Peter Sillitoe, researcher

 21 March 2013

Peter Sillitoe is the Research Associate for the Shalt Project (Shakespearean London Theatres). He explains how he got into research and the path he chose.

Some of Shakespeare's theatres are unknown to the public, but Peter Sillitoe uncovers the details about these mysterious locations. Image: P
Some of Shakespeare's theatres are unknown to the public, but Peter Sillitoe uncovers the details about these mysterious locations. Image: P

What is your home town?

Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

What is your job title?

Research Associate for 'ShaLT' – Shakespearean London Theatres – which is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project. It aims to share academic resources on historical sites during Shakespeare's time, with the general public.

What qualifications did you do?

I did a BA in English, followed by a MA in English at the University of Wales, Bangor. As I wanted to follow an academic career, I continued my academic studies and passed my PhD in 2007.

I decided to move to Ireland for two years, to be at University College Cork, where I was a Marie Curie Researcher. This was a funded research position, which I did while working on my own book called ‘Performing Spaces’.

My last qualification was a PCHE higher education course that helped my professional development. It focused on teaching, which is an important part of the researcher role. I have found that staff need to demonstrate teaching skills if they want to enter into academic research.

Why did you get into heritage?

I really enjoyed the research side of the MA and I wanted to go more in depth in this area for my career. In the Second year of my BA in particular, I was very interested in Shakespearean and Renaissance literature. I liked the history side of things, for example, looking at the historical context, society and politics surrounding the texts.

"I am constantly in touch with people to find out answers to questions."

The idea for the Shalt project came from other scholars that worked in the area, and I applied out of interest. It aims to cover 400 years of academic knowledge – including theatre locations, playwrights, plays, Shakespeare – and it aims to share this with people outside of universities.

A lot of people have heard of Shakespeare's Globe and the Rose theatres, but 400 years ago, there were more than 20 sites that made up the vibrant industry. I wanted to share the cultural heritage of these sites with people.

What do you do in your job?

I work for De Montfort University in Leicester, but I am also some of the time at the V&A Museum. The project is a 'knowledge transfer' that gives away the historical and scientific research available from both institutions.

A big part of my role is to put together the content for the key outputs. I have had to write content for the guide, update the website database with correct information, and check on press and publicity. I am constantly in touch with people to find out answers to questions.

It can also be spontaneous work. I had to brainstorm with the rest of the team about the guest speakers for our V&A Lecture series event. The aim was to get the best academics with the best knowledge. They were also chosen as they could present their ideas in an accessible way for the general public.

"I wanted to share the cultural heritage of these sites with people."

At the beginning of the project, I was in the V&A National Art Library, which houses hundreds of Renaissance books and folios. At the same time, I wanted to share the neglected side of theatre history and open it up to people, by giving theatre history a face and a story.

Working through them all, we selected about 80 books for photographing and displaying on our website. I was keeping in mind what books would create interesting information for the public, visually and intellectually.

I did a lot of ‘old fashioned’ research where I went through all the catalogues by hand. I was looking for resources that would best help our project so I had to use my judgement to decide what was of use.

For the project, we also created a London-wide walking map (pdf) and that was something I worked on for several months. I was researching the historical buildings in the city and I really got a sense geographically of how the city worked. This map includes the historic venues that people know of, like the Globe, but also places that are new to public knowledge.

The theatre buildings are all mostly gone, and in some places there aren't any remains left. The map shows the archaeological traces, and although you can’t see the actual buildings, you know they were there.

I work in the ‘theatre of the imagination’, where I help people stand on a spot and bring the historical significance back to life. Some venues are still standing untouched, like the Banqueting House, while the reconstructed Globe and St Paul's are second versions that have been rebuilt. 

What’s the best thing about your role?

It is varied. I will be doing different things. I could be working on academic public engagement, working on information about a theatre dig, finding information on St. Paul's, I’ve learnt so much about technology and digital manipulations, which are skills that I didn’t have at the beginning.

How do I get into heritage?

The four pieces of advice I can give are:

1. Work towards an academic career

Unlike different careers, you cannot have an academic career if you don’t have a PHD, so you have to be prepared to do this.

You will need research skills, but you also need people skills to be able to approach different groups and address different audiences.

2. Look at different types of research

I’ve been involved in pure research, and by that, I mean a PhD and publications aimed at specialists in the field.

3. Be open to learning at any stage

I have knowledge in my head, but I come from a literature background, and not theatre history. I came to this project with a certain amount of theatre knowledge already, but I came from a literary and historical background.

I was given the first three months of this two-year project to plough through theatre history books. I then had a basis for applying it to my work.

4. Get support from professionals

If you want to get published in research journals, try to publish in the highest quality publications you can.

The peer review system (where academics read and comment on whether your work is publishable or not) will decide if your work can be deemed 'successful'.

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