Harriet Hathaway was recently appointed as Decorative Art Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle. She graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2015 with First Class honours in Ancient History and Archaeology. Over a coffee in the castle, she told me about her exciting new job and the journey which helped her to enter a profession which many arts graduates dream of.
Volunteering & work experience
In her first year at university Harriet started volunteering during term-time at Solihull Archaeological Group. She recalls that she “was the youngest member by around 40 years!”. She also did work experience at the Cadbury Research Library where she gained valuable experience in archival research and cataloguing. Other work experience at Solihull Library enabled her to receive training in the use of collections databases, which is essential in curatorial positions, and which she was able to talk about in her interview at Nottingham Castle. By her final year at university, Harriet was Secretary of the West Midlands Egyptology Society. This was a position of real responsibility, in which she planned talks for the events calendar, including the organisation of speakers, and oversaw marketing and publicity.
Her first museum job
After graduating, Harriet wrote to the HR Department of the Coventry Transport Museum (as it was nearby) with details of her experience and interests, to ask if they had any jobs. Although they were not advertising, they invited her in for a chat and offered her a position over the summer working in their Front of House team. This job enabled Harriet to engage with visitors and she was also given a lot of responsibility, such as opening and overseeing the museum’s buildings. It shows that it can pay off to make speculative applications.
The Cultural Intern Scheme
As her time at the Coventry Transport Museum was coming to an end, Harriet applied for both a Masters and the Cultural Intern Scheme, and was offered a position on the latter. She took up the 6 month position working on the exhibitions programme at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery alongside Exhibitions Curator (and former Cultural Intern) Katie Hall. During her time at the museum she worked on 3 major exhibitions: ‘Night in the Museum’, ‘New Art West Midlands’, and ‘I Want, I Want’. She assisted with: developing content and interpretation (such as labels for art works), auditing collections, conservation, producing small scale models of the exhibition, and managing the loans of art works (which includes lots of complex paperwork!). She had to liaise with artists and designers, curators, technicians, insurance companies, as well as the fundraising and marketing teams. The experience allowed her an excellent grounding across lots of the museum’s departments and she left “feeling confident about applying for jobs in the arts”.
3 interviews, 3 job offers!
After finishing at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, Harriet was invited to 3 job interviews, and was offered all 3! She decided to take the role at Nottingham Castle, where she is currently working on a 3 year contract as Decorative Art Assistant Curator.
A day in the life of… an Assistant Curator
Harriet has a varied workload, which sees her helping the Curator of Decorative Arts across the castle’s museum and art gallery to:
- Select, interpret and catalogue objects for exhibitions.
- Write text, including biographies, for exhibition catalogues.
- Work on projects with students at Nottingham Trent University. Over 40 students used the castle’s collection in order to inspire the creation of new art work, and Harriet helped them to understand the context and content of their chosen objects.
- Deliver a curating careers workshop for sixth form students (during her first week!).
- Apply for new acquisitions (completing loan request forms for new objects from contemporary sculpture to medieval pilgrim badges! Harriet originally learnt how to do this whilst working at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery).
- Help a PhD student on a conservation project, carefully handing artefacts which the student X-rayed.
- Catalogue, package and move objects off site, as part of the castle’s redevelopment (which allowed Harriet to see the entire collection) to a secure and secret location off site!
Across these tasks, Harriet stressed the importance of excellent communication skills – you need to collaborate with a variety of departments and so many different colleagues. She also said that strong organisation skills, including the management of people and projects, is fundamental to her role.
And some advice
Harriet advises: “Try to volunteer in as many aspects of the sector as possible. It helps you to decide what you like, and what you don’t like. It also gives you an idea of how departments all work together on an exhibition. It was this grounding which helped me to get this job, as I had already worked in fundraising, conservation, marketing and exhibitions. You won’t know what you like or want to do until you have tried it”.
To find out more about what Harriet gets up to as a museums professional, you can read her blog here.