In our final episode of this series of Unravel the Arts, Sanjna and Jaanvi speak to members of staff at a museum that celebrates the history of Warwickshire.
About Episode #6
Your podcast presenters Sanjna and Jaanvi speak to Dominique Gardner (Exhibitions and Engagement Officer – Learning and Community Engagement) and Jon Radley (Curator of Natural Sciences) for Heritage & Culture Warwickshire (HCW).
HCW care for and provide engagement with the collections of Warwickshire County Council, some of which are on display at Market Hall Museum in the centre of Warwick.
How to listen
Full episode transcript
[Jon Radley] One way to define our county is really through its heritage, through its history. And to do that, you know, we need to keep the material evidence. So that’s why, you know, we still have the museum and why we still have curators looking after the material. Because we’re not just trying to keep that for the present and for our displays. We’re actually trying to keep this material in principle forever.
[Jaanvi] Hello, and welcome to Unravel the Arts.
[Sanjna] I’m Sanjna.
[Jaanvi] And I’m Jaanvi.
[S] And we’re members of Shout Out for the Arts.
[J] Shout Out for the Arts is a group of young people and organisations. Their aim is to give children and the younger generation in Warwickshire, a voice to shout out for access to arts and culture.
[S] On today’s final episode of this series we met up with Dominique and Jon at Market Hall Museum in Warwick.
[J] We recorded this conversation in the museum so you might hear some noise in the background.
[S] So, let’s get into the interview.
[J] I’m Jaanvi.
[S] I’m Sanjna.
[JR] I’m Jon. Curator of Natural Sciences here.
[Dominique Gardner] I’m Dominique. Exhibitions and Engagement Officer.
[DG] So my name’s Dominique Gardner. I’m Exhibitions and Engagement Officer here at the Market Hall Museum in Warwick.
[J] Cool, so do you mind telling us what your job actually is?
[DG] I’m kind of tasked with bringing out the stories and the objects through displays in the gallery.
[J] Nice. That’s really cool. So do you have a specific department that you work in or?
[DG] So I work across, I sit within the LAAs team, so it’s the Learning and Access team. I work across the collections, so work quite closely with our two curators. So we’ve got Jon who’s the curator of natural sciences. So everything to do with the natural world really. And then we’ve got Sara who’s the curator of human history. And we work together, it’s very collaborative, and it’s just all about sharing as many stories and items from our collection as possible.
[J] What three words would best describe your job?
[DG] That’s a good question. I would say creative, collaborative, certainly because it’s really really important in exhibitions to kind of work across everyone in the museum. And fun because I get to see amazing objects and amazing stories and hear about all these people that kind of had a huge impact on Warwickshire. So yeah, those three words I would say.
[J] And what does like a typical day in your job look like?
[DG] So, a typical day could involve heading out to one of the libraries in Warwickshire in the morning. We’ve currently got a touring exhibition in a bid to kind of make more of our collection accessible. So I would perhaps go to Bedworth library in the morning and then install one of the exhibitions there.
Our current exhibition is ‘Warwickshire Under the Sea’, so we’re looking at prehistoric marine life. So everywhere around here used to be under the sea, Jon would be able to tell you much more. And it’s, which is why we’ve got loads of fossils in the collection of kind of ichthyosaurs and other sea creatures like that.
So that’s on in the libraries at the moment. So maybe I would go to Bedworth, install that. Come back and then I do a lot of text writing. So write a lot of text panels for upcoming exhibitions. That’s probably what I would spend the rest of the afternoon doing.
[J] You said you’d like like telling stories. Have you got like a favourite one that you really like telling or?
[DG] I think there’s so much we try and change our displays and our exhibitions. So it tends to really be what I’m working on at the time, I would say. So next year, we’re going to have an exhibition on rivers and waterways throughout Warwickshire. So, looking at canals and different ways of living on the canals and the rivers. So at the moment, I’m doing a lot of work on that and writing lots of stuff about that. So I’m really into that at the moment. But then kind of working on something else and kind of get inspired by something else.
