Judy Willcocks is Chair of the London Museums Group Board and Head of Museum & Study Collection/Senior Research Fellow, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. Here she tackles our probing questions.
Describe your career path
I don’t have a Museum Studies MA (just an MA in English and History) so I started in an admin role at the British Museum and worked my way up by a combination of hard slog, volunteering and pestering. My career took me through events management, writing and editing children’s books and magazines, a stint in corporate hire, a secondment to head up the Thackray medical museum in Leeds and a Directorship of the Dorset County Museum. Now I run a university museum based in an art school and I definitely feel I’ve found my spiritual home. You’d probably struggle to do all of that now without a Museum Studies MA which makes me a bit sad. It always was a competitive sector but now it’s ridiculous. As a result of my career path I’m very up for giving young people a chance even without the ‘right’ qualifications.
What have the next 12 months got in store for you?
I’m very focussed on two areas of work at the moment – working to share best practice around object-based learning at University of the Arts London and building our the Share Academy programme which is exploring the opportunities and challenges of university/museum partnerships. In terms of object-based learning I’m interested in identifying what links museum staff with technicians based in the studios with academic staff and creative practice. We’re all about the objects in one way or another.
What Museum (other than the one you might work for) would you like to be locked in overnight?
I’ve spent lots of nights in the British Museum when I was organising sleepovers and I can thoroughly recommend it! But if I could choose anywhere to spend the night it would be in Stoneywell House in Leicestershire. It’s a new National Trust property and it’s been a long time since I visited somewhere that so caught my imagination. I’m in a very arts and crafts phase at the moment so it felt like a perfect fit for the current mood.
What’s the most encouraging thing a visitor/user has ever said to you?
I used to run the Young Friends of the British Museum and I did wonder at times whether we were just doing posh events for posh kids. But I went to a friend’s birthday party recently and met someone who used to be a Young Friend (they were all grown up which shows how old I am). They definitely hadn’t been born with a silver spoon in their mouth (in fact they’d had some troubled times growing up) and they said they’d been so inspired by the events they’d attended at the BM they’d gone on to study classics at Oxford. How amazing to find that something you’ve done has had a positive impact on another person’s life.
If you could highlight one Museum Object, either in your own museum or elsewhere, what would it be?
My all-time favourite museum object is the stuffed walrus in the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. The Victorian taxidermist didn’t quite understand how many folds of skin the walrus has, so they kept on stuffing. And stuffing. And stuffing… It’s absolutely huge and tight as a drum which massively appeals to my sense of humour.
What would you have been if you hadn’t been a museum professional?
I’d like to have been a psychologist. Or an economist. I’m really interested in how people and society function. So much of managing museums (especially the wider sector work) is quite political so I do get a bit of that even in the museum sector. I think those girls who work for the National Museums Director’s Council are amazing. They’re lobbying, working strategically, planning for the future of the whole sector. I’d quite like to work with them.