We are always proud to showcase industry insights and engage our readers with the range of jobs available within the heritage sector. Luckily for us, Contributor Alison Kitchener is well-connected, and has a friend who works as an Assistant Archivist at Valence House Museum.
Clare, very kindly, agreed to be interviewed by Alison, who put her ‘Honey Hat’ on for the occasion. Lets find out what happened when Alison met Clare…
The beautiful surroundings of Valence House Museum.
Alison Kitchener: Can you let the readers know a little about your historical journey? What led you to becoming an Assistant Archivist?
Clare Sexton: It all began with Mr Startup. He was my history teacher at secondary school. And I absolutely loved him. His lessons were so interesting and fun! I went on to study history at the University of Kent. In the third year, I attended a talk on careers for history graduates, and found out about how lots of archives offer paid one year traineeships/placements for graduates. This sort of role sounded perfect for me!
So after university, I started applying for every Archive Traineeship there was! Eventually, I got an interview and was super pleased and excited to be offered my dream job as Trainee Archivist at the Imperial War Museum. I then undertook a further graduate role at Lambeth Palace Library, before being accepted on to the postgraduate course in Archives and Records Management at University College London in 2010.
UCL, where Clare studied a postgraduate course in Archives and Records Management. Warning…it isn’t always this sunny in London!
On graduating, I took up a position for six months as the Project Archivist, responsible for cataloguing the records of the Royal College of Midwives. The experience gained during this time, enabled me to go on and get my first permanent job as Assistant Archivist at Valence House Museum.
AK: Have you always been a history buff – do you need to be one to be an Archivist?
CS: Working in archives has probably made me more passionate about sharing my interest in history, and making history exciting and accessible for all.
My archivist friends and I joke about putting the ‘sexy back’ into archives and changing the stereotypical image of archivists – slightly frumpy cardigan wearing ladies.
You don’t have to have a background in history to become an archivist. I have met other professional archivists that studied archaeology, English literature and French at university.
AK: You work at Valence House Museum in Dagenham, which houses the local history archive for Barking and Dagenham. Can you tell us about what your role entails on a day to day basis?
CS: My job is all about collecting and preserving archives on the history of Barking and Dagenham. This involves primarily meeting with donors, and then appraising, sorting and repackaging this archive material. I am also involved in making the archive collection accessible to current as well as future researchers, through cataloguing, and interpretation, such as talks, articles and displays. I supervise researchers viewing archive material in the reading room as well as looking after the storage areas e.g. making sure they are kept at the optimum environmental conditions.
We have lots of events as well at Valence House. I often help with children’s craft sessions. These events usually involve all the staff getting dressed up in historical costumes. It is brilliant fun. I especially loved being a Suffragette at the Local History Fair. I even made the ‘votes for women’ sash myself! More recently, I was a munitions worker with TNT poisoning from the First World War. (I even painted by face yellow!)
Edwardian fun at Valence House Musuem.
AK: What advice would you give to someone who is looking into working as an Archivist?
CS: Go for it! The job is varied. I am honestly never bored at work. There is also the opportunity to work at all different places/for all different organisations from museums, charities, business, universities etc.
You get to see and handle some truly amazing historical documents. The documents that make history!
You should be aware that unfortunately it is all very difficult/ competitive these days. If I was doing it all again now, I think I would really struggle. For a start you need lots of voluntary experience just to get a traineeship, which are sadly increasingly scarce. Also not everyone is in a position to do this.
To make matters worse there is no longer any funding to do the postgraduate qualification. Of course the other thing is the pay isn’t great. You’ll need to be incredibly determined, as well as passionate about history!
AK: Would you recommend volunteering in order to get experience?
CS: Volunteering will help you gain an understanding of what archives do, how they work and whether a career in archives is for you. Make sure you read the descriptions of voluntary opportunities carefully, and apply only for those which offer the type of experience you are seeking in locations where you would be prepared to work.
You don’t want to end up sitting in a dark room transcribing endless documents or data imputing all day!
AK: As you work with local history, are there any tips you can give to people about what they should keep or preserve?
CS: I would advise people to keep anything that means something to them. The sort of material that archives are interested in collecting includes correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks and ephemera, as well as oral histories, photographs and films, which contain information – information is very important – and in doing so reveal the activities of an organisation, or the experiences of families or individuals.
We are quite active at Valence House Museum. We always encourage donations. And we do this by having an active outreach and events programme that aims to establish relationships with local organisations and groups, as well as the local community. It is all about empowering people to share their stories.
AK: You worked previously at Lambeth Palace and the Imperial War Museum. How do these loactions differ from Valence House?
CS: Lambeth Palace and the Imperial War Museum both hold special collections. I even got to hold the Munich Agreement signed by Hitler at the Imperial War Museum! These types of repositories generally attract more serious/academic researchers. The reading rooms at these places were incredibly busy. There were always lots of enquiries and material to be retrieved from the stores.
The signatories of the Munich Agreement: Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain.
Valence House Museum is all about community. We aim to inspire people of all different ages and abilities to explore the history of Barking and Dagenham. In turn, contributing to learning, the development of cultural identity and the promotion of active citizenship in the borough and beyond.
There is a great atmosphere at Valence House Museum. We have regular customers that visit the reading room, who are all really friendly. There is also an army of volunteers that do so much for us, and who make the place very lively indeed. We constantly strive to attract more people! We probably need to do more to get noticed compared to prestigious repositories like Lambeth and the IWM. There are also lots of other differences surrounding funding, staffing, support from senior management, procurement etc.
AK: What is your favourite piece in the archive?
CS: The archive has sooo many treasures! The most prestigious and important is probably the letters of Sir Richard Fanshawe, a loyal supporter of King Charles I and King Charles II, who served as English envoy to Portugal 1661 to 1663. Yet, above all, I really love archives that reveal the everyday lives of ordinary people and in particular the lives of women. That is why at the moment my favourite collection is…
The diaries kept by a local woman, Miss Madge Carter dating from 1924 to 1996. They include descriptions of her work, family life and how she spent her leisure time – meeting friends, going to the cinema, shopping, knitting and having her hair done. The early diaries are especially charming as she often talks about the men that she has crushes on – There is a man she sees on the train that she refers to as ‘the heart’, and then another man at lunch, known as ‘the new heart’.
For me, her diaries get particularly interesting during the Second World War. She comments on evacuation, the blackout, air-raids and having to ‘make do and mend’! In later life, her passion was archaeology and the diaries focus on her active involvement in the Barking and District Historical Society. You get a real glimpse into what her life was really like.
AK: A time machine has landed in your living room, which point in history would you travel back to?
CS: That is easy. I would absolutely love to time travel to the Edwardian era, and take part in a march for ‘Votes for Women’, shouting ‘Deeds Not Words’ with Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragettes.
It was such a pivotal and exciting time for women’s rights. There is a lot of debate about the effectiveness of the militant tactics of the Suffragettes but still, I think it would be amazing to go back and get caught up in the furore these women created! Until time travel is invented, I will have to make do with dressing up like a Suffragette!