Gaining experience in the museum sector

Ed Armston-Sheret is a Postgraduate research student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Ed was awarded the British Society for the History of Science Engagement Fellowship at the Scott Polar Research Institute’s Polar Museum in Cambridge, and undertook a curatorial research role at the London Transport Museum. We talk to Ed to find out more about these experiences and how they have benefitted his own research.

Can you tell us more about the focus of your research?

My research examines Victorian and Edwardian explorers and how they prepared, used, and represented their bodies and the bodies of other expedition members. I look at several famous explorers, including Richard Francis Burton, John Hanning Speke, Captain Scott, and Isabella Bird. Instead of focusing just on these individuals, I also look at the guides, porters, and sailors who made their expeditions possible. These people don’t feature prominently in mainstream histories of exploration but played a central role in the success of their expeditions. For instance, when the British explorer Richard Burton travelled to East Africa in the 1850s, he suffered severely from tropical diseases and was carried on a stretcher by a changing group of East African men for much of the journey. From his book and letters, we don’t know the names or stories of the men who carried him. However, I argue that focusing on their bodies and labour can highlight their contribution to the expedition.  

How did the opportunity to work with a museum come about?

The opportunity to work at the Polar Museum came about through a British Society for the History of Science Engagement Fellowship. My supervisor, Innes Keighren, sent over a link to their website, which was advertising the fellowship and suggested I apply. I thought it sounded like an amazing opportunity, as I’d always been interested in working both museums and polar history. Before this, I’d never really been sure how to get experience in the museum sector.

Tell us more about the exhibit that you worked on at the Polar Museum?

At the Polar Museum, I redesigned the Museum’s exhibit on climate science. The new exhibit focused on the history of scientific research in the polar regions and how this informs contemporary understandings of climate change. This project involved working closely with the Museum’s Curator, Charlotte Connelly, and collecting stories, images, and objects for the new display. My first task was developing content for a new touchscreen display. I used stories of whalers, explorers, and scientists to look at different kinds of scientific research in the polar regions. It was also important to highlight impacts of climate change on Arctic people, and I included their stories and activism in the new display.  

What did you find most surprising or interesting about this experience?

I think the most interesting thing was trying to use a combination of images, objects, and text to tell a story. Often, academia tends to focus on communicating through writing and images. It was interesting to think more about the ways that material objects can be used to tell a story, and this is something that I’m going to try out more going forward.

What challenges or learning experiences did you have to face when it came to developing and curating content for the museum?

One of the main challenges was how few words you can use when writing the text for a museum display. Initially, I found it challenging to condense complex ideas and theories into less than three sentences but it’s a really useful skill to develop. 

How did you secure the placement at the London Transport Museum?

The London Transport Museum was one of the partners for the Techne doctoral training partnership who fund my research. I have always been interested in the history of transport, so I dropped them an email to see if they would be interested in putting together a placement. Thankfully, they were interested, and so I completed a two-month placement there. 

How did this experience differ from the first?

At the London Transport Museum, I supported the restoration of a 1930s District Line train in the Museum’s collection. The museum is restoring the Q stock train to full working order, so it can run on the London Underground. Three cars are currently being restored and each one will represent a different year to tell the history of London and the District Line. My role was to research the history of the train (and what the Q stock looked like in different years) to help facilitate the restoration. This was extremely important as the trains were altered during their working life.

What was your proudest achievement while working there?

One of the most important things I did was to establish the type of moquette (fabric seat covering) used on the train in different years. This was a key detail, as it would affect how the train looked and felt for passengers travelling inside. Moquette fabric also has to be specially ordered, so it was important to get the detail right. By researching in the Transport for London archives, I managed to find evidence that some of the London Underground’s most iconic moquettes were used on the Q stock. Selecting one of these moquettes ensured that the train will look attractive and that any leftover fabric won’t go to waste.

Personally, I also really enjoyed researching the social history of the District Line, such as the direct recruitment of staff from Barbados in the 1950s. I also found evidence that a young princess Elizabeth (now the Queen) travelled on a train very similar to the one being restored in 1939.

The inside of one of the partially restored Q stock cars

How did your research help in terms of your contribution to the project?

My work helped to decide which year each train-car would represent. Once this was decided, it enabled the museum to make many other decisions about the restoration of the train. My research on the social history of the District Line also shaped the broader stories that the train will be used to tell once restored.

What was one of your biggest takeaways from these experiences?

One of the most important things I learned was about the challenges of researching everyday objects. It was surprisingly hard to find pictures of the inside of Q stock trains, even though they worked in London day in, day out for more than 30 years. But who takes a picture of a crowded Underground train on their way to work? This challenge is something that I’m grappling with in my own research and it makes you realise how much work goes into finding out small nuggets of information!

What would you say are the key skills for working as a researcher in the museum sector?           

I was struck by how varied the work of museum staff was. On the one hand, strong research and writing skills are useful, but it’s also a job that required interpersonal and practical skills.  I think this is particularly true in smaller museums, where one museum worker might be responsible for opening up the museum, designing displays, and acquiring new objects.

What did these experiences teach you about communicating research to a public audience, and how will this benefit your own work in the future?

I think the most important thing I learned is that explaining something to a different audience can lead you to think differently about the subject yourself. Talking to a boarder audience can push you to both clarify and develop your research.  I’ve also come out of this experience thinking much more about how images, objects, and text can be used to tell stories in an engaging and accessible way.

Do you hope to work with more museums again and if so, what plans are in the pipeline?

Yes. I’d love to work with museums again. At the moment, I’m focusing on writing up my thesis, but would be keen to work in a museum once I’ve finished.  

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