University of Portsmouth's History Blog

‘A vital part of any university career’: A student’s experience of taking a placement unit

Ian Atkins, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on his experience of doing a work placement at the National Museum of the Royal Navy Library for the Public History Placement Unit. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Melanie Bassett, Research Assistant for Port Towns and Urban Cultures and Part Time Lecturer in History.

The Public History Placement unit, a vital part of any university career, is an option that is available to Second Year Students in the School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies. Encompassing a wide and varied variability of placements the option aims to give an insight into the types of careers that are available to the deserving History graduate. Skills learnt in this unit allow for opportunity into a wide area of Public History, which as described by Faye Sayer ‘is the work by historians to associate the past with the present and communicate such to the public’, in a way that is understood and managed by those who do not possess a professional qualification. [1] This is not to diminish the importance of the past, nor is it too dumb down the past, it is a way of integrating everyone in their collective history. The use of public history allows for further understanding of collective memory, a function that academics are at lengths to stress binds us all, as we have lived through the experiences and are able to learn from them. [2]

I undertook a placement that was based at the National Museum of the Royal Navy Library. A collections library based at the Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth. The library holds extensive collections showcasing treasures of over 350 years of seafaring history, focusing on exclusive collections of Horatio, Lord Nelson, service records, personal accounts and many other collections that have a relation to the sea and the way the British Navy dominated the oceans. [3] A museum of this type has a dedicated team of professional historians and volunteers, who ‘make a positive and lasting impact contributing to the industry [and] their support is vital to releasing the creative energies of the hard-pressed professional’. [4] The volunteers and staff are, as suggested, a vital part of allowing the public to fully engage with the museum and its artefacts.

When envisioning working in a place such as the NMRN, or indeed any institution, local or national, there has to be consideration of the way that that institution understands its sense of place. There has to be understanding that it is relevant, how that even after 600 years museums are still one of the most active tourist attractions available to the public. [5] With such a varied history themselves, the museum ultimately becomes part of the artefacts that they display. There has been, as of 1992, rapid growth and ‘change within the museum industry, throwing the previous assumptions of museums into disarray’. [6] This is where a unit dedicated to Public History is essential. It is a way of understanding those changes and the necessity to, as anniversaries come and go, understand the collective past. History is something that connects us all, a state we cannot escape from, if we don’t learn about it we will never learn from it. [7] It is for this reason why a placement unit is important, and why more students should take advantage of it. The work may be time consuming, and sometimes not what is always expected, but nonetheless it is stimulating and it is always interesting to be able to handle and read documents and artefacts, many over 200 years old.

The Placement allowed for skills that will be beneficial to an industry that is so fast paced that there is very little time to give full and professional training; an industry very much built on ‘on the job training’, and voluntary work is a vital component to the smooth running of such. [8] Collections management is a role that all those looking for a career in Public History should be prepared to do; it is the role most accessible in this industry. It also allows for interrelation with historical documents and artefacts that can only ever normally be viewed by appointment or behind glass. Public history is very dominated by government intervention. Progressive governments have ideas on how and what should be taught as part of the nation’s history. The addition or omission of certain facts, objects or other form in museums is testament to this. A public history placement allows for both hands-on experience in a museum or other industry, but in-class experience is also invaluable to the understanding of what is available within this field.

The unit is one that comes highly recommended, if either you have experience in working in the industry or work experience in general. This unit will give you strong and lasting insights into the roles that are available to you as a graduate. History is a complex and fulfilling degree to hold, it is a course that shows you have the skills to work independently, to spec, and within time limits. The Public History industry is made up of multi-facet levels within an organisation, to be counted and noticed in this industry you must demonstrate experience, the placement will give you the skills which can be used to further this experience. It is also an industry that can, at times, be quite demanding. There are a lot of things to do within the organisation and not nearly enough time to do them. The placement will allow you to be able to see this first hand. University is a bubble, one where you are naturally helped along at every stage, the work place is far more different and to gain this experience whilst still having that safety net of university is invaluable. The placement may also allow for continued involvement with your chosen industry which, as already explained, will not only lead to a long lasting relationship for yourself, but for the university as a whole. It is therefore noted this unit and its subsequent placement are both rewarding and thought provoking.



[1] Faye Sayer, Public History: A Practical Guide. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 22.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History 6th ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 259.

[3] National Museum of the Royal Navy. “Home Page.” http://www.nmrn-portsmouth.org.uk/, last accessed 16 May 2018.

[4] Sinclair Goddard, and Stephanie McIvor, Museum Volunteers: Good Practice in the Management of Volunteers. (London: Routledge, 2005), 1.

[5] Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. (London: Routledge, 1992), i.

[6] Hooper-Greenhill, Museums, 1.

[7] Big Think. “”Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It.” Really?” http://bigthink.com/the-proverbial-skeptic/those-who-do-not-learn-history-doomed-to-repeat-it-really, last accessed 16 May 2018.

[8] The Historical Association. “Careers in History.” http://www.history.org.uk/student/resource/2914/careers-in-history, last accessed 2 January 2018.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply