Last week I left my job as Audience Development Manager for St Albans Museums Service to join Jura Consultants as a Senior Consultant. The change has prompted a few reflections, not the least around what it means to me to go from being a site-based member of staff to becoming a consultant.
There are a few things I think I’ll miss from being site-based. I’ll miss those encounters with visitors who simply appreciated the contribution I made to their visit as a frontline interpreter. My key ring is still one that a visitor to Culloden Battlefield gave me. For months, I kept a little piece of twig art in my car that a girl on one of our educational programmes made for me at Montgomery Place.
I’ll also miss being witness to people’s emotional responses to a site. I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog the man who grabbed hold of my arm after a guided tour of Culloden Battlefield to tell me, with tears in his eyes, how glad he was to have made it there before he died. What a privilege to see that happen! And it opened my eyes to the fact that heritage is more than a material thing that must be protected.
I’ve learnt so much from visitors and stakeholders about heritage and interpretation. Theory and reports let you get away with words. On-site practice holds you responsible to stakeholders’ on-the-spot feedback. It was great doing a module on community engagement at university, but it wasn’t until I worked with the people of Tredegar that I understood why this was so very, very important, and how much further I needed to push my interpretive practice at Bedwellty House and Park to do them justice. I valued that.
I think I’ll also miss having the ability to be creative and take risks with programmes and activities on site. At St Albans Museums, our Occupy the Museum event last year was a great way to gauge people’s thoughts about the museum, and what we should bear in mind for an upcoming major redevelopment project. Our Blood, Lust and Roses historic soap opera about the Wars of the Roses was a process-driven community engagement project that responded to outcomes from Occupy, and was one of the most creative, meaningful and yet unconventional projects I’ve ever been involved in. It was also great to set out on these journeys of trial and error with an amazing team, and learn together.
Of course, some of this will also be part of my work as a consultant. With every new project I will meet new, dedicated on-site staff and passionate stakeholders, and encounter visitors and what their heritage means to them. More so than in my work on site, I will be able to do in-depth research and take the time to properly analyse results and decide what this means for practice (there never was enough time to do that properly on site). I’m thrilled to have joined a company that I’ve regularly come across professionally and as part of my academic work, and frankly, consultancy of the Jura kind has been my goal for a while now. I am so looking forward to this new chapter in my professional life.
But as I leave St Albans and my work as a site-based member of staff, I realize how much these experiences have meant to me – professionally, and yes, I admit, also personally. So, not knowing how much of this will be repeated in my new life as a consultant, I’m feeling a bit emotional. And I’d like to say thank you to all the wonderful visitors I’ve met, to the stakeholders who challenged me to test my theories, and to the members of the various teams I’ve had the honour to work with. Much of what I can bring to consultancy I owe to you.