My placement at Preston Park Museum and Grounds, Stockton-on-Tees, between August 2016 and January 2017, provided me with a fresh insight into the daily world of work in the heritage sector. I have worked at the museum for a number of years as a casual register Visitor Services Assistant. However, this placement involved a transition from a public facing role, away from my usual base at the museum’s front desk, to a more ‘behind the scenes’ role.
The site of Preston Park Museum was originally known as Preston Hall, which was built in 1825, the same year as the launch of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Industrial history and heritage is central to this local authority museum. At present, the museum offers visitors a chance to explore the original Hall and uncover its history, as well as the history of the Borough of Stockton-on-Tees. The museum also includes a reproduction of a Victorian Street.
My first day on my placement re-emphasised the ‘behind the scenes’ theme. I was given a tour of the museum’s collections storage areas, and learnt more about the museum’s accession policies. For a heritage enthusiast like myself, this was an Aladdin’s cave filled with small everyday objects to significant pieces from our region’s past. I relished the opportunity to explore the rows, cabinets, and shelves of historical artefacts, accompanied with the infamous obligatory set of white gloves!
The two central activities of my placement involved editing a draft version of the museum’s guidebook, and working as an assistant project manager, to create a community curated exhibition. The exhibition was entitled ‘At the Heart of the Museum’, and it was designed to celebrate and showcase the efforts and achievements of the museum’s many volunteers. My role included assisting with the organisation and delivery of workshops to allow the volunteers themselves to co-curate the exhibition. I enjoyed interacting with the volunteers, and learning more about their important contribution to the museum.
As the placement progressed, a number of unexpected opportunities arose. The Victorian Street was to provide the setting for a segment on the popular BBC television programme, Great British Railway Journeys. The focus of the segment was one of Stockton’s famous sons, John Walker, and his invention of the friction match. I was given the responsibility of creating an information sheet for the programme. I was also offered the opportunity to assist the museum’s heritage development officer with the installation of a photography exhibition.
On the final day of my placement, I was able to partake in the installation of the volunteer exhibition. This project, and my placement, ended with an exhibition launch event on the evening to thank the volunteers for their support and participation in the project. They were also given an ‘exclusive’ preview of the exhibition itself.
My placement was an enriching experience. I interacted with members of staff on every level, volunteers across the museum, and members of the general public. This was largely due to the fact that it took place in a local authority museum, which would be considered small in comparison with popular national sites. However, I also understood more about how the museum has had to diversify its service provision in order to survive in the current climate of museum closures and cuts in local government funding. The museum is not just a site which preserves and presents the past. Amongst other things, it is also a wedding and meeting venue, a film set, and a classroom for the day. This means that an ‘all hands on deck’ approach is often needed from museum staff and volunteers. Museum staff are required to be more flexible in their roles, but there is a more intimate interaction and co-operation between the different areas across the museum site. Museum’s, such as Preston Park, should provide hope that it is possible to move with the changing tide of the heritage landscape whilst maintaining a focus on preserving and presenting the past.
By Rebecca Saunders