I feel like for the last couple of months, every small task I set for myself takes about twice as long as I had originally intended. Whether that’s writing a section of my dissertation or putting away the clean laundry that has been sitting on my desk chair for two days. While I’m not sure if this boils down to the looming panic of the pandemic, or whether I’ve just turned into someone who does things incredibly slow, it was suggested to me that I write a little blog post about what it’s like being a student and doing a placement with a museum in a pandemic. So, Hi! My name is Ellen and I’m a masters student in Material Culture and Artefact Studies at the University of Glasgow. I’ve also spent the last couple of months doing my placement with CultureNL at Summerlee.
In March, when the panic of COVID-19 was unsettling, the future was uncertain, and the aisles of the shops were empty, the last thing myself or any of my course mates wanted to do or could do was focus on our impending university deadlines. It felt like our minds were in a haze and it was difficult to concentrate on even the simplest tasks. No seriously—sometimes sending one e-mail a day was my biggest accomplishment!
The truth was that we were all worried about our health and the wellbeing of the people we love the most. Assignment due dates were pushed around, but all of a sudden we had limited access to resources, both physically and mentally. Living in student accommodation in lockdown was also a unique experience. For starters, the idea of being stuck inside with four other people that I’d known for less than six months was a little bit terrifying. However, as the days, and the weeks, and the months went by we formed friendships that will last forever. (This was lucky though—I have friends in different accommodations that came out of lockdown with more enemies than they started with!). I guess this happens when you’re pretty much locked together inside a small flat for four months straight.
For a while, it definitely felt like our lives had been put on pause, while we were left to tread water and wait for someone—or anyone, really— to hit the play button again.
At first, I know the biggest question on my mind—and those of my course mates—was how we were supposed to finish our degrees without having access to the objects we were studying. To be honest, it has been VERY strange being in a programme centred around material objects and not actually being able to handle any objects. As a masters student in Material Culture and Artefact Studies, our summer term also involves getting work experience through placement opportunities. Obviously, cultural heritage organisations were closed throughout lockdown, and many still remain unopen. So—you may be wondering how I ended up doing my placement with Summerlee.
Well, while many museums have yet to digitise collections given the time consuming nature such a task involves, Summerlee is in a very lucky position that a large number of the museum’s collections are available online. Because of this, my placement at Summerlee has been entirely virtual, and has been spent over zoom chats and back-and forth emails (all of which went super smoothly!). My main tasks were to use the collections and archival material available online to piece together stories for the NL Heritage website.
While I’ve enjoyed looking through the museum collections and researching all of the unique histories each of the items hold, my favourite part of my experience at Summerlee has been seeing the potential of cultural heritage organisations in purely digital environments.
This time has really got me thinking about how cultural heritage institutions can survive, and even thrive, when people have limited access to the physical places that hold physical objects of the past. Whether this limited access is because of crazy world events like pandemics, or simply because people live far away. While we hope that museums won’t ever have to remain closed indefinitely, having alternative ways of accessing and connecting with material culture is so important, and I think that websites like this one allow for this.
Even as my master’s degree is wrapped up and graduation is approaching, the uncertainty of whether organisations and cultural heritage institutions will open and remain open still leaves us permanently stuck in the in-between—no longer students but not sure what to do next. For many reasons, the world right now is full of constant negativity which can be mentally and physically draining. Obviously, the pandemic has affected people in a number of ways and we’re all having to adapt and change our current situations and our future plans. However—I’m excited to see how museums continue to evolve to ensure that people can still explore their heritage and histories when they don’t have access to physical places that hold material things.
Ellen Ahee was a Material Culture & Artefact Studies masters student at Glasgow University in 2019/20.