On the 9th November 2017 I started a three-month placement in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Theatre and Performance department.
A whole year has now passed and I’m still working at the museum! I enjoyed the experience so much that I applied to have the placement extended. I’ll be working at the V&A a few days each month until March 2019. By that point, I will have spent approximately 70 days in the department over a 16-month period.
This anniversary felt like a good time to write about what I’ve actually been up to over the course of the placement. Unusually for me, I’ve not blogged about this experience so far. This is for a couple of reasons. First, I signed a confidentiality agreement before starting at the museum, meaning I can’t share certain details about the department’s plans and activities. Second, it’s been such a varied and long-term experience that it’s tricky to summarise it all in a single post. I am nevertheless going to try! So, without further ado, here is a brief (and secret-free) insight into my epic year on placement at the V&A.
The task I was set back in November 2018 was to research specific aspects of early modern culture, and to convert my findings into a format that would work in an exhibition context. Some of my days were spent poring over 16th-century documents at the National Archives, the London Metropolitan Archives, and in the collections of local guilds and other organisations. (My palaeography training definitely came in handy here!) I also did lots of digging around online and in the fabulous National Art Library, and made spreadsheets with the information I’d gathered from around London.
I soon began sitting in on exhibition planning and design meetings, and went on various site visits to view items and locations of interest to the project I’ve been working on. My expertise in costume, clothing, and early modern performance/culture meant that I could make useful suggestions about how certain objects and ideas might be interpreted by exhibition visitors; my limited knowledge about the process of curating and managing a major exhibition meant that I had a lot to learn.
I continued onto new research tasks once I’d finished working through my initial mini-project, and started creating content for social media. My V&A days are still very varied: some days I’ll be based at a desk in the office (with regular breaks for museum exploration), and others I’ll be on a team trip to a venue or in meetings. I also have the option to work from home if PhD work is keeping me tied to Birmingham.
Once I’d settled into the department, more and more exciting opportunities were sent my way. I was put in touch with the V&A’s Membership Events team, who invited me to design and present a series of ticketed tours about my PhD research. I ran three sold-out tours in May/June 2018 about the history of Elizabethan dress as costume design for Shakespeare, linking some of the V&A’s wonderful pieces of fashion history (an original 16th century velvet cloak, for example) with its Theatre & Performance Collections (including a surviving Henry Irving costume from the Victorian period).
I’ve also advised on the design of a new Shakespeare statue, which is due to be installed near the site of The Theatre in Shoreditch, London, in 2019. The Theatre – the Elizabethan playhouse Shakespeare wrote for before the Globe – is currently being excavated by archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology as part of a new exhibition development. The remains of The Theatre will be displayed alongside a range of early modern artefacts in a purpose-built exhibition space from 2019.
The Theatre project isn’t being developed by the V&A – it’s the work of The Box Office New Inn Broadway Limited – but I became closely connected with its development via colleagues at the museum. Helping sculptors Raphael Maklouf and Hayley Gibbs to incorporate appropriate Elizabethan clothing into the design of their specially-commissioned Shakespeare statue was one of the most exciting things I’ve done since starting my placement.
The time I’ve spent working in the V&A’s Theatre & Performance department over the past year has been a fascinating and hugely rewarding experience. I’ve learned a lot about how museums work behind the scenes, and it’s been great to expand my research focus beyond the scope of my PhD project as well as having opportunities to share some of my own work. I’ve also met some brilliant people who I hope to stay in stay in touch with when I (finally) finish.
One of my biggest takeaways has been finding out which of my PhD skills are transferable outside of academia. An ability to carry out research quickly and efficiently has proven very valuable in a museum context, for example; being able to assimilate large quantities of information and communicate findings clearly is a skill that’s as useful when conducting research for an exhibition as it is for completing a PhD thesis. Having experience in crafting narratives from factual/historical information has also come in very handy, and so has my love for collaboration and large-scale projects.
All in all, it’s been a lot of fun and a fantastic learning experience, and I’m thrilled to be staying on in the department a little longer.
This placement and my PhD research are generously funded by the Midlands4Cities AHRC DTP.