[J] So it kind of changes depending on what exhibition you’re planning?
[DG] I would say so yeah. A really nice story we do have is about the Great Fire of Warwick, which was in the end of the 1600s. And that’s a really important story for the town of Warwick. And we’ve got documents in the collection that tell that story. So that’s something that’s quite exciting.
[S] What’s been one of your favourite exhibitions you’ve done?
[DG] So last year, we did an exhibition on, so we were marking the Commonwealth Games and the fact that Warwick hosted the road race, which was the cycling. So it went through the town.
[J] Yeah yeah.
[DG] So we did an exhibition on cycling, and we tried to make it as fun as possible and exciting. So we borrowed like a huge Penny Black from Birmingham Museums, and we put that on display. And we also looked at children’s bikes, so my two boys donated their bikes. They were really excited to see those on display.
[DG] So that was really good. And we had some kind of fun and quirky bikes. So we had a bike made out of bamboo, which is like the new kind of sustainable material to make bikes out of. So yeah, I really enjoyed doing that one.
[S] What’s the best part of your job?
[DG] It’s probably, so two things. It’d be working with the collection and working with all of the people at the museum. So it’s a really great team. We’re a quite small team. It’s a huge collection. So there’s a lot of stories to tell. So I would say those two things, working with the objects and working with the people and kind of creating things together as a team.
[J] What like inspired you to like go down this career?
[DG] So, I studied History. And then I went on to study Museum Studies. And to kind of get into museums. I’ve always tended to work in museums with kind of niche collections. So I was at The Postal Museum before this and then prior to that I was at a regimental museum.
So I really enjoy those kind of museums where you wouldn’t necessarily think there was something for everyone but there always is, and there’s always a really exciting story to be found. And so then that’s kind of led me to where I am now.
[S] What can you tell us about your current exhibition?
[DG] So the exhibition at the moment on the ground floor, we’ve got three different themes. We’ve got farming in Warwickshire which is a really nice one. So for that we’ve pulled out case studies of different, of individual farm labourers from the kind of 18th 19th century.
We also looked at a local family where there was a lady farming in the 1950s and she was farming. And she kind of took over and ran the farm in a really amazing way. So we’ve got some of her stories.
We’ve also got 1920s dresses on display, which is nice. It’s a chance to get some of our social history collection out and just look at nice sparkly things. Which is always nice.
[J] Yeah we all love that.
[DG] Yeah. We’ve got like a dance mat where you can do Charleston and all of that. So we launched that back in November. So we kind of linked up to the Strictly mania when that was on TV. So that was really nice to do.
And the third thing we’ve got downstairs is looking at our Commonwealth, so different people moving into Warwickshire and what they’ve kind of offered and what they could do. And that’s been great because that’s really inspiring people coming in and kind of seeing different objects they wouldn’t necessarily expect to see.
[J] What would you give as advice to people that are looking to pursue this type of career?
[DG] I think anyone can do it. You just need to have an interest in sharing stories. So whether it’s history, whether it’s archaeology, whether it’s science background, there are museums and spaces, heritage sites for that, that really look at everything. So I’d say just be interested in everything and maybe see if they’ve kind of work experience roles and things like that, that you can do, which really helps give you an insight into working in the field.
[S] How long have you been at this job for?
[DG] So I’ve only been here about a year and a half. And that followed a break where I had my two boys. And so I’ve been in museums probably for about 10, 15 years.
[J] What’s the most exciting experience you’ve ever had in this role?
[DG] Well I mean that’s a big question.
[DG] I think the most exciting experience will definitely have been putting some of the sort of stories on display. So downstairs we’ve got an exhibition on the land army in the Second World War. So looking at women’s contributions, that’s come directly from a donation from a local resident whose mum was a land girl and she donated her uniform and other items and photographs and things to us. And that’s a gift to a museum because you can really kind of tell the whole of the story. So that was really exciting, because I’m really interested in military history. So I really enjoyed that aspect being told, that kind of untold history.
