Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
Work experience at the University of Cambridge Museums
The University of Cambridge Museums offer work experience placements for school-aged participants, providing the opportunity to spend a week learning new skills and developing their self-confidence, timekeeping and communication.
During their placement work experience students spend half their time at the Fitzwilliam Museum and half their time at one of the other University museums. They undertake a short project ‘Curating a Personal Story’ where they are required to select two objects from each of their host museums and two from home, bringing them together in a mini exhibition which tells a story about themselves. At the end of the week the students present their mini exhibition to a small group of museum staff.
Here Evonne Baltrock, a student at Saffron Walden County High School, Ellen Jones from Herts and Essex, Madeleine Stewart from Hills Road Sixth Form College and Beth Stinchcombe from John Kyrle Sixth Form, share highlights from their week at the museums.
“The week I have spent this summer working with the Fitzwilliam and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) has been a privilege I am not going to forget in a hurry, especially when I return for my last year of school and think about the un-resting real working life of a museum that will contrast so greatly to life in the classroom.
I couldn’t help but become fascinated during the week by so many exhibitions that I would never have even thought I could find so interesting and actually keep returning to; the breathtaking collection of watercolours that really had the ability to bring you outside the world of just a dim lit room full of pictures, where you could stand for five minutes feeling you were in the middle of a sunset or a storm in the eyes of Ruskin or Turner, when I had never thought myself as one for paintings.
Meanwhile I would also have let some of the most vital collections from pre-histories slip my attention when calling to mind some great ancient civilizations, had I not felt captured when I stumbled across the Cyprus collection by a happy accident, giving me a whole new sense of the word ancient, particularly when this was followed up by the wonderful opportunity of object handling.
But it was also how varied evidence could be that also made me see the study of people in museums in a new light. I was lucky enough to see the MAA’s exhibit of the River Stars reindeer on the first morning of it opening, where so much about the cultural heritage of one Mongolian settlement could be found through their collection of photographs of the people and their close relationship with local wildlife. This showed me how important memories through a lens tells us so much, rather than simply other direct pieces of material culture.
What surprised me at first was the workings of a large museum like the Fitzwilliam Museum, for the feel of everyone working together as a close and creative team. As soon as I stood inside the Director’s house, I realised no one has a position at such a museum where they can simply lead from a distance without becoming engaged with every member. The roles are so different – from site management, to marketing, to expert classicists – yet there still seems to be an overwhelmingly strong sense of community, driving everyone in what appears to be such a rewarding profession. Everyone puts so much effort in that many of the staff will even volunteer their own time.
The way the museums seek to outwardly engage the public in everything that goes on in the museum was also a great surprise, in what proved to be my favourite part of the week. With staff from MAA, we brought the museum’s Egyptian themed craft work and object handling to a local traveller education event. It proved to me how creative the museums are in going out of their way to get people interested in a way that certainly felt rewarding as we sought to get more kids involved, defying any preconceptions that the Museum community or audience is in anyway stuffy or traditionalist.
So, the week for me was made exceptional through the taste of museum life and the effectiveness of the education teams work getting out of the confinement of museum walls, on what was mostly a lovely, sunny and warm week spent in a beautiful city everyday which I fully enjoyed, particularly when stood on the roof of the Fitz! I feel I have learnt so much about the nature of museums and ultimately my mind has been opened greatly in such a short space of time, teaching me to take my own initiative, be more creative, and be more open to areas of culture and periods of history through which through their displays alone, I never knew I could spend so much time reflecting on.”
“What can I say about my time working at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Classical Archaeology? Well, it has been a busy week to say the least. I’ve learnt so much and expanded my knowledge, both in terms of understanding how museums operate, but also in my knowledge of history overall.
I have always been fascinated by history, but I am particularly interested in the classical world, and have a slight obsession with the Romans, so the chance to work at the Museum of Classical Archaeology was something I was very excited about. The Museum was full of casts of statues and it was impressive to see such an array of different kinds of sculpture in the same room, as rarely would you have this opportunity.
I was hugely excited to handle objects at the museum, and during this time I have handled everything from a bangle made from a treacle tin and an Etruscan mirror. Our time spent with Dr. Anastasia Christofilopoulou was certainly my favourite. The idea that I was handling objects used by other people fascinates me greatly. Many people would see the Romans or the Greeks as being very distant and irrelevant, but actually their cultures and activities were not so dissimilar to ours. Object handling, or even just the presence of objects from the past, helps to make the past more tangible and engaging because we are able to recognise shared behaviours, and that is an idea that has really been driven home this week.
I also liked looking at how, particularly the Classical world, is accessed by different people. Both scholars and primary school children come to the Museum of Classical Archaeology and each of them are able to gain something from the collection. Some periods of history might seem inaccessible, and this was an issue I had also seen existing when I had been learning about the Roman world, in that many people I had met considered Latin to be an elitist subject. However, this week has really given me an insight into how Museums can be used in order to attract all sorts of people with different backgrounds.
I also liked the freedom I got during the week. The ability to produce a presentation on a subject of my own choosing, helped me to gain a sense of both the diversity of the museum collections, but also the interrelated nature of history. I don’t think I would have been able to speak about a 17th Century wine jar and Alexander the Great in many other contexts.
My favourite activity of the week actually was box carrying, or at least what we learnt whilst we were doing this activity. We learnt about the issues surrounding archiving, both in terms of space and also in terms of legislation. The legal issues associated with museums has been frequently mentioned during my time here and I am now very interested in perhaps pursuing this aspect further, as it seems to be a very important, engaging and complex sector.”
“My time at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) has made me much more aware of the huge array of roles that are involved in what makes a museum really come to life.
This was particularly the case when, on my second day at the MAA, the opportunity arose to help out with the stand for children at the Midsummer Fair as part of the MAA’s outreach program. It was really lovely to be able to teach the children about the Egyptians (and make some cool “pharaoh headdresses”!) and giving them a wider sense of the purpose of a museum – not to be a scary place full of priceless artefacts, but to teach people about culture and history in an exciting and engaging way. The stand we set up not only had the materials to create the headdresses, but also a chance to write their names in hieroglyphics and to touch some Egyptian shabtis, which the children loved as it was a fun, hands-on approach to learning about an ancient civilisation.
I had never really thought about outreach as specifically to do with museums, so this was really insightful and informative for me! With outreach being only one part of many, other fascinating aspects of museum life such as artefact handling seemed to become much more integrated with public life than I had previously thought. Overall, my experience at the Fitzwilliam and MAA has been both extremely fun and truly eye opening, with the stand at Midsummer Fair definitely being a highlight.”
“I have spent a thoroughly enjoyable week’s work experience at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Classical Archaeology, which culminated in presenting my personal project where I was required to bring various objects together in an exhibition. The theme I chose was ‘the everyday and the extraordinary’ as I felt that aptly described my experience of the time I had spent at both museums.
During the week, I got to experience many aspects of museum life from everyday activities such as welcoming members of the public to the museum and answering any general questions they had to preparing materials for children’s activities for the Summer at the Museums event. When based at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, this involved cutting up paper ‘Hercules’ feet that would be used as part of a trail. This gave me an insight to all the work that is done behind the scenes of the museum that you don’t initially consider and made me aware of the vast amount of work that goes into preserving artifacts and creating the exhibitions and displays.
Also, the week was full of extraordinary opportunities, that without taking part in this week I most likely would never be able to experience. One of the highlights was being allowed to handling ornate objects such as jewellery and armoury from the Fitzwilliam Museum Applied Arts collection and thousand-year-old objects, my favorite being the bronze Etruscan mirror.
I have had a fantastic time at both museums and a future career in museums in something I am definitely considering. Thank you to everybody involved in organizing this week and to all the staff at The Fitzwilliam Museum and The Museum of Classical Archaeology for making the week so exciting and enjoyable!”
View the mini exhibitions that our work experience participants presented to museum staff at the end of the week, online.
Pride, vanity, image and status – Evonne Baltrock
Alcohol: the good, the bad and the ugly – Ellen Jones
Journeys, adventure and conflict – Madeleine Stewart
Identity and the human condition – Beth Stinchcombe
The University of Cambridge Museums are unable to accommodate any further work experience placements in 2015. Find out more about other ways of getting involved with the University of Cambridge Museums online.