Fancy being a curator?

14 May 2014

With Wellcome Collection’s development project underway, the Youth Programme team wanted to recruit young people to develop their handling collection, to be used during study days and future projects. From January to April 2014, Visitor Experience Assistant Muriel Bailly had the chance to work alongside the team on a fantastic project called

Developing a new collection is always challenging, even for experienced curators. Luckily we had just the right people for the job: a group of nine young people aged 14 to 19 who volunteered to take part in the project. Over only five sessions they managed to acquire the most wonderful objects for our handling collection.

To help the group to become familiar with the museum’s collection, they visited our galleries on the first day of the project, as well as our stored collection at Blythe House. Needless to say, it was a heavy day for the participants. They had to absorb an incredible amount of information! Lesser individuals may have run away but the group bravely stuck to it, their curiosity triggered by our collection.

 The youth group get to grips with Henry Wellcome’s collection by visiting Blythe House. (©Wellcome Images)
[object Object]

The youth group get to grips with Henry Wellcome’s collection by visiting Blythe House. (©Wellcome Images)

Over the following sessions the group met with various key staff members at Wellcome Collection to get an understanding of all aspects of collection management. With Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, they discussed curatorial decision making: how do you decide what is worth acquiring and what isn’t? How do you create a narrative through your collection and how do you communicate this narrative effectively through label and panel writing?

Members of our Visitor Experience team, Jeremy Bryans and Rob Bidder (yes, the famous one from our Curious Conversations), explored the galleries’ handling collection with the group and discussed how we use it in context with visitors.

After these sessions, newly armed with information and insight, the group were ready to buy new objects for our collection. After seeing so much of our collections the group brainstormed and identified the main themes for the new objects: the history of medicine; body image; and the history of sexuality. By the end of a very long day of intense research on the internet, the group had acquired 14 objects linked to the themes identified. They got it spot on.

For instance, for the history of sexuality (to complement the Chinese sexual aids and Victorian anti masturbation device displayed in Medicine Man), we now have a collection of 1920s sexual education booklets which make for delightful reading:

“Never wear social dress to business. A low neck behind a counter or at a desk is as much out of place as high heels shoes and thin hose. Dress with becoming modesty.” Extract from Sex Facts for the Adolescent and Matured Woman by S. Dana Hubbard, M.D, New York.

 Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)
[object Object]

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

After ordering the objects, our young people met with conservators Stefania Signorello and Amy Junker Heslip to discuss the conservation and monitoring needs of the newly acquired collection.

Finally, for the last day of the project, the youth group curated their own exhibition. They put on a display of their objects in our brand new studio and delivered handling sessions, talks and had fun with visitors popping in.

 Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)
[object Object]

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

 Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)
[object Object]

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

I was aware we were asking much from these young people. Over only a few weeks they had to build familiarity not only with our large collection but also with the principles of collections management and develop the confidence to expose their work to other museum professionals, but they did it brilliantly. The success of this project is, to me, a perfect example of the wonderful things that can happen when you give voice to your audience and visitors. I hope to see more of this, both here at Wellcome Collection and elsewhere.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.