Richard Whittaker, 24
Despite gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in Historical Archaeology at the University of York, I had decided I was more interested in working with archaeological collections and assemblages from within a museum environment. Therefore, I was excited by the Military History course at the University of Chester as a result of my passion for the subject and the fact my ambition was to work with collections of a military nature.
After gaining a 2:1 with Merit from Chester I returned to Grange over Sands, where I had lived since I was 2 years old. I initially struggled to get a job of any kind and went on job seekers allowance, but settled for a job as a Customer Team Member at the Co-operative food store. From then I attempted to volunteer for different projects in my holiday hours to build my CV. For example I volunteered for two days at the York Army Museum doing conservation work on Napoleonic War era sabres, World War 1 revolvers and a maxim machine gun. I was also lucky enough to dust the Dettingen (1743) battle standard, a remarkable survivor and the oldest known regiment of horse standard in existence. I then volunteered for a few days on the Cocken Hall excavation with No Man’s Land archaeology group who were attempting to find a World War 1 temporary training complex that had been built for the Durham Light Infantry.
I had often visited the Kendal Museum as a child and had recently become aware of the course, when travelling through Kendal and seeing the advertisement banner on the front of the site. This obviously immediately interested me and prompted me to research the course, which I thought would be most beneficial in terms of providing me with genuine experience working within a museum environment. But it also turned out to be an enjoyable and fun experience as well. Some of the projects or modules were particularly rewarding, such as cataloguing a Roman teaching collection and cleaning a taxidermy collection to museum display standards (from Lowther Castle Estate), that included a horse’s hoof used as a door stop…But more importantly these experiences taught me methods and practice in accessioning, using the MODES system and collection care standards.
However, the most rewarding and useful aspect of the course was organising and setting up the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeology and Antiquarian Society exhibition for Watercrook Roman Fort. This involved learning a range of valuable skills including organising a display area, assembling the display cases and selecting objects from the collection, which included a Samian ware sherd with a very rare depiction of two gladiators in combat. We also had to discuss and produce appropriate labelling and compile an information booklet. Another highlight was the HLF funded “Be a Miner Day”, for which I constructed a “crystal mine”.
Soon after completing the “crystal mine” and the course in mid-June, I started applying for a variety of museum jobs ranging from assistant curator to front of house. But another useful aspect of the course was when the two tutors Carol and Anna both gave what turned out to be very useful advice for writing cover letters, CV’s and preparation for interviews. This completely changed the way I structured my cover letters, as I was encouraged to write more succinctly and enthusiastically, only detailing key examples of my experience working at a museum, as opposed to simply listing everything I had done. Furthermore, Carol encouraged us to constantly record our work at the museum through taking photographs, which was to prove most beneficial.
I had to manage my time particularly well and be very disciplined about work, social life and hobbies in order to fill in application forms and tailor cover letters to each job application. This proved to be very difficult since during the summer I had been promoted to Team Leader at the co-op and was working unsociable hours. This included 40-48 hour working weeks; working from 14.00 – 22.15 five or six days a week, running and managing a team at an often under-staffed and very busy store. I also spent each Thursday volunteering for George Platt in the Image Preservation Studio for his latest project where Gallery Oldham had sent herbarium collections to Kendal Museum to be digitally catalogued and photographed. I felt this would look good on my CV showing that I was still involved in projects at the museum and it also served as an enjoyable and welcome break from my less than interesting job.
I was soon rewarded in July with an interview for Assistant Conservationist at Kedleston Hall near Derby, Derbyshire. After being rejected I had to wait till early October for my next interview which was for Curator of Uniforms at the Green Howards Regimental Museum in Richmond, North Yorkshire. I was again unsuccessful, but this time received a personal ‘phone call explaining that I had presented myself well and demonstrated my knowledge of regimental uniforms, yet lacked experience of actually handling the uniforms. Despite my lack of success with this job, I found the response from the museum was fairly positive and quite motivating so I carried on persevering. During the rest of October and through to December I had no success with applications I began to feel quite disillusioned. But mid-December I received a phone call from Melanie Marsh, curator of the Rifles Collection at Winchester, Hampshire inviting me to an interview for Assistant Curator. She told me she was very impressed with my CV; my MA in Military History having caught her eye initially, but she was also most interested in the course at Kendal that she had not heard of before.
So on the 5th January I drove all the way down to Winchester and somehow arrived fifteen minutes early despite my satnav shutting down on the way! Strangely, this seemed to offset my nerves about the interview itself, as I was just pleased to have arrived with time to spare. I drew on all my experience gained from the course at Kendal, as well as my role as part of the management team at the Co-op to answer their questions. I discussed my role in setting up the CWAAS exhibition, the various collection care projects and accessioning/ cataloguing activities. However, it proved to be a good decision to take a folder of photos with me which included images of the “crystal mine,” which they were both impressed with. I felt confident that the interview had gone well and was correct in my assumption when Melanie ‘phoned me up the next day to announce she was offering me the job!! So after two years at the co-op I have been able to hand in my written notice and am now organising my move down south!