Case study

Collections assistant — Emily Pearson

Emily really values the experience and knowledge she gained from her archaeology and heritage degree and thinks it was key to securing her job with the National Trust at Penrhyn Castle

What degree did you study?

I studied a BA Hons in Archaeology and Heritage at the University of York and graduated in 2019.

How did you get your job?

I started on a zero hour, fixed term contract as a customer services assistant with the National Trust at Speke Hall. Bar work and volunteering helped with getting this visitor focused role.

I made connections while I was there and volunteered with the Collections Team, getting a winter clean under my belt in the first year. I also worked for English Heritage running children's activities over the summer and then went on to be a historic property steward.

My museum experience while at university and my enthusiasm helped me to gain a part-time position as a collections assistant with the National Trust at Erddig and I then went on to a full-time role at Penrhyn Castle.

How relevant is your degree?

At the time of applying there were only two universities in the country who offered archaeology alongside heritage and the University of York offered the best resources and modules. I was fortunate that there were modules such as Buildings Archaeology, Historic Houses, and The Invention of World Heritage, which were an incredible opportunity to gain a solid foundation of knowledge, and something I could put on my CV and talk about in interviews.

As part of our course we had the opportunity to work with Malton Museum and I was successful in applying for and gaining a summer placement with Jersey Heritage two years running. This provided real museum work experience and sought after skills that employers look for, such as visitor engagement, archival research, exhibition design and buildings surveying.

What's a typical working day like?

At the moment we are in the middle of the winter clean so we are taking a room and starting at the top and working our way down, from panelling and carvings to textile wallpaper, furniture, metal work and then carpets. Each part requires specialist knowledge of the items and I've not come across another heritage and collections organisation which requires such varied knowledge.

We are also undergoing a rehanging operation of our portraits in the dining room to update some fixtures and fittings and refresh which portraits we have on display. The frames have already been condition checked by a conservator and once they're down we will be able to give them a thorough clean before they are rehung. It's really exciting to be a part of this and helping the curator to decide which portraits are going where.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The opportunity to see behind the scenes, working up close with all parts of the collection and the occasional trip to the roof. It's also hard to beat when a visitor comes into the castle and is completely in awe of the building and contents.

What are the challenges?

I think, as with all heritage and charity jobs, there are always a million things to do and never enough time or resources available. Managing expectations of what I can achieve in a day and communicating with my managers about long-term goals as opposed to quick fixes, is definitely a skill I am developing.

Where do you hope to be in five years?

I hope to follow the natural career progression of my current position, firstly advancing to the role of collections and house officer. I also want to gain more experience in preventative conservation, volunteer management and historic buildings archaeology in relation to managing collections care. 

What advice can you give to others?

  • If you want a career in heritage, get any experience you can in the sector (voluntary, visitor services, etc), employers will see this as really valuable and it's always a bonus to have a foot in the door.
  • Don't underestimate passion, this will come across to employers and will drive you in your role.
  • Use your careers adviser at university to help write a few CVs and cover letters for different positions. Outline skills you already have that are transferable - there's always more than you think.
  • Know your basics. If you're applying for a collections position and you don't know your agents of deterioration or how to handle collections, it's going to show. You don't have to know everything to get this role as you receive a lot of training, but you'll need the basics. 

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