[J] Have you always known that you wanted to go into this area of jobs?
[DG] I’ve always loved museums. Yeah. And National Trusts and things like that and history books. But I would say even if that isn’t you, it doesn’t mean that there’s not kind of a career for you to be made. Because the opportunities now in museums, they’re kind of only getting bigger really because you can. There’s loads of digital aspects, which obviously just weren’t around. Like the social media side of things for museums is huge. So you get museums now, kind of going viral because of their social media, which is something that obviously wasn’t, wasn’t happening back in the day.
So there’s loads of different opportunities, I would say but yeah, personally, I’ve just always loved history and I’ve always loved the kind of people in it and loved reading about them. So it’s a real privilege to come to work and be able to study all of that every day. And I’m always going home and boring my family with all the stories from work.
[J] I’m sure they’re not boring.
[DG] I hope not, no, no.
[S] Do you have to sometimes repeat different exhibitions every so often? Or do you always bring out something new?
[DG] Good question. We don’t tend to, we would try not to repeat, but some of our objects we would bring out possibly something that had been on display maybe five years ago. We would maybe bring it out again, if it fitted with the theme. If that was what we needed to kind of drive that exhibition forward.
But that’s a really good question because we have some things on display. Like the Sheldon tapestry behind you, the bees, which I’ll show you in a minute. We’ve got a beehive in the other room. I mean, that’s been in place for 70 years. It’s like it’s really well known in Warwick and people will come in and they came as children are now bringing their grandchildren to come see the bees. So you have some permanent things. And then other things that you kind of swap in and out. And but yeah, great question because I think it’s always that balance. You want to share as much as possible. But yeah, you’ve got to kind of be mindful that kind of object overload for people.
[S] Is the tapestry, the longest thing that’s been here?
[DG] So the bees are 70 years. Let’s ask Jon that question. So Jon’s a curator of natural sciences, so he’s in charge of all the fossils and the dinosaurs and things like that, and much more, he can probably provide a better answer.
Reverend Brody, who we’ve recreated his office through there. He was one of the very first curators of the museum. And that was about 170 years ago. So we’re one of the very first local authority museums, which means we started collecting a long time ago. And some of, I know for a fact, some of the fossils, they were with us and then now at the Natural History Museum in London. So things do move. So I don’t have to give you a definitive what was the very first thing we had but quiz Jon on that. That would be a great question for him.
[J] Um, yeah, so thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and hearing about your job. We’re really excited to hear more.
[DG] Oh, you’re more than welcome. It’s been really lovely having you here and it’s just always nice talking to people about it. So thanks for being so interested.
[JR] I’m Jon Radley. I am curator of Natural Sciences for Warwickshire Museum, which is part of Heritage and Culture Warwickshire.
[J] So to start, can you explain what you do in your role?
[JR] Fundamentally, I look after and care for the natural science collections. The county’s natural science collections and by natural science, I’m talking about natural history and geology. So breaking that down a little bit. We’re looking at our collections of taxidermy, the stuffed animals, we’ve got skeletons. We have what is known as a herbarium, which is basically an archive of pressed plants. So it’s a very sort of important sort of ecological resource. And then the geology collections so that’s the rocks and minerals and the fossils.
So one aspect of the job is looking after all of this stuff. We’re looking at literally 10s or even hundreds of 1000s of individual objects, some of which were collected a long, long time ago, but it’s also about using these objects as well. So using them for interpretation and for displays. Like some of the displays we’ve got around us here in the museum, and just using them really for the public benefit. So sort of events, activities, talks, that sort of thing, and also allowing people into our stores to look at the objects. And obviously in this day and age you know, we use them for websites, social media, that sort of thing.
