Recently, Liz McIvor, our Social History and Technology Curator has been busy filming for the BBC – Railways: The Making of a Nation and has written a blog post for us musing on the varied things that we get up to working in museums.
Museum work is a somewhat unusual way of making a living, it has to be said. One indicator of a ‘small world’ is the fact that website drop down boxes rarely feature ‘museum curator’ as a real job, so you end up having to select something completely different to get your car insurance sorted out.
Traditionally, the job conjures up an image of a ‘character’ in the public mind; usually a bumbling, socially awkward, retentive polymath wearing tweeds, spectacles and an impressively out of control hairdo.
As with all stereotypes, this view is partly based on a perception of reality. In the early days of museums and galleries as a professional industry, the job attracted certain types of people. These were university educated types who didn’t want to teach and didn’t need to earn high incomes; this meant they were sourced largely from the ‘leisured classes’. They could afford to spend years studying, without having to pay back fees and loans, but it was more than that. They were the accepted face of the establishment. They were the well spoken, well connected people who lunched with the vicar, went to charitable gatherings and gave talks to the W.I. They could spend years poring over libraries and archives developing subject specialisms, which most of us can be grateful for because of the notes they left behind for us to reference later in order to better understand the collections they amassed.
It was, however, a different world that these people inhabited. If museums were (from their earliest days) about showing things, they were also about the sharing of knowledge. Today, this means doing so in different ways and being prepared to tap into audiences beyond the ones on the other side of a glass case.
In the 1930’s, for example, museums in northern cities had thousands of visitors on Sundays and almost none on any other day of the week. Certainly in Bradford, ordinary people chose to spend the little leisure time they had visiting galleries and public parks in droves. It was hardly surprising that people who lived in a cold, rainy environment would want to come somewhere warm and free for a day out to look at unusual objects from the past, beautiful paintings or strange things and beasts from exotic lands.
Today, with our modern western cultural experience, British people have considerably less leisure time than most of their neighbours in Europe, but choose to spend it in all manner of different ways. The availability and convenience of media is a huge factor and we find ourselves turning evermore towards it to communicate with the public and remind them that the physical and the real is still important. This is especially true as more of us are sharing our understanding of the world through this media, and using it to represent our lives.
My colleagues and I can no longer get away with living in ivory towers; we are competing with more choice in the leisure market and this means getting involved with all sorts of projects and initiatives to inspire people to get out and do things, to find out more. We do have a definite advantage though. We are still directly connected to the real material world. What we do might co-exist with virtual experiences, but virtual, remote access can only complement. It can never replace the real thing.
Museum Curators are generally different characters these days. It is increasingly hard for young people to break into the industry, but there are more women, more people from working class backgrounds, and in the future, it is hoped, more people from Black and other Ethnic Minorities. The industry is a little more representative of society than it used to be, but what we do have in common with the people who came before us, is a fascination with what remains of life in a time gone-by.
There is something special about the direct connection a person can make by looking at, hearing, smelling or being near to an object from the past. Some remind us of a past we experienced (childhood, working life, home). Some were used by people to whom we have no connection at all, and we can only imagine their lives through that object and what it can tell us about them.
Bradford Museums and Galleries allowed me to work “away from the office” with the BBC English Regions for a second time this year to make a six part series on the development of the Railways and how they transformed a busily industrialising 19th C nation into the one we recognise today. Apart from generating income, the key point of doing a series like this is to continue to keep up the public’s engagement with history – to link historical themes back to people’s experiences, both then and now and to remind people that the past we understand is based on the study and experience of real things. Objects that tell a story, things we can see which go beyond a record in an archive or a library.
When we look at particular historical subjects, the objects are even more important if they work. To understand something about inventing, building, working on or travelling by train, is pretty impossible unless you can see them doing what they were made to do. It’s the same with any aspect of industrial history. See a machine, or a vehicle and you can appreciate the way it looks, the size and the craftsmanship, but when you see it working..moving..making something. That is when the object really comes to life and it’s so much easier to make a connection. That’s essential when the object you’re dealing with doesn’t seem too promising from the outset. Being asked to look at drainage systems, or heating units, or something else greasy, dusty and unglamorous, it can be hard to see where the promise lies at first, until you get the whole picture. But something will usually come to light to make the whole thing click into place and give it much more meaning.
When we were filming the series, I got to travel on a lot of trains. Steam, Diesel, Electric, Underground, old and new. It was the travelling itself which made it all much more real. The sense of building momentum in a new and exciting mode of transport, the speed at which the pace of life could now move, the interconnectivity of urban centres and the expectations of the British public. It was in travelling around, jumping on and off footplates, visiting different cities and rural locations, that I got a sense of the lives of people other than the engineers, the train guards and drivers. The experience of working heritage lines and real objects as well as places to visit made me think of porters, taxi drivers, coffee attendants, parcel delivery staff, telephonists and cashiers. All the people who were part of the railway experience as well as the passengers. People visiting their own country for the first time, and others arriving, bewildered, in a new land and having to adapt.
Working on this series may not have been directly to do with the history of Bradford as a city and a district, but it did help me to understand the city better and see where the natural connections were made and why they worked. Bradford was well, if chaotically, served by various railway companies. Although there are today only a fraction of the original rail routes served by modern companies, it remains an important part of the city’s history and development through the railway era and beyond, to the 20th Century obsession with motorised and increasingly private transport. The themes of the programme are inextricably linked to what it is we all do on a day to day basis, wherever we live. Although it isn’t exactly part of the ‘day job’, being involved with this sort of thing ultimately comes down a love of the past and the sharing of its stories. This, ultimately, is what keeps my colleagues and I doing what we do.
*Of course, there were no auto-cues!
Railway – The making of a Nation starts on BBC Four 29th September 8pm