This article was published in Museum Practice in September 2012 in their issue on starting your career in museums.
Taking on a Masters of Research in Heritage Science is a big task. Especially since the subject of mine was so interdisciplinary: it is about where geology and heritage meet, presenting an interesting and continually challenging environment to study in. This is especially important as the heritage field is itself constantly evolving, in a sector with so many innovative ideas and yet so small budgets. The best strategy for future students of the heritage sector is to ‘be prepared’.
Heritage Science is a relatively new discipline. Initially the term was coined in 2006 by the House of Lords’ report on ‘science and heritage’, bringing the discipline to life with respect to preservation of the UK’s national cultural heritage. In 2011, University College London began teaching the first course in heritage science, offered as a Masters of Research (MRes). The teaching part of the 2011/2012 course is now finished and the four pioneering students, including myself, are now well into our individual research projects on which our dissertations will be based. While studying for the masters, two of us are already involved in heritage organisations: Pimpim is a project manager in an Asian heritage fund, Gabrielle is a senior conservator in an archive. Tiphaine is undertaking the MRes as the first year in her engineering doctorate and I am pursuing the course as a stand-alone Masters.
The research projects range from analysing traditional Tibetan building materials; finding out what non-textual information users of archival objects require when accessing digitised archives; using terahertz technology to image archival objects we cannot open due to their physical condition and finally understanding what users value in museum geological collections. All of our projects are practice-driven and based on collaboration with heritage institutions such as the National Archives of the Netherlands and the Natural History Museum in London.
The heritage science domain is a highly interdisciplinary field and allows for a wide range of interests to be catered for. As students you meet a vast number of people who can help you along your way and improve communication skills with all types of professions: from artists to curators, conservators to engineers; you will find that working together is a challenge and a reward. Clashes of opinion may be common, but these enrich the creative scientific process. I believe one of the key skills for working in such a highly interdisciplinary sector is being able to communicate with this wide range of personalities and disciplines, and to learn how best to communicate and synchronise ideas.
The state of the sector’s economic affairs means that there is high competition for jobs. Having talked to fellow students of conservation, it appears that every job opening or even unpaid internship is a rush for the finish line. Luckily, in heritage science this is not so much of an issue. With two students already engaged and our vastly differing fields of expertise there will be little competition between each other for jobs, but this does not mean it will be easy to secure a future in the heritage sector.
My experience with the course has taught me a lot about the heritage sector, and although I went into the course with dreams of being a curator in a geological museum and now want to work with outdoor heritage, this shift in ambition is not due to any failing as part of the course (although I wouldn’t turn down an offer to be a curator!). If anything it has opened my eyes to the wide selection of avenues I can go down within the heritage sector and allowed me to develop new and exciting ideas for future research projects and career paths.
Looking to the future, after her doctorate Tiphaine would like to continue to work in terahertz technology, possibly as an independent consultant or working for an archive and using the technology she is pioneering. Gabrielle would like to see her current role become more research focused and ideally sees herself coordinating and stimulating further projects with the help of the MRes in introducing her to scientific practice. Pimpim and I would like to work towards further qualifications, either taking the form of an MPhil or PhD. My ambition would be to continue to work within the heritage sector but take a step back from collaborating only with museums and extend this to the outdoors, looking at cultural landscapes and our natural heritage.
To achieve our ambitions we have realised that one of the key issues is to engage with heritage professionals and organisations from an early stage. For me, becoming a member of the Museums Association was one of the first steps, as well as a member of the Institute of Conservation. In addition to this my project involves collaboration with as many professional societies associated with my field as possible. I would highly recommend this approach to anyone looking to enter the heritage sector, as even if job opportunities do not abound you will find you learn much more about your subject and other, new and exciting aspects of heritage you never even knew existed.