Emily Burgess, a third year history student at Portsmouth, describes some of the things she has learned and some of the amazing artefacts she has got to work with on a daily basis in over a year spent working as a volunteer first for the National Museum of the Royal Navy and then for the Royal Marines Museum. She is now devising her own projects and events for the museum and has found the experience invaluable to her studies for her degree.
During my first year at Portsmouth University I attended a history volunteer fair held in The Mary Rose Museum. It was there that I met my future supervisor and curator for the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Kate Braun. Soon enough I was shadowing her every movement and was able to do things I could only ever dream off as somebody utterly obsessed with history.
I started off using Adlib, the NMRN’s record system to document and quality check artefacts from the HMS Caroline, a decommissioned C-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy, which saw active service in both World War I and World War II. These artefacts were to be sent to Belfast to be put on display. I worked on this project for six months. Alongside this I met other curators and museum workers and I learnt a lot about the running of museums, particularly artefact handling and data collection. As I gained greater experience, I was invited to work on bigger projects such as exhibitions. Two of my favourites were The Jolly Rogers Exhibition, and The Jutland Exhibition. One of my fondest memories was working alongside conservator Kate Gill who I helped assess and pack a 104-year-old flag from the HMS Bellerophon which was present at the Battle of Jutland and was riddled with shrapnel holes. I learnt a lot from these exhibitions and began to understand how important teamwork and communication was when dealing with strict deadlines and unruly artefacts.
I was asked to transfer to the Royal Marines Museum and I quickly accepted. There I learnt how to handle weaponry and other dangerous artefacts, specifically shells, guns, and knives, filling out numerous risk assessments in the process. Here I learnt the importance of collections documentation and packing, and the safety precautions needed when dealing with hazardous objects. The artefacts ranged from 1860 to the present day and every day we’d discover a new object. This is one of the things I loved most about museum work. The artefacts within this museum were very personal, and by working extensively on the medals collection I gained a greater understanding of the experiences had by soldiers during the First and Second World War. This proved very helpful to my degree as I began to understand how material sources benefited historical study and expanded our understanding of contemporary events.
My proudest moment came in my third year as I was invited to meet HRH Princess Anne for my work at the RMM. It is a moment I will never forget and will always be a highlight of my time here in Portsmouth. I have now volunteered at this museum for over a year and hope to work in the museum system one day.
My tutor Rob James, who was aware of my previous volunteer work helped me gain contact with Felicity Wood, The D-Day Story’s Public Participation Officer. At the end of my second year I began working alongside her, helping with events and marketing, specifically for the run up to D-Day 75.
Through this position I gained a greater understanding of the public side of museum work. After D-Day 75 I helped with events ranging from touch tours for the visually impaired to autism friendly events. I worked on social media analytics and wrote a report that was sent to the National Heritage Lottery Fund concerning the museum’s progress. One of my favourite moments was a joint event held with Bletchley Park where I got to play with an enigma machine. By working this event I realised how important it was for museums to support and work with each other. Recently I was granted funding to put on my own event under Felicity’s supervision. It was aimed at children and families and gave them the opportunity to make Second World War inspired Christmas decorations. I enjoyed doing this and it gave me the opportunity and freedom to devise my own project, and see it come to life. I am currently helping with the LCT 7074, a landing craft tank carrier that was present at the D-Day landings and is currently in Portsmouth Naval Base.
By working in all three museums I have learnt more than I could have ever hoped for. I have learnt how museums run behind the scenes through curatorial work and archiving, and I have developed skills in marketing and public participation. As a student these experiences have proved invaluable and I encourage anyone interested in museum work to take any opportunities offered to you through your tutors, or externally through volunteer fairs.