Posted on 6 November 2012
One aspect that initially drew me to the MA in Public History at York was the fact that one whole module during the Spring Term would consist of a work placement. Coming in as a mature student who had already trained as an Archivist I was really aware that although the things I'd be learning on the course would be incredibly useful and hopefully open up my employability across the heritage sector, being able to talk about what I'd learnt in a work context would make all the difference in interviews!
Choosing a placement wasn't an easy process. Just when you'd be leaning one way, reading the placement briefs would throw a spanner in the works. Many of the placements offered the opportunity use such different skills and they all sounded exciting, and the briefs were great at summarising the project possibilities. Ultimately, as I have an interest in the First World War and in learning and education outreach I went for the opportunity at York Minster, as it would give me the chance to learn the kinds of skills I’d been hoping to when applying for the course.
As the first Public History cohort we are the 'guinea pigs', discovering the gaps between the administrative planning and what actually happens when you chuck a bunch of students into the mix! This has been a valuable experience as its created a more dialogue between students and staff, and the faculty are always keen for feedback! The handbook advised us that we should have contacted our placement providers before the end of Week 2 in the Spring term, and predictably, with coursework and the Christmas holidays, many of us did this a little late. It's easy to forget employed people can't meet up with you at the drop of a hat! Still, planning ahead and not leaving things to the last minute is a useful lesson for the entire process!
My initial meeting is with the Head of Learning who outlines the project and makes sure it will fit in with all the learning objectives we have on the course. We also talk a bit about the work of the Learning Department and how this project will fit in. My supervisor Esther then joins us for the second half of the meeting where we settle on a schedule for the first few weeks and how I will work and report back. Apart from learning more about the project I also learnt a lot about the administration and costs behind educational visits and the way they are structured – very interesting and all new to me.
Esther has been really great in sharing her knowledge with me, so I've been able to interrogate her with questions about her education/employment background to find out how she got to where she is! I took advantage of the Viking Festival events to come in and see more of what the Learning Department do, all interesting stuff! This month was spent getting to grips with the research and the health and safety aspects of the project. I had an induction inside the Minster with the Volunteer Manager, and Esther and I had some meetings to review some initial work that she had done a few years ago on remembrance and to talk through how the potential joint sessions with the Castle Museum would affect how the project developed. We go on a tour of the Minster memorials and meet with some teachers to get some opinions on our initial ideas, and I visit some local museums and archives to try and see what personal stories emerge.
The tour of the Minster memorials was carried out by another member of the Learning team who explained the background of many of the war-related memorials in the Minster, pointing out some details that you would never notice if you were touring the Minster on your own. It was an incredibly interesting tour. I had never noticed for instance that the battles the regiments were involved in were on plaques attached to the top of the chapel gates. We all came away with lots of notes and avenues for research, and lots and lots of photographs.
You know you are learning relevant things when education and employment match up, and that's what has been great about the placements. Sometimes being in the classroom you can wonder if all the theory is ever going to come in useful again (a bit like second guessing the maths you learn in high school), but time and again, something we’ve done recently in a seminar has come up later in the placement. Just after looking at evaluation techniques in our seminars, we met with a couple of teachers to evaluate our initial thinking about the session and to make sure it would be the kinds of things teachers would want to participate in and pay for. Luckily, much of our initial planning and ideas met with approval, and we also learned the more cross-curricular we could make sessions the better!
As we start to generate material and other names for research from Collections and memorials, Esther, our Museum contact and I decide if we can create links between their material and ours it will help link the topics and sessions in different place together for the young people. Esther and I meet with the Minster's Collections Officer and Archivist to discuss any objects that might be suitable for use in education sessions, and this suggests a couple of more names to look at. I am also cross-checking our names with the names provided by the Castle Museum to develop five or six good stories for our planned memory box exploratory activity. This is done through a mix of research techniques, online, in the city archives and in the minster archives. One point that came out of the meeting with our 'tame' teachers was that a rounded idea of the war would be better, so not just looking at deaths, but experiences of women, survivors, prisoners of war etc.
Now we're well into the placements and have given in our mid-term work for the Core module, thoughts are turning to the assignment for the placement module. This is a 4000 essay that is not just a placement report, but does report on the placement! I'm not the only one who has been slightly confused by what is required in the coursework, and of course being the first cohort through we can't look at previous work to get an idea! The question I’ve chosen to explore has emerged from some of the issues that have come up during review meetings and again with the progress meeting between Esther, myself and Sarah, my tutor. This is related to how to successfully tackle sensitive historical subjects (in this case war and death) in educational materials, especially considering the Minster is in the middle of a large military recruiting area so many potential pupil visitors will have contemporary experiences of war and service through parents or relations. There were also things we wanted to do in the session, like have them take place in the regimental chapels, which would have to be approved by the Dean and Chapter due to sensitivity issues. So the topic evolved fairly naturally as a result of keeping aware of things that were coming up during the research.
On a separate note, as a self-funding student I can't afford to be out of employment over the summer, and have secured a maternity cover post as an Archivist in Manchester until September, which means moving back to Lancashire. Thankfully, Esther is happy to work around this hurdle and we have a penultimate face to face meeting to discuss where we are. This results in me taking away a set of deliverables for the next six weeks to do remotely, alongside my final essay, with another face to face meet up to round everything up at the end of the Easter holidays.
Esther and I are keeping in touch by email and I'm continuing to do research alongside my full time job. This is not ideal, but much of this period is just tying up loose ends and chasing extra documents for one person or another and writing things up. I'm uploading research material to a shared Dropbox folder so Esther can review or correct documents before we meet again, and less messy than emailing versions!
I combine my final meeting at the Minster with the essay hand in for this placement, so Esther and I spend a whole day together going through the project from start to finish to ensure everything has been done and has been explained. It also gave me an opportunity to clear up any last minute questions related to the essay! By the end of the day we had a set of materials that she could present to the Learning Team as a session for Key Stages 1-3, and to compare to the Castle Museum’s materials to ensure a good fit. I was then able to make last minute changes to the essay (and thankfully there weren't many!) before giving it in the day after.
Ultimately my role is based at the beginning of a fairly long term project, much of which will happen after the end of my placement. The material and session plans now need approval from the Learning Manager and potentially the Chapter (the Minster's clerical council), before being piloted with classes this Autumn and 'tweaked' before the official launch sometime in April 2014. I hope to keep in touch and perhaps see how the pilot sessions happen in practice, just to get an idea of the process all the way through. I've really enjoyed the placement and would recommend doing one to anyone in the department not just on the Public History course. I don't think it's possible to underestimate the value of real work experience in these times when the graduate job market can be difficult and you are also essentially gaining the experience of a whole other tutor, your supervisor, which is another definite benefit of the module! A work placement not only teaches you all those 'transferrable skills' that the careers service talk about like time management, research skills, team work, negotiation and presentation skills, but it also gives you the opportunity to ‘test’ your ideas for a history based career to see if they might be right for you.
MA Public History
Public History Placement