Work Experience at Abbotsford - The Home of Sir Walter Scott
I had been to Abbotsford as a tourist with the first Edinburgh Summer School, and I immediately fell in love with the place (especially the Library!). So when I had to do a month's work placement in a museum or historic house during my MA in Museum and Artefact Studies at Durham, Abbotsford was of course on my lists of institutions to contact. We had been advised to find a placement near our homes, or near relatives, so that we would not have to pay for accommodation; but frankly, the opportunity to work at Abbotsford was too good to pass up.
I found a tiny little B&B in Galashiels, near Abbotsford, which had very cheap single room rates, and I arranged for a small discount because I was staying for such a long time. Galashiels had all the facilities I needed - everything was within walking distance, from supermarkets to high street shops and a cinema, to a large bus station.
Abbotsford was in the middle of a massive restoration project. So immediately, from day one, I was immersed in what was going on in the House. I joined the Inventory Team whose job it was to identify, catalogue and photograph every single item inside the house, using a museum collections catalogue system called AdLib lite. The Team was there for 10 weeks overall, and I joined them for their last three, and I continued the inventory in the remaining week with the help of the Curator and the Conservator. I also occasionally joined the Conservator on a variety of smaller housekeeping duties: On my very first day I ended up helping her and another conservator checking insect traps, to check that no nasty wood worm or carpet beetle were eating the collections!
All of this experience was invaluable for my degree, and training me in Museums and Collections Care; and the staff at Abbotsford made sure I got a wide range of insights into the way the institution was run. I was introduced to all the staff who were immensely welcoming and helpful, I got to sit in on a variety of meetings, including one at the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh about joint collections ownership of the books at Abbotsford.
On a somewhat different note, I also got the opportunity to take a couple of guided tours around Abbotsford, as well as get involved in a number of special events, like the visit of the German Consul from Edinburgh.
After I graduated from Durham, and could not find a job straight after leaving uni, I once more contacted Abbotsford about volunteering for them - and I went back, and eventually got a paid position as Collections Assistant at the Abbotsford Trust. The project had entered its next stage, and all the content of the house that the Inventory Team and I had catalogued had been moved into temporary storage. As I was staying for longer this time, I managed to find a colleague who was willing to rent their spare room to me. My duties now included cataloguing the collections in more detail, and organising the stores, and optimising the museum catalogue. I also assisted the Conservator in the cleaning of the historic wood panelling at Abbotsford as well as the collections, all according to conservation standards, using tiny tools and special cleaning materials! I helped the Curator and other staff respond to a huge number of public enquiries, and did a great lot of research on Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott, and individual objects in the collections, including a longer piece of research on the Chinese Wallpaper in the Drawing Room, which got turned into the audio-visual display now on display. I helped the set up of the exhibition in the newly built Visitor Centre, and a touring exhibition at a number of locations around the Scottish Borders. When the Learning and Engagement Officer asked me to set up a Handling Collection for primary schools, my knowledge of the collections that I gained through the inventory came in rather handy! Knowing the collections so well meant I was asked to help with the creation of audio guides and the training of new room stewards - creating a huge folder of research about contemporary stories and anecdotes about the house and the objects in it, and about Scott and his family and friends.
I hugely enjoyed my time at Abbotsford, and I can only recommend it. From a career point of view, the experience I gained at Abbotsford was worth gold. So much and diverse work was going on during the project, the staff was enthusiastic, and always willing to help, and offering to get me involved with different aspects of museum work, even if it extended beyond my job description. It was difficult work often, and usually to a tight time schedule, but seeing the finished project, the new Visitor Centre a success, and the house newly refurbished and reopened, was hugely rewarding.
I was able to see through the project I started on during my work placement to the end, and the visit of Her Majesty the Queen for the Grand Opening!