In this interview Katie Childs tells us about her intriguing career to date, currently Policy and Projects Manager for the National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) but soon to be Head of Partnerships and Stakeholder Relations at IWM.
Describe your career path
Unconventional. I always had a love for museums, and my Saturday and holiday job when I was at sixth-form college was running a drop-in activity table for children at Bolton Museum and Art Gallery. By my final year at university l had become really involved in student politics and in activities to help encourage more people to do what I did, and apply to Cambridge from a state school. So, the three years after graduation were taken up with being one of the full-time Students’ Union Vice-Presidents (amazing experience and basically like doing a Master’s degree in how to run an organisation), and then with Downing College as their Access and Schools Liaison Officer.
I joined the Civil Service Fast Stream and moved to London, and there must have been something about my application that showed my interest in culture and sport as I was placed at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (in the summer London was awarded the Olympics). On my first day, England won The Ashes and lunchtime on the second day was spent at the celebration in Trafalgar Square. It did feel like anything was possible. I spent two and a half years at DCMS in a variety of policy roles, which gave me a thorough understanding of how Government and Parliament works. My last role was as International Cultural Policy Officer, at a time when the contribution of the arts and culture sector to soft power was less readily accepted within Government. Much of my job was to make that case and in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review I secured £3 million for the World Collections Programme to develop international partnerships led by six UK “world collections”. The Civil Service encourages staff to broaden their experience through secondments, and, as the World Collections Programme was to be chaired by then British Museum Director Neil MacGregor, I went to the British Museum to set up and run the programme (as well as help set up the partnership between the British Museum and the British Army to support the protection of cultural heritage in Iraq). It went well because and after 18 months I was offered a permanent job as the International Programme Manager.
Over the next two and a half years I developed the Museum’s International Strategy and plans, and worked with stakeholders around the world to set up new partnerships. It culminated in negotiating the loan for the 2010 Afghanistan exhibition and managing the visit at the opening by President Karzai and the then Foreign Secretary William Hague. It was incredible life-affirming experience: I met those who had risked their lives to save these treasures from the Taliban, and was treated to a thank you tea by the then Afghan Ambassador (at which he served us Ferrero Rocher!).
I moved to NMDC six months later, where I have stayed far longer than I anticipated because there has always been something new and challenging to work on (and unexpected – I never anticipated knowing this much about copyright… or firearms… or brown road signs). The Council represents the Directors of the UK’s national collections and major regional museums, and the business of the Council is managed by two full-time staff (and our wonderful Administrator Christine). My role has been to lead our work on museum policy and practice, and latterly has focused on finding ways to support civic museums. I wrote a publication called Museums Matter – which sets out the impact museums have on public policy and why – and a response to the Culture White Paper consultation on behalf of the whole museum sector which has formed the basis of our and DCMS’ work since November. Just as at Downing College, it’s taken discipline to leave an interesting job working with lovely people.
What have the next 12 months got in store for you
A new job at the Imperial War Museums as the Head of Partnerships and Stakeholder Relations. One of my responsibilities – which is a real privilege – is to lead the First World War Centenary Partnership, and I am looking forward to working with my team to develop plans to mark the Armistice in 2018 and beyond. And to finally finishing renovating my house and buying a car!
What Museum (other than the one you might work for) would you like to be locked in overnight
As IWM used to be Bethlem Hospital and I think my office may have been some sort of school or orphanage, I try not to get locked in at night. Is it cheating to say one of the National Trust houses? I visited Standen near East Grinstead recently and could quite happily spend a night (or every night) there.
What’s the most encouraging thing a visitor/user has ever said to you
I mainly get asked for directions to the café or toilets unfortunately. One of the most inspiring things I saw was on a quiet afternoon in the RAF Museum when a little girl, aged about three or four, ran into the main hanger where the Second World War aircraft are displayed, followed by her grandfather. She ran from plane to plane, and stood in front of each and said “Grandad, look, wow”. The stuff and the stories are so powerful, and if you can welcome very young children into a museum, they will always feel it is their place.
If you could highlight one Museum Object, either in your own museum or elsewhere, what would it be
A painting called Nearing Camp by Thomas Moran in Bolton Museum and Art Gallery. It is stunning and I can’t see it too many times. It is also what first introduced me to Bolton Museum. The painting was purchased in 1998 following a huge fundraising campaign, backed by the local paper, where lots of Bolton residents made donations to buy it for the people of Bolton. Although Thomas Moran emigrated and the painting portrays a scene in America, he was from Bolton and there’s great pride in Bolton of our famous sons and daughters!
What would you have been if you hadn’t been a museum educator/ conservator etc etc.
Probably still a civil servant, and inevitably by now working on some aspect of Britain’s exit from the EU.