Emma Winch, Heritage Learning Manager at Hackney Museum and Co-Organiser of the Anti-University Now Festival tackles our questions…
Describe your career path
I found myself in museums by accident. I put down the wrong course code for my MA and found myself on a Museum Studies course, which I would NEVER have signed up for because growing up I thought museums were really boring. I never really understood that history was about people like me until I was an adult and I had this sudden realisation after watching a film about the Russian Revolution, which included research by Orlando Figes. I had this big epiphany that museums were about normal people and not just dead, white men. That epiphany coincided with me putting down the wrong course code and doing an MA in Museum Studies as Essex University.
I spent my MA year working ridiculously hard, volunteering in a gallery, 2 museums and for 2 charities, whilst working nights in Asda to pay the bills. All the volunteering and experience paid off because I got a job as a Learning Assistant at Hackney Museum straight out of uni. I took the job at Hackney Museum because it seemed exciting, the museum had just opened, everyone was leaving and I felt I could get my teeth into something really interesting – a community museum about regular people from all over the world. I wasn’t sure I would actually be any good at the job – teaching – but I agreed with the ethos of the museum and the people that worked there. I felt at home immediately.
At that time my job was just teaching the schools programme, but as it was only me teaching I had complete control over the sessions and programme I taught, so I started experimenting with what I taught…gradually less rigid about history and more about social justice, migration and human rights, the things the children in the classes I encountered were interested in and talking about. I wanted them to see that history underpinned, and was linked to, everything around them, to the causes children care so passionately about, their family and culture, them.
That was 14 years ago and I am still at Hackney Museum, but now a manager. I am still teaching occasionally, but also I’m also involved in the strategic work of running a museum, which is about making sure the ethos is strong, and people of all ages and from all backgrounds engage with the museum. My work these days is about keeping the museum relevant for Hackney’s ever changing demographic and making sure we keep the service relevant, free and accessible for the people who need the museum most.
I’ve had breaks in my career for my family and I have also considered leaving a few times, most recently I took a job as Learning Manager at Black Cultural Archives opening the new building and managing their first two exhibitions Reimagine: Black Women In Britain and Staying Power. I worked at BCA and Hackney Museum part time. I adored my job there and the people I worked with and for. Like Hackney Museum I felt at home there, but I had to give it up when I could no longer juggle the two jobs and give my full attention to both jobs (and my family!). Last year Hackney offered me a promotion and I now work full time managing the learning programme for the museum and archives, as a freelance education consultant, co-organiser of the Antiuniversity Now festival and a mentor for early career museum professionals.
What have the next 12 months got in store for you?
I suspect more of the same…a crazy schedule of exciting projects with a wide range of Hackney people in the museum and archives. In the next 12 months I am working on engagement and exhibition projects with young African and Caribbean teenage boys, 16 year old ultra-orthodox Jewish girls, young curators with special needs, performance poets and with Hackney Council’s Equalities Team to make sure a wide range of voices are represented and catered for across the council, not just in the museum. No two days are the same at the museum!
What Museum (other than your own) would you like to be locked in overnight?
Hmmm….good question. This is really embarrassing and a good reminder that I need to go to more museums (other than my own). My kids and I love the Sedgwick museum in Cambridge. It’s one of the only museums we can agree on as a family, because they love the fossils and sharks teeth…but I’m terrified of the enormous and horrible spider they have in one of the cases. Spending the night there would be a hugely courageous feat, but my kids would LOVE it!
What’s the most encouraging thing a visitor has ever said to you?
‘You’re like the magical princess lady of the Hackney Museum’ …Comments like that can keep me going for a whole week! Whatever the future holds and no matter how high I move up in the organisation I don’t think I will ever give up working with 6 year olds. They are so refreshing, encouraging and inspiring. They remind you to look at things differently. Teaching is very mindful, you have to be completely in the moment at all times – reactive, responsive and open. When you are teaching you have to shelve everything else. All worries about restructures, budgets etc… melt away.
If you could highlight one Museum Object, either in your own museum or elsewhere, what would it be?
Mohamed’s sculpture entitled ‘There is a War Inside my House but I am Safe Inside’ (below), made by a 7 year old for the new museum when it opened, it speaks for so many Hackney people who also see Hackney as a safe haven. People from Vietnam, Montserrat, Sierra Leone, Kurdistan…all over the world who have made Hackney their home, whose voices, stories and art were collected to help tell the story of people who came to Hackney with very little, but who have contributed and thrived in the local area. That, or the Anglo-Saxon boat, from a very different time in Hackney’s history, but which tells same story and reinforces the message that people have always moved to Hackney, migration is nothing new and we are all part of that history.
What would you have been if you hadn’t been a Heritage Learning Manager?
Well I suppose if I wasn’t in a career in museum learning then I would have been a site specific artist, because that was the MA course I thought I had enrolled on!