We are very lucky here at the Hive to have the opportunity to meet, talk to and even share with our readers some fantastic people who are currently working within the heritage sector. So when Emma got in touch with us, we were bowled over with appreciation and awe for this inspirational young woman who has quite literally…done it all!
We wanted to know the in’s and out’s of Emma’s illustrious career. We wanted to know what she does on a day-to-day basis as part of her heritage consultancy business.
We also wanted to know what item she would steal from the British Museum! Of course!
Without further ado, Dr Emma J Wells….
Source: Image courtesy of Emma J Wells.
Historical Honey: Hello Emma, and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! If you don’t mind us saying, you have quite an illustrious and exciting CV – could you share a brief overview with our readers?
Emma Wells: Hi, Historical Honey -thank you for your kind words.
A quick overview of my past career – well, it has been rather varied, but pretty much all centered around history. After studying Tudor History at A Level, I became fascinated with the later medieval period. However, it was the art and architecture that appealed to me most and so I took History of Art at York University. I then decided I wanted to concentrate largely on buildings and so moved departments and undertook an MA in Buildings Archaeology. After achieving a Distinction, I decided that a PhD was a possibility. However, it had only initially been a brief thought and I had already been offered a job in sales management (very different I know) as I felt I wanted a new and completely different challenge before deciding to go forth with a PhD.
Following a year of sales, and a brief period as an art consultant, I went back to university. I had admired the work of my supervisor Dr Pam Graves for years and so contacted her at Durham University. She loved the proposal idea for my thesis and so a couple of months later I found myself at University College (Castle), Durham, undertaking a PhD in Archaeology. The focus of my thesis was the sensory experience of medieval pilgrimage churches, although the topic did not exactly start out as that.
Durham, where Emma completed her PhD.
Throughout my PhD, however, I realized that in order to have a good chance at getting a job once I had finished my doctorate, I would have to gain some sort of work experience. Due to my expertise in the medieval period and ecclesiastical buildings, I contacted Vidimus, the online magazine devoted to medieval stained glass as I had a great idea for a feature article. This turned into being employed as their Panel of the Month author for about a year for which I got to choose, research and analyse a specific panel of stained glass for each issue of the magazine.
I also discovered the potential in networking and that a good reputation in academia could be achieved by presenting at conferences. I was lucky enough to be invited to present at the British Archeology Association conference – the only PhD student that year. In a room full of notable academics I had admired for years, this was a daunting experience, but one that turned out to be extremely beneficial. My attendance and participation at conferences continued and as a result I was contacted by various institutions such as the British Museum to undertake research for exhibitions and television programmes.
Since completing my PhD, I realized that the job market was not in the greatest shape for a person with my credentials. I was undecided about a career in academia, but knew that I wanted to work directly with historic buildings and so came to the conclusion that heritage consultancy was possibly the best avenue to pursue. After recognizing the limited opportunities currently available in the job sector, I decided to utilize my freelance experience and set up my own company. Due to my reputation in the field, my workload began to steadily increase, as did a significant amount of press interest in the House Histories side of my business. As such, I am currently continuing to build my company, but have been fortunate enough to have a large amount of success very quickly.
HH: You studied at both York and Durham, both beautiful towns with wonderful history and stunning architecture. Did studying at these establishments fuel for your passion for the industry, or was that passion inherent?
EW: My passion for history was actually ignited by my grandmother and the area we lived in. Growing up in North Yorkshire provided an unlimited historical playground and so every week my grandmother would take me to visit a castle, church or abbey. That is where my initial love of historic buildings started. We also frequently visited medieval cities such as Durham and York as both were situated close to where we lived and so when making decisions for universities, it came very easily as I knew them so well, and knew both were fantastic institutions for what I wished to study.
York, a city Emma used to visit often as a youngster growing up in North Yorkshire.
HH: You now run your own Heritage Consultancy business. What does your role entail day-to-day, and what are your career highlights so far?
EW: It is difficult to provide you with a summary of a normal day as each one is very different at the moment, which makes my job all the more interesting. But on an average day my morning will likely involve a meeting with an architect, private homeowner, archaeological/heritage consultant or estate agent to discuss a particular project. I will then move on to current projects that require research. This may involve a site visit to a property where I photograph and evaluate the area/building. Other days may involve pure research and writing for private or commercial clients including house histories or heritage statements for planning applications.
I was also employed as a lecturer and seminar tutor whilst at Durham University. I loved teaching and found the success achieved by my pupils extremely rewarding. As a result, I now work with several institutions and companies continuing tutoring and lecturing on skills related to the historic environment and its research – I can thus often be found teaching a couple of days in the week.
