My work placement took place at the Nottingham Galleries of Justice Museum, which is set within the historic courtrooms and prison of the Shire Hall. I was excited to start my placement, as it meant getting involved with the creative side of heritage research and practice. It started off with a meeting with my placement mentor, the curator at the museum and someone I had been working with for my research since my undergraduate degree. She outlined the two main projects I would be working on. This was researching historical documents and writing a report for the costumed interpreters, as well as creating a timeline of Nottingham protests. I was looking forward to reading historical sources which I do not get to do very often for my PhD research.
I began by flicking through the pages of the Nottingham Date Book to look into protests and riots that have happened in the city. This was a rather large piece of source material and I found it more useful to read through it rather than using an index to identity certain events. These dates and events were fleshed out with internet searching and looking through the British Newspaper Archive online. Once I had completed this timeline I had almost 100 individual events listed in it. After this I had to fit the events into a timeline that the museum committee had created. This was really useful for finding out a bit more about other protests that I had not managed to find in the source materials I had been using. The final timeline was divided into the four themes of freedom of speech, the right to vote, freedom against discrimination and the right to organise. My mentor said that the committee members were pleased with the final timeline, and I felt very happy with it as well.
The historical characters report would be used by the costumed interpreters to create scripts for the actor-led tours. My mentor asked me to research a woman who escaped the gaol in the nineteenth century, and a surgeon who worked at the gaol in the Victorian period. I then created life cycles of transported convicts to Australia, whose graffiti can still be seen at the site, and read up on the history of capital punishment and its abolishment in the UK. For this I got the chance to go into the museum’s archive and the Nottinghamshire Archives, which I was more than happy to do. The research on the surgeon was the most original, as very little had been known about him, and my mentor was very interested in everything I found out about him. This was my favourite activity of the work placement, as I got to go into the archives and spend an afternoon completely absorbed by the historical sources. I enjoyed it so much it didn’t feel much like work at all!
Because I finished the first two projects, I was given the two further tasks of transcribing oral history interviews for the HLF project and typing up the staff manual on the museum. For this I used my knowledge of transcribing interviews to archiving standards as well my understanding of the history of the site and crime and punishment history, which I have developed through my PhD research.
My time at the museum gave me an insight into how museum sites operate and how heritage practice can be aided by research methods and vice versa. My mind is hard-wired to write for an academic audience, so it was good for me to come out of my comfort zone and create pieces of work that will be presented to museum visitors. The priority the museum has to make things accessible for the public and easy for the staff to organise were new to my way to thinking. I found that the modules I had taken through the Heritage Consortium for the PG Cert in Heritage Research were useful for aiding this transition of working in a different environment.
Whilst it might present a dark and often bleak history, the Nottingham Galleries of Justice Museum is a fascinating site and a great place to work in. At the end of each working day, I got back on the train to Leeds feeling a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment. It was a wonderful three months and I felt sad to leave. Thankfully, the museum is also one of my research case study sites, so it was not too long before I got to go back.
By Rhiannon Pickin