[S] How long have you been doing this role for?
[JR] I’ve been doing this role in this particular museum for nearly 24 years now. Well say this role my job has changed. I started out in a very sort of narrow focus role. Looking specifically after the geology collections, cause that’s my background. I’m a geologist by profession,but as the years have gone on, my role has broadened. And, you know, I’ve come to look after the natural history collections as well. Yeah, I’ve been working for the museum for nearly 24 years now.
[J] So what does an average day look like?
[JR] There isn’t really such a thing as an average day, there honestly isn’t. I mean, let’s have a think about what I’ve done today, which isn’t an average day but then again, I’ve just said there isn’t such a thing as an average day, so today is kind of like a normal day. I started out at our collection centre. So I drove there from home, straight from home. So I was at our collection centre for meeting with Dom, that was a Teams meeting. So a virtual meeting, about work that we’re doing in libraries, exhibitions that we’re doing in libraries.
I then had a face to face meeting with one of our managers and a couple of other members of staff about a possible bid that we’re putting in to get some money for a big collections based project. I then had to come back here for a lunchtime meeting about the new museum leaflet, followed by a one to one, like a little catch up with my manager, also here at the museum and now this. So, there’s no such thing as an average day. That’s, I suppose, really what you call a normal day.
[S] How would you describe your job in 3 words?
[JR] In 3 words. Challenging and fun, if I had 4 words I would probably say challenging and sometimes fun. So, yeah, let’s say challenging and fun.
[J] Nice. So you said that you bring out all this stuff when, when you’re having exhibitions, and events and stuff. So where do you keep it all before that, like?
[JR] Yeah, I mean, we, what we’ve got on display here in the museum is really the tip of the iceberg. I don’t know how many objects we’ve got on display in the museum. But certainly what we’ve got here you know, are some of our best and some of our most interesting objects in the collection. But the collections themselves are held at the place that I mentioned earlier, our collection centre, which is a couple of miles out of town.
This is basically a facility owned by Warwickshire County Council, where all of our collections are held under one roof. So all of the hundreds of 1000s of objects there from right across our collections. So that’s not just the stuff that I care for the natural history and the geology but also the archaeology, and the social history. The costume collections they are all held under one roof.
[J] You said you were a geologist before. So what inspired you to get into museums and histories as well as that?
[JR] Yeah. I kind of fell into museums a little bit by accident. I’d always been very very keen on museums. When I grew up, museums were quite different to how they are today. And they were places where there were a lot more sort of dedicated geology museums around. It was a lot easier then I think to learn about sort of specific subjects in the museum. We kind of do things differently these days, at least in museums of this size.
So I was always very, very interested in museums and always visited a lot of museums, but really just sort of focused on geology. I was actually training for a possible career in the oil industry when a museum job that I liked the look of came up. This was wow, roundabout 1990. So we’re looking at what over 30 years ago now. In 1991 a job came up in a little museum on the Isle of Wight which was a particularly exciting area, dinosaurs and things like that. So I kind of waited up I thought I can go for this or I can stay with the oil industry. So in the end, I went for the museum job, got that and yeah I’ve pretty much been in museums ever since.
[S] What’s the oldest piece of well like history have you got here?
[JR] The oldest geological specimens. I mean, I suppose in terms of the actual age of the objects themselves. We’ve got specimens in our collection, rocks, that are probably at least 2 billion years old and older than that, probably 3 billion years old. You know, 3000 million years in age, but they’re not from Warwickshire.
These days, we collect mainly Warwickshire material and the very oldest geological specimens that we have from Warwickshire are roundabout, probably about 600 million years old. So over half a billion years in age. In terms of when these objects were collected, we’ve got specimens in our collection that were probably collected, you know, up to maybe sort of 2, 300 years ago. The objects themselves can be a lot older.
[S] What’s one of your favourite exhibitions here?