I have also recently been invited to be a property consultant for a regional newspaper to report on the current projects I am working on in the county of Yorkshire. This has to be one of my recent career highlights as I love writing and embrace the chance to tell people about what I do. But I would have to say my ultimate career highlight was gaining my PhD. After such hard work and effort, it was the most rewarding feeling when I stepped out of my Viva with the title ‘Dr’. However, perhaps as rewarding was setting up my own business and seeing the success I am starting to achieve and the referrals and reputation I am steadily building. There is very little more satisfying than that.
HH: What advice would you give to young people looking to break into the world of heritage/heritage consultancy? Have you had to do your fair share of voluntary work to get where you are now?
EW: The best advice I could give is: volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! Whilst undertaking your degree, make sure you contact all local heritage consultancies, architects or surveyors etc., whichever sector you are aiming to break into. Contact them explaining your background, what degree you are studying for and what kind of job is your ultimate career goal. Explain that you are trying to gain experience in the sector and then also explain what skills or expertise you could bring to them by volunteering for the business.
I cannot stress enough the importance of work experience. Many people believe a good degree will automatically get you a good job, but unfortunately, in the current climate, this is just not the case.
I would also recommend attending as many conferences related to your field of interest and talk to as many people as possible. Also, contact possible mentors and people in the industry you look up to. Finally, join professional societies, even at student or affiliate level, and attend the events they run. Your name and face will get known very quickly and people will see you are serious about getting into the field.
Above all, gain as much relevant experience as possible as this all counts towards your CV – a degree is often not enough on its own.
HH: You have also published various works. What advice would you give for those who are looking to get their work published?
EW: Getting published is not easy, and be prepared to work long hours on top of your degree or daily job. Depending on whether your aim is a general or academic publication, initially it is always best to approach the editor with your article idea. They will then tell you whether it is appropriate for their publication, or what you could do to improve it. In simple terms, if you have written a portion of your thesis that you think is particularly interesting for example, but not enough for an academic journal, perhaps pitch this to a more magazine-type publication, or if it is of regional or national interest, try newspapers or any type of local media/press. Your university publicity department can also help with pitching articles and pursing the right contacts.
However, be prepared to get many rejections. Even the best academics can have their articles rejected numerous times before they are eventually published. Writing is an art, but an art that follows a certain model. Once you have cracked that model, it does become easier.
HH: Not everyone has a relevant degree or experience, but may still have a burning passion for history and its preservation…what can the ‘Average Joe’ do to take care of our heritage?
EW: There are many ways to get involved in the care of heritage. SPAB, for example, have just announced their Maintenance Co-Operatives Project which seeks to recruit volunteers to carry out routine maintenance of their ecclesiastical buildings. In addition, English Heritage has also established their similar Heritage at Risk campaign which allows the general public to get involved with caring for and recording buildings at risk. The National Trust also runs similar events and provides many opportunities to get involved.
English Heritage’s campaign for ‘Heritage at Risk’.
Perhaps the best people to pursue are your local archaeological trusts and societies. Local archaeology and history groups are fast becoming a fundamental aspect of the practice and promotion of archaeology and the study of our past – the Council for British Archaeology can help in providing information on these types of projects. They are also open to volunteers and often at the heart of heritage projects in your local area – you will likely gain direct experience in the care of the historic environment as a result. For example, I volunteered for York Archaeological Trust whilst undertaking my MA and got to work at their Hungate excavation site.
HH: You worked as a Historic Researcher for Time Team…did you meet Tony Robinson?
EW: I did not get to meet Tony Robinson, but was fortunate enough to meet the late Mick Aston and attend his 63rd birthday party just before he received his honorary doctorate from Durham. Mick was a lovely gentleman and very interested in the topic of my thesis research, even though he admitted that a lot of it was out of his comfort zone. As I worked with Time Team as a researcher, I was largely in direct contact with that side of the team. The work was very rewarding though, especially once the episode aired.
Mick Aston, who Emma met at his 63rd birthday party!
HH: And lastly, if you could steal one item from the British Museum, what would it be and why?
EW: This is a very difficult question and I cannot possible choose just one! I adored the Holy Thorn reliquary that was displayed as part of the Treasures of Heaven exhibition in 2011. This particular reliquary helped me decipher a medieval wall painting of a church in Cornwall as part of my PhD thesis, so I hold a particular fondness for it.
Holy Thorn Reliquary, part of the ‘Treasures of Heaven’ exhibit at the British Museum.
Of the permanent collections, the choice is between the 14th-century Holy Thorn reliquary pendant and the 13th-century Becket casket reliquary from Limoges. I first saw both objects on a visit to the BM during my Bachelors degree. I recall thinking just how beautiful and intricate the vessels were which stimulated an interest in the medieval cult of saints. They obviously had a significant impact as this continued into a PhD topic!
Source: Image courtesy of Emma J Wells