Hello, my name is Emma Hills, and I am an SWWDTP-funded third-year English PhD student at the University of Southampton and the University of Exeter. Working with National Trust collections, my thesis centres on the early reading and writing of nineteenth-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, and his imperial politics. My wider research interests centre on British Imperialism, Decolonisation, Victorian Culture, Victorian Visuality and Book History.
Across January to March 2021, the SWWDTP offered three spectacular training sessions run by Bird & Gorton which explored the heritage sector and creative industries. From this training, I became extremely excited by the varied and creative job roles in this sector. These were roles which would allow me to continue researching and educating about British imperialism and decolonisation (which I have enjoyed in academia), but in an entirely new way which I felt could make a difference to people’s experiences of the wider world. But, I also realised that I was under-experienced in this area despite having some previous experience as a conservation assistant with the National Trust. With help from Anona at the SWWDTP and Emmie Kell (CEO of Cornwall Museums Partnership, and a contact I had made through the Bird & Gorton training), I was able to contact the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro and secure a three-month placement with them. With the RCM, I worked with great support and great freedom on a variety of heritage decolonisation projects, as well as public engagement events and staff and volunteer training, all of which centred around developing my knowledge and experience of decolonisation in the heritage sector.
The museum staff at the RCM are such a fantastically friendly and supportive team. They immediately welcomed me into their office and ways of working which meant that, although I had to work from home for much of the placement, I was always involved with discussions and projects. Despite the difficulties of distance working, they also gave me the freedom to be involved with whichever of their projects I wanted, and to explore whichever areas of their museum work I chose: from the Museum’s history and collections, to running art workshops with a collaborating artist. I also took the opportunity to research problematic handling collections, and even chose objects and produced interpretation for a public anti-racism event. For me, I was able to develop all the skills I could have wished for and now have substantial and demonstrable experience of all the aspects of museum work which should help me with future employment in the sector. For the museum, they were able to benefit from my seven-years of studying: both the knowledge which I have of British Imperialism, post-colonialism and decolonisation, and my more practical research skills. This meant that, practically, I was able to help out when research needed doing thoroughly but at short notice, and also that I was able to provide collections-based training to staff and volunteers which demystified decolonisation in the heritage sector. But it also led to me producing two pieces of research which aimed to educate museum staff and volunteers about decolonisation practices in the heritage sector, the reality of the history of the British Empire which must be confronted and included in heritage narratives, and an analysis of the museum’s own colonial connections. These pieces of research are now being used as the ground upon which the museum’s anti-racist and decolonial strategies are being built.
Completing this placement has impacted my current research activities such that it has given me the skills and experience of researching in new ways for new purposes and distilling that research for a range of audiences. In terms of my post-research activities, this placement has given me all of the experience and skills development which I could have wished for to give myself the best chance of having a successful career in the heritage sector after the completion of my thesis. I am incredibly grateful to the SWWDTP for going the extra mile to enable me to take this opportunity, and I would advise anyone to take such an amazing opportunity too!
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