What inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
We have a family friend called Elaine and I’d never met anyone like her before. She didn’t work as a teacher or a hotel manager – the only two careers I’d ever considered, based on work experience available to a 17 year old growing up in Lancashire – but as artistic director for a local charity. She produced plays, managed contemporary artists to create installations for public spaces and organised local community groups to visit museums. She was describing her job to me at a birthday party one year and I hung on her every word as she described her job and how much she loved it and I knew then that ‘the arts’ was the sector for me and that I would do basically anything to have a bit of it for myself. Anything, it transpired, was a two-week placement with Elaine in a damp, cold Greater Manchester council building, making tea in Styrofoam cups for lots of people who never seemed to leave their desks or hang up the phone. I was hooked. I persuaded mum that I wouldn’t be taking my University place at Edinburgh, but going on a gap year and then reapplying for art history courses instead and I have never really looked back from there.
Can you tell us a little about your role?
I am a registrar at the British Library. The role of museum registrar is best defined by UKRG (the national professional membership group for registrars – even though we’re rarely mentioned, there are over 400 in the UK) as ‘all those involved in the care, management, interpretation and display of collections in museums, art galleries, heritage centres or any other similar organisations’. It sounds broad because it is. We get up to all sorts, but mainly manage loans to and from museum collections. Here at the British Library, I am responsible for the security, insurance, legal contracts and logistics of priceless manuscripts going on loan to exhibitions the world over. Most recently, I organised for the oldest known Qur’an in the world to go on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I also work closely with the curatorial team to research, agree and manage loans to the British Library for exhibition. I am currently working on Harry Potter: A History of Magic, where loans have come from private lenders and other museums and been as wide ranging as oil paintings, illustrations, books, a unicorn and a mermaid.
What does your average day entail?
It might be more helpful to tell you what I did today. Following a mad week last week of installing the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library, I have caught up on a lot of neglected emails in my inbox. Amongst them were emails from lawyers with notes on a contract I need to sign in order to borrow loans for a future exhibition; one from a gallery in Cyprus which has a British Library manuscript on display at the moment, with some environmental readings which I had to approve as being suitable from a conservation perspective to display the manuscript in; and a loan request from a museum in Rouen who are having an exhibition about Jewish life in the Middle Ages and would like to borrow 6 manuscripts and drawings from the British Library. Following half a day at my desk, I went over to join our curator and conservator in looking at some manuscripts which have been requested for loan. We checked they were fit to travel, looked at how best they should be displayed and discussed that the borrowing venue was suitable to loan to, then took some pictures to make a report. Registrars LOVE reports and paperwork! I also had a long phone conversation with a company who make shipping crates for artworks all about foam!
How did you get your job?
I did pursue my dream to study art history and did so at Durham University. I then had the mad panic upon leaving that I think everyone working in the arts does: how do I get experience and earn a living when everyone is telling me I must volunteer, but I can’t afford to eat if I do that? So I had a momentary blip and worked as a teacher in a boarding school in Cambridge for a year. This allowed me to volunteer one day a week in the education department at the Fitzwilliam Museum and easy access to London and its galleries and theatres. Rather than taking plan B doing a PGCE at the end of this gap year, I returned home to Manchester and did an MA in Art History. This allowed me to live at home rent-free and spend cash earned from three jobs on paying the course fees. One such job was as a museum assistant at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum. I did everything from serve scones, to cleaning the loos, to operating Victorian textile machinery, to give talks to the public about Lancashire’s cotton history in this role and it’s still my favourite museum job I’ve ever had. With the MA done and some experience under my belt, I immediately moved to London to be a gallery assistant at the National Gallery. The pay wasn’t too terrible and the shift pattern was flexible so I volunteered at a whole host of other institutions, desperate to find a break into a ‘proper job’. This came in the form of ‘registrars digitisation project assistant’, an internal role that came up at the National Gallery which required me to scan documents held in 42 lever arch files and save the digital copies. It was tedious but I didn’t care – I was in the office with the most fantastic team of people doing these amazing jobs I’d never even heard of. The post of assistant registrar came up not long after the scanning was over and I was lucky enough to bag the job. I joined the registrar team at the British Library two months ago after 5 years at the National Gallery.
