Curatorial and exhibition experience at Fairfax House, York

Posted on 4 December 2012

As part of my Public History MA I undertook a ten-week placement at Fairfax House. This was a curatorial position, aiding Hannah Phillip (the Director) with preparations for two exhibitions.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the placement was the fact that I experienced two very different stages of exhibition planning, as the first exhibition – Crowning Glory – started in early February, while the second – In the Name of the Rose – was not due to open for a further six months.


Naturally, in the first few weeks my attentions were focused on the imminent Crowning Glory opening. I was given the responsibility of researching a number of the exhibits in order to write the accompanying panels and labels. This was a very diverse, challenging and yet rewarding role. I researched specific pieces, such as the Fairfax Jewel, a set of enamel roundels presented to Sir Thomas Fairfax for his role in the Civil War, as well as general themes such as the use of pearls in jewellery. One of the most valuable lessons learned at this point was how to write cohesively enough to be understood but concisely enough to fit the panels and keep the visitor’s attention.
At this stage, I also learned about dealing with different institutions and private lenders, and now know that large-scale institutions such as the Royal Collection are often difficult to obtain copyright from so planning in advance and with a back-up plan is crucial.

The actual day of the house and exhibition opening proved to be incredibly insightful, particularly with experiencing working to a strict deadline – I was tasked with formatting, printing and installing all the labels for the exhibition! Opening night proved to be a success and everybody’s hard work clearly paid off as feedback was great.

Just as one exhibition opened, attention had to be turned to the future exhibition, In the Name of the Rose, about Jacobite symbolism and allegiance. Tasks during this half of the placement were very different and enlightened me to how far in advance exhibitions need to be planned. Many big institutions such as the British Museum require loans to be applied for over six months in advance, which in turn means that the museum curators must determine their themes and ideal exhibits and loans even earlier. At this stage, my role was more administrative, keeping the loan request database up to date and chasing up correspondence with different lenders.

When the time came to end my placement, I left having gained a great deal of knowledge and experience that I hope to carry to into any future career. Fairfax House provided an interesting and diverse work environment, and I feel lucky to have worked on a project where I was able to physically see the results of my input. One of my favourite moments was the opening night of Crowning Glory –I was very proud to see my name on the acknowledgements board and to see visitors read the words that I had written!

Kate Davey

MA Public History
Public History Placement