University of Cambridge Museums

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.

Group photo

Will Burles, Khalil Sabourian, Robert Watson, Katie Manby

Here Katie Manby a student from Saffron Walden County High School, Khalil Sabourian from the Perse School, Robert Watson from Cambridge International School and William Burles from Uppingham School, share highlights from their week at the museums.

“Work Experience at the University of Cambridge Museums has been unique to say the least – a far cry from the traditional view of spending a week shredding or performing other menial tasks that has become synonymous with work experience. Instead my week at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Classical Archaeology has offered me an in-depth insight in to the workings of a museum and the work of the staff. Throughout the week I have met with a variety of people, all of whom have greeted me with a smile and gone on to explain their work, the enthusiasm they felt for their area was always obvious.

The talks they gave also offered an insight into the less public work of the museum. One of the talks I found most interesting at the Fitzwilliam was meeting with a manuscript conservator who explained the decisions they make regarding individual texts – such as having to decide to save either the original binding or the contents of a particular text. Their work was particularly apparent upon our visit to the Founder’s library where the repairs will allow the books to survive for the next generation.

At the Museum of Classical Archaeology we were given a rare viewing of one of their new archives, which contained a variety of materials such as note books, letters and maps all of great use to classical researchers. The Cast Gallery itself is also a great resource for both classicists and Artists. This really highlighted to me how important museums are in experiencing cultures that we are either unable to visit or that no longer exist.

With this realisation I will now look at all Museums in a very different way – hopefully noting the differing wall brackets they keep objects in to ensure they are secure, the temperature conditions and the security in place.

My week has been both very enjoyable and instructive – a great all round experience.”
Katie Manby

“I enjoyed my work experience at the museums. It provided something completely different to other work experience placements I’ve completed where I spent most of my time behind a computer not really doing much “work!”. Instead the museums provided me with new challenges and gave me tasks which were actually helpful to the museum. What I enjoyed most was discovering what happens behind the scenes of the museums, and my favorite was looking at how manuscripts are preserved. It also made me realise that work can be quite repetitive. Nevertheless I would recommend this work experience to anyone.”
Khalil Sabourian

“Growing up in Cambridge one can hardly be unaware of the Fitzwilliam Museum; with its dominating presence on Trumpington Street. In any other city the Fitzwilliam would surely have been built on a hill, so while striving to reach it the facade could be admired and anticipated, but in our fen-city its massive scale has been miniaturised by its position. It is only as you climb the steps to the main entrance and are forced to look up, that you appreciate its glorious neo-classical style leading to the grandeur of the main staircase. Entering as an employee through the Grove Lodge entrance was a new contrasting experience bringing a more domestic scale to the institution. Originally the home of the Museum Director, Grove Lodge now houses offices but as with many Cambridge buildings it still has echoes of its previous brilliance. The modern Courtyard Entrance to the museum is now the new face of the Fitzwilliam, it successfully brings light and air into the centre of the museum and in its clean lines and open aspect seems to allow the 19th Century Neo-Classical  building to breathe.

Visiting as a child, I spent many hours looking at Egyptian and Roman artefacts and remember how much I enjoyed ‘meet the curators’ sessions inspecting Egyptian faience and Roman coins and getting a first glimpse of what lay beneath the glass. As an employee the joy is in seeing further behind the glass cases, watching the conservators working on medieval manuscripts and coin collections. The contrast between the simplicity of the artefacts in their display cases and the technical complexities and exactitudes of the conservators’ work is significant; without seeing conservators at work the public is in ignorance of the specialised techniques involved in recovering and preserving artefacts.

The Museum of Classical Archaeology is quite different from the Fitzwilliam being smaller and with a less diverse collection. There is diversity however within the museum and it is important to appreciate the contrasts in style, form and purpose of the casts to fully experience the collection. The casts vary from super-life size statues such as the early Greek Sounion Kouros with its highly stylised unnatural stance which meets you as you enter the museum, to smaller pieces like the Baby Boy with Egyptian Goose, a more realistic statue of an infant with expressive pose and detailed anatomically correct form. In contrast to the Fitzwilliam the Museum of Classical Archaeology feels more homely and accessible due to the lack of cases around the artefacts and the consequent close proximity of the public to the casts. The light- filled main gallery also helps to illuminate the collection so the detail on the casts can be appreciated fully. Both museums rely on contrast for their emotional and intellectual impact on their visitors.”
Robert Watson

“When I first arrived at the museum I wasn’t sure what to expect, I thought it would be just like any other work experience that I’ve done, where I sat around in an office and watched other people do their work. Here it’s been far more hands on and productive, with our work contributing to the museums. In the Polar Museum stores the objects are kept in draws and wobble around when the draws are opened and closed, so we were assigned the task of securing these objects with foam. It was nice to know that we were being helpful instead of a burden.

Viewing the collections has been really interesting, especially meeting the experts who have endless knowledge on their subjects. In the coin collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum we were given our very own talk from one of the world’s leading experts on coins.

I found the size of the Fitzwilliam Museum collection astonishing especially when I was told that only 10% of the museum collection was on display at any one time. Some of the objects that I found most interesting hadn’t actually ever been on display at all, for example the watch collection, which we had a handling session with, and the medieval armour, which brought out my childish side. I found handling the museums objects and the collection at the Polar Museum the most exiting parts of my week, as each individual object we held had its own story.

This week has been a fantastic experience and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone even remotely considering a career in Museum work.”
William Burles

View the mini exhibitions that our work experience participants presented to museum staff at the end of the week.

The Journey of Life – Katie Manby

Contrasts – Robert Watson

See the Sea – William Burles

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.

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