My work placement at Valence House by Kirsty Parsons

I currently work for Eastside Community Heritage as a Heritage Lottery funded Community Heritage Leader Trainee. Part of my traineeship is to gain experience beyond the organisation by going on a month’s placement. I chose to spend the month of May at Valence House Museum and Archive. Luckily I chose a sunny month so I could take full advantage of the lovely parkland the Museum and Archive is set in during my lunch breaks; it also meant going into the freezing cold stores was actually a relief sometimes.

I spent my first two weeks working with Leanne in the Museum. My first job was to organise an exhibition about the local fire brigades in Barking and Dagenham. There is going to be an exhibition of photographs to celebrate the London Fire Brigade’s 150th birthday this year from the 2nd June to the 23rd July and I was asked to decide what objects to use from the collection to accompany the photographs.

Letter signed by the Captain of Barking Voluntary Fire Brigade
Letter written by John Quash, Captain of Barking Voluntary Fire Brigade (1887)

So first things first, I checked out what objects we had and what condition they were in. I’m definitely made for this kind of job – I love looking around museum stores, especially social history collections, they’re a treasure chest of weird, wonderful and just plain ordinary objects. Gliding apart the rail racking, taking down a box and removing layers upon layers of acid free tissue paper to uncover the carefully wrapped objects inside was how I spent most of my first day. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of the rest of the tasks related to creating an exhibition, but I’m all ready to install it this weekend during the Medieval Festival. So while everyone else is out putting on a 14th century show of archery, jousting and good food, I’ll be on my own with the ghosts in the Museum putting the objects and text interpretation into the cases.

I was also asked to look for potential loan objects for the Hardy Amies exhibition coming up at the end of 2016 and for a new influential women’s case, showcasing the fascinating female personalities of Barking and Dagenham. Click for further detail on the upcoming Hardy Amies exhibition.

Creekmouth School Log Book
Creekmouth School Log Book (1902-1928)

My second two weeks were spent with Clare in the Archive. My main task was to help index the school log books. As the log books are name rich, they are a popular resource for people looking into their family tree. My job was to make a note of all names mentioned and why they were mentioned, as well as noting any interesting events, in order to make them easier for people to search. Basically I had to read through each book entry by entry so you don’t have to. Follow this link for can view a full list of the school log books held by the Archive.

Photograph of an elephant at the crossing on Blake’s Corner on East Street, Barking, being watched by schoolchildren as part of a road safety demonstration (1953)

I was also asked to accession a large batch of photographs. While this is essentially data entry and is not a task enjoyed by everyone, I find it quite therapeutic. You don’t have space in your brain to think about the stresses and strains of everyday life as you’re too busy concentrating on making sure you wrote the right number on the object and working out how on earth you describe a photograph of a bull in a courtyard being held by a little boy (exactly like that as it happens). My favourite photograph from this batch was one from the 1930s of an elephant being used as a road safety guide for a group of school children. The elephant was lead across a crossing, demonstrating to the children that even something as big as an elephant waits for the green man to tell it that it is safe to cross.

I’m on the last day of my placement here and it really has been great fun. I go back to Eastside next week and finish my traineeship at the end of July, so I am currently in the process of job hunting (again!). This placement and the traineeship have reaffirmed my wish to work in this sector, no matter what the difficulties in getting your foot in the door. Hopefully, one day, I will be managing and exhibiting a museum and archive collection myself.

If like me you want to gain experience in the museum and archive sector, whether just for fun or for experiencing the work involved, I would highly recommend volunteering, or if you’re lucky enough working, at Valance House Museum and Archive.