What is the best part of your job?
A little-known facet of the museum world, certainly to those starting out, is couriering. Whenever a cultural organisation lends art work or collection items to exhibitions at other museums or galleries, they have the option to send a courier. This isn’t a man from DHL in a bright yellow jersey, it’s a member of staff from the lending institution who travels with the objects to keep them safe in transit and install them properly at the borrowers’ premises. Whilst sitting on a truck to Italy for three days is hardly that exciting, and hours spent in an airport cargo shed is the coldest you’ll ever be, I admit, I love to travel and doing so with work is wonderful. I’ve visited so many museums, galleries and cities through couriering art works there and it really is a great perk!
What is the hardest part of your job?
The stress can be difficult to deal with at times. Despite registrars being responsible for legal contracts, managing art work in transit, organising adequate insurance cover and deciding the correct display of art work whilst on loan to exhibitions the world over, there is no formal training and I learned everything about this role on the job, as most registrars do. This means I can sometimes feel unsure about decisions I make when the stakes are as high as a multi-million pound, completely unique Monet painting being shipped to Japan safely for example. It’s nerve-wracking stuff, but experience is a great teacher, as are colleagues across the sector who are always willing to advise and so generous in sharing expertise.
What has been the highlight of your career?
In addition to the roles I’ve outlined so far, I also have another job in the arts with the De Morgan Foundation. Where some people fill their spare time with hobbies and television, I genuinely love my job so much that I have a second role in my spare time. I joined the Foundation - which has an unparalleled collection of ceramics and oil paintings by Victorian Arts and Crafts husband-and-wife duo, William and Evelyn De Morgan - in 2014 as an education volunteer (one of the many volunteering roles I had whilst at the National Gallery) and came up with the idea for an exhibition that would teach maths to children using the geometry in William’s ceramics. Around a full-time job, I raised the £90,000 required to put on this exhibition that would tour to 5 UK venues, curated the show and travelled around the country with the ceramics to install them at each venue. I will never work harder than I did in 2016, but I loved the whole experience and feel immensely proud I was able to achieve this and pulling the whole thing off in my spare time and annual leave truly was a personal career highlight.
What is your favourite Artwork?
The most difficult question you’ve asked and I’m just not sure. It changes all the time depending on how I feel and what I see. That’s the point of Art I suppose, it changes with you. The most moved I’ve ever felt by a painting was seeing Tiepolo’s St Agatha in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin for the first time. I’ve never seen such a harrowing depiction of pain and suffering and this work was like a punch in the stomach the delivery was so raw. Usually though, I prefer a still life or a painting of Victorian ladies not doing much, they are far easier on the eye.
Which artist would you have liked or would like to meet?
It’s got to be Caravaggio. Surely everyone would like to take him for a pint and find out first-hand what really went on with the murder, the exile and in those caves…
What advice would you give to people trying to enter the art industry?
Don’t give up. It can be completely disheartening to keep hearing that there’s no money in the arts, no jobs in the arts, it’s only a profession for rich people and that museums and galleries are closing down at an unsustainable rate, but if you know this is where you see yourself then keep going and you’ll get there. Take on whichever jobs you can manage, from volunteering on the side of a paid job to temping as an administrator in a bigger Gallery or Museum. No experience is bad experience and you won’t be marked down for having done a job not exactly matched to what you ultimately want.
If you weren’t in the art industry, what would you be doing?
Something else and I wouldn’t like that at all. Sure, I might be earning more money and might not have taken as many career risks if I was doing something else, but I wouldn’t be as happy and at the end of the day, that’s what really matters to me.