the Collections Committee that meets once a month to discuss all items that have been offered to the Museum. Before the meeting each item is looked at in relation to the Collections Policy and the Museum’s database, this is to check that it is in line with the former and that we do not already hold an example in the collection. This information is then taken to the committee and each donation offer is discussed and a decision taken.
Museums take on many volunteers, why are volunteers important to a museum?
Volunteers are incredibly important to Museums due to the variety of experience and outlooks that they offer to the work they are involved with. I would like to think it is a relationship that is mutually beneficial, we can offer relevant experience and development of new skills for those seeking a career in the Heritage industry. While the volunteers provide the additional help to carry out projects that are vital to Museums. For example we undertook an audit of our stored collection and this involved training a team of volunteers in object handling, auditing, cataloguing, photography and packing. It worked very well and changed the way we approach volunteering. I really value the work volunteers carry out and having volunteered for 8 years prior to my first paid Museum role understand how important the relationship is for both participants.
What role do you think museums play in society?
I think the Museum’s role in society is to provide a place to care and preserve national heritage for future generations, creating an environment that is informative and enjoyable, which can educate everyone.
Any advice for those wanting to go into the museum and heritage sector?
Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! It might seem obvious but volunteering is vital, qualifications are always going to come first but without volunteer experience you are unlikely to get through to the interview stage. Whilst I have an MA in History of Art I do not have an MA in Museum Studies which is often listed in role descriptions and I know that the practical experience I had was vital in getting my first role in a Museum in lieu of this. Also, if you are unsure what area you wish to work in, for example Collections Management, Exhibitions or Learning then volunteering is a great way of trying these out before embarking on your career.
A big Thank You to Danielle for taking the time to answer my questions, and I recommend that if you are ever in Medway, go check out the Royal Engineers museum, it’s a great place!