Rachel Knight, head of exhibitions

 26 March 2013

Rachel is the Head of Exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum North. She describes how she rose to manage the exhibition department and shares three ways to enter into exhibitions.

"Heritage is a creative industry, so you must have passion." Image: Rachel Knight, Imperial War Museum North.

What is your hometown?

My home town is Stafford, in the West Midlands. I currently work in Stockport, in Greater Manchester.

What is your job title?

I'm the Head of Exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum North.

What qualifications did you do?

I achieved A Levels in History, English Literature and Art & Design. I didn’t know where I was heading in my career. I liked History, so I continued to study that at the University of Leicester.

"It's not easy getting a war tank from one place to another."

After a year travelling around the world, I realised that I wanted to work in a museum. I went back to the University of Leicester to do my MA course in Museum Studies, as it would give me an overview of how heritage worked.

At a later stage, I also did the Clore Leadership programme. This is a one-year programme in cultural leadership, and it helps you to get the right skills for arts and heritage jobs.

Why did you get into heritage?

While I was an undergraduate, I volunteered with the National Trust during my holidays. I worked at a house in Shropshire and catalogued the collection, so collection items could be repaired and then redisplayed in their proper place.

It was really interesting work and it brought my interest in history alive. That's when I knew I wanted to work in museums. So I started writing to lots of museums and asked for voluntary work experience.

What previous jobs did you do?

After graduating, I moved to Ireland and applied to museums in the city of Cork. I got an entry level job at the Old English Jail and Radio Museum, as a Museum Assistant. My tasks included managing bookings front of house, conducting guided tours and talks to visitors, and helping run the corporate events

When I moved back to the UK, I got a role as Exhibition Assistant at Imperial Museum North when the museum was just being set up.

"You'll be motivated to do the work because you know the end result will be great."

I did a lot of administration in previous part-time roles – working in retail, and as a receptionist in an optician shop – so I could use these skills when I did collections management administration. I also helped research the exhibitions and install the collections.

From managing small displays, I began taking care of large long-term displays when I was promoted to Exhibition Manager. When the Head of Exhibitions post opened, I applied and got the job because of my past experience.

What tasks do you do in your job?

My tasks include:

  • managing the exhibitions team 
  • organising offers for families and children
  • working with marketing material
  • arranging showcase displays
  • planning future exhibitions.

The Imperial War Museum collections are so vast and unusual – including films, jeeps and tanks – it's important to figure out travelling exhibitions in advance. For example, it's not easy getting a war tank from one place to another.

You have to work closely with the other Imperial War Museum sites, and help the curators and historians make the exhibitions happen.

There are also a lot of meetings. There are meetings to train other members of staff, discuss exhibitions, discuss funding, solve problems or just make sure everything is running smoothly.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Seeing visitors engaging with your exhibitions is very rewarding. Some visitors are moved to tears because your work communicates history to them in a powerful way.

And the worst thing?

"Someone who enjoys challenges will enjoy working in an exhibition department."

Leading up to the opening of a large exhibition, you have to cope with a lot of pressure and stress. If you love exhibitions, you'll be motivated to do the work because you know the end result will be great.

How do I get into heritage?

The three things that I think are important are to:

1. Always persevere.

It can take a while to break into the heritage industry. The best approach is to be open to opportunities.

Adapt yourself to fit into roles and think about what roles would suit your skills.

2. Do volunteering at an early stage

Volunteering is important to understand the types of roles available in museums and give you practical hands-on experience.

If you get junior experience in most heritage departments, you'll have a good grounding to launch your career. 

3. Develop your skills.

For me, someone who enjoys challenges will enjoy working in an exhibition department. Having resilience to keep going when it's busy, and thinking on your feet, are the right qualities needed for the role. 

Heritage is a creative industry, so you must have passion. You may not need a degree – though this helps if you apply to senior roles – but you do need to have a head for learning.

Why is heritage important?

Heritage is the glue that sticks society together and gives meaning to our lives. We can engage with it, discovering more about the things around us, and it can be enjoyable.

The Imperial War Museum collects and preserves history – from the First World War to the impact of war on modern life – and helps to raise questions about how history is recorded.

 

Rachel is part of our heritage experts panel. Ask Rachel a question about working in heritage.


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