Putting Learning into Practice

My summer student placement with Elmbridge Museum

Starting out

My name is Anita, and I’m studying MA Art Museum and Gallery Studies at the University of Leicester. I worked at Elmbridge Museum from July to September 2023 for my summer placement.

Anita next to her 'Silent Services in Action' exhibition, September 2023.

Anita next to her ‘Silent Services in Action’ exhibition, September 2023.

The two months spent with the museum team and volunteers was tremendously valuable. My main task was to develop an exhibition, with the general theme of the historic emergency services. There was to be a physical exhibition at Walton Library, followed up with an online exhibition on the Museum’s website. The aim was for the display to provide an overview of Elmbridge Museum’s collections related to this theme, with the online exhibition going into more detail and being more accessible to a wider audience.

To begin with, aside from being introduced to the exhibitions side of the Museum, I had different sessions with the other Officers in the team. This included Learning, Collections, and Museum Management, and gave me a full insight of every aspect of the Museum’s day-to-day work.

20 September 2023
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Some of the resources in the Local Studies roomSome of the resources in the Local Studies room

Preparing for the display

For the physical exhibition, Amy, who was my manager for the placement as well as being the Museum’s Exhibitions and Interpretation Officer, supported me a lot. Getting an insight into the behind-the-scenes processes, taking a look at the exhibitions schedule and the stages involved in putting together a display provided me the knowledge, practical skills, confidence and freedom to start developing my own exhibition.

At the start, Amy drove me to the different display cabinets around the borough and gave me an insight into how I could approach the theme of the emergency services through a display. Since the goal of Elmbridge Museum is to engage local communities across the borough in their history in an accessible way, the layout of the exhibition needed to be able to spark interest. In preparation, I spent a week researching the emergency services in local areas, spending a lot of time in the local studies room the museum has at the Civic Centre. This is filled with handy books and some archive material on topics of local relevance, offering detail which would have been difficult to discover if I had only used the internet for my research. The time I invested in my research during the first week improved my research skills, while also enabling me to produce richer and more relevant information for the display. It also helped a lot in the coming weeks when I started to develop the narrative for the online exhibition.

Search results in the EMu collections database

Search results in the EMu collections database

After learning about the history of emergency services both in the local area and nationwide, Amy showed me the museum’s collections management system EMu, which enables the team to efficiently search and discover objects in the collection. It would be challenging to locate an object without this database given the sheer quantity of objects which the museum cares for – over 40,000 in total. I had a play around on the system and enjoyed looking at the photographs and catalogue information. It was incredibly exciting for me to have the chance to view a museum’s collection for the first time. 

After conducting research using the archives and documents accessible in the museum study room, and becoming familiar with the online database, I began the process of designing the narrative for my exhibition. My research skills were substantially improved as a result, especially when using physical paper materials.

Prior to designing my overall layout, I first considered various themes that could be introduced in more detail and brought to life by showcasing objects from the collection.


Visiting the Store

Since there was limited space in the display cabinet the major problem I thought about was how to choose what to display from the many fascinating objects in the store. Throughout this process, Amy supported and guided me through, as well as providing me with the confidence to trust in myself to develop a great exhibition. After measuring, photographing and videoing various objects related to my exhibition topic at the museum stores, I decided on the final objects I wanted to use in the display. I then started to draft the labels, the poster and the leaflets, which was straightforward and based on the research I had already completed. I also started to draft the text for the online exhibition at the same time as working on the physical display.

Photographing items in the stores A St. John's Ambulance cap

Photographing items in the stores A St. John's Ambulance jacket

Photographing items in the stores A Weybridge Fire Brigade helmet

Mock-up and installation

Before the installation, Amy and I returned to the store to collect the items I had chosen for display, and then met with Sue, the Collections Officer, to do a mock-up of the exhibition so that we could see how everything fitted together and adjust appropriately. The mock-up was handy and ensured that the actual installation would be a more efficient process by working through any issues beforehand. I was really pleased to spend time with Sue and learn more about collections care and benefit from her detailed knowledge of the collection. Amy and Sue guided me through the installation and showed me how to install an exhibition professionally.

Editing the 'Silent Services in Action' online exhibition on Elmbridge Museum's website content management system.Editing the 'Silent Services in Action' online exhibition on Elmbridge Museum's website content management system.

Creating the Online Exhibition

I also created an online exhibition to accompany the physical display. This covered the same topics but meant I was able to expand on the emergency services theme. Even though it took a bit longer than anticipated, I really enjoyed the process of developing the online exhibition which involved drafting the interpretation, designing the layout and formatting the content. The challenge I encountered was figuring out how to deliver the content of the online exhibition without repeating the actual display. I tackled this by attempting to put forward alternative perspectives and different wording so there wasn’t too much overlap. I was able to go into much greater detail in the online exhibition and display a far larger number of images of numerous artefacts. 

Visit Anita's online exhibition
Anita in the store with Sue, undertaking a pest inspection.Anita in the store with Sue, undertaking a pest inspection.


Whilst working on my exhibition project I also attended a training session about collections management, took part in the monthly museum team emergency plan exercise and visited the collections stores with Sue to do the regular pest inspection. This is something I had only learnt about during my university course so getting the opportunity to look at the pest traps and the tiny but harmful insects, was brilliant. Pests are more likely to be present during the summer, therefore we needed to make sure the objects were securely packaged and boxed.

I also spent time with Jodie, the Learning and Outreach Officer. I learnt how to create workshops for different target audiences, and together we developed a series of activities to deliver at the Brooklands Museum Emergency Services Day event in September.

I also had the opportunity to meet with Ellie, the Museum Manager. She gave me an insight into museum management, funding, the Arts Council England Accreditation scheme and some of the various facets of running a museum. She even helped me with career planning, gave me tips on how to apply for jobs in the UK museum industry and helped to update my resume, all of which was very beneficial to my future professional development.

Last but not least, I had a discussion with Nathalie, the Marketing and Communications Officer, about the promotion plan for the exhibition I created, as well as gaining insights into her process when advertising an event.  

The team on Anita's last day

The team on Anita’s last day

Besides spending time with the museum staff, I had several conversations with the Museum’s volunteers, who are all experts in their field and passionate about the local area. Elmbridge Museum has a dedicated volunteer team who help with researching local history enquiries and updating the collections database.

Despite the skills I have been honing over the past two months, I found that talking to people has given me confidence and inspired me to be more sure-footed in the future, while my creative thinking ability has significantly improved. 

My overall understanding of how a museum operates has favourably increased as a result of the placement. After independently curating an exhibition with help from my placement supervisor, I now have a good grasp of how to develop a display from start to finish. I have developed first-hand understanding of how to assemble display items, create layouts, write interpretation, and install objects, as well as other elements of extra engagement initiatives and how the exhibition will be promoted.

Reflecting on the Placement

Every activity I took part in made me feel motivated and tremendously delighted, and applying my knowledge to benefit local residents has given me a sense of achievement and responsibility. I had a great experience here while learning something new and developing my skills; in fact, my time at Elmbridge Museum has fuelled my ambition to work in the sector in the future. Hopefully the work I have done can positively impact the people of Elmbridge. If you get a chance, please visit the online exhibition and head over to my display at Walton Library or one of the other exhibition locations to learn more about local history! 

Find out how to visit Anita's display

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