[JR] One group of objects that I’m very very keen on. They’re not on display in this gallery. We have hand-axes made by our human ancestors that are nearly half a million years old. They come from Warwickshire And because they’re so old, they they kind of start to sort of transcend the sort of boundaries between archaeology and geology, but I suppose that they’re kind of found in geological deposits, but they’re actually man made.
So you’ve got this lovely sort of balance of geology and archaeology and also within the same deposits, we find remains of extinct animals, extinct species of elephants, so you’ve got a bit of natural history coming in as well. So although they’re, I suppose strictly speaking archaeology, which isn’t my remit here at the museum, I do love these hand-axes as they kind of bring everything together.
[S] What advice would you give to any young people who are wanting to pursue this career?
[JR] Things have changed a lot. I mean, to be honest, it was a lot easier getting into museums when I first started out, it’s a lot more competitive now. So I would say, be qualified. You know, find the qualification that you need, but also just work hard and be enthusiastic as well. And just be prepared really to, you know, have to work hard. Or ultimately, you might actually get your first paid job in a museum. Voluntary work is a great way into museum work these days. So just work hard and stay enthusiastic.
[J] So why do you think it’s important to keep museums going and keep this history going today for the younger generations?
[JR] Well I mean history is very, very important. I mean, I suppose when we’re talking about the sort of things that I work on the natural science collections. I mean, one example is for example, I mentioned our herbarium, which is this sort of archive of fossil plants. Things that have been collected here in the county for a couple of 100 years now and actually we’re starting to see how they are forming a very, very important archive that can sort of inform our appreciation and sort of habitat change, you know, which feeds into climate change.
So there are specific examples like that, why we have to, or, you know, very good justification for keeping our collections. But I think on a broader level, when you look at a county like Warwickshire, one way to define our county is really through its heritage through its history. And to do that, you know, we need to keep the material evidence. So that’s why we still have the museum and why we still have curators looking after the material because we’re not just trying to keep it for the present and for our displays. We’re actually trying to keep this material in principle forever.
So a large part of our job is making sure that we’re keeping our specimens and their documentation,in just the right conditions so they’re not going to deteriorate or decay. So it’s really partly about the identity of the county as well and education as well of course.
[J] You said you had an archive for pressed plants, was it?
[J] Do you have other archives for like, different aspects and different characteristics of?
[JR] Well in terms of the natural history the collections are very varied. We’ve got this very sort of important archive, the press plants and when you look at the collection, all you can really see are two sort of boxes. It looks more like a library than a museum collection.
But then obviously you’ve got the other extreme, for example, the taxidermy, the stuffed animals. Not everyone likes them. Some people think they’re fantastic, but you know if you walked into the taxidermy collection, it’s like sort of walking into a zoo really. You’re just walk into a room full of stuffed animals, birds, fish, this sort of thing, they’re all sitting on shelves, they’re all documented. So yeah, our collections come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
[J] Do you have a favourite collection or archive?
[JR] It would be easy for me to say I love the geology collection as that’s what I’m used to. I’m actually really fond of the taxidermy collection. I mean, I didn’t come into this job as a natural historian, I kind of adopted the natural history collections. But actually, the natural history, amongst the natural history collections, the taxidermy is really, really interesting.
You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate them. I mean, just looking at something like a really well prepared stuffed fox or something like that, you know, the sort of animal that you might only see at a distance these days. It’s the sort of thing that I think anyone can appreciate.
[S] Thank you so much for talking to us. I really enjoyed it.
[JR] That’s alright. It’s a pleasure. I’ve enjoyed it as well. Thank you.
[J] Thanks to Dominique and John’s for coming on the show.
[S] If you want to get involved or find out more, visit our website at shoutoutforthearts.co.uk
You’ve been listening to me, Sanjna.
[J] And me Jaanvi.
[S] And we hope you enjoyed unravelling the art with us.
[J] Series one that’s a wrap.
Photos by Shout Out for the Arts.