Let’s go back in time a little. Last year, July. I’ve made the decision to hand in my notice, I’ve spent months rummaging through career websites and I’m more uninspired than any uninspired prophet. In my head someone is playing pairs with the debris of my ambitions and that someone isn’t winning, to say the least. When friends ask me what I really wanna do, I digress because the truth is I think I am too old to have only a blurry and unachievable vision of what I “really wanna do” and therefore prefer to dodge the question.
Then one fine morning, jogging along the canal before work, I’m having an epiphany: „You shall go to London for a month!“ Yes! Of course! Thanks, subconsiousness! Seeing that London is my
secret go to-place for escapist fantasies anyway I shall simply try and do what I „really wanna do“ as a field test: Live in London and work in the arts/heritage sector.
So I first make a list. A list of places I would like to work at: The Wallace Collection, The National Trust, English Heritage, Victoria & Albert Museum, The Royal Collections, Handel House Museum, Tate Britain, National Portrait Gallery, National Maritime Museum, National Theatre. I write emails. I get one positive reply. A week later I chat to Victoria on the phone. Two months later I’m on my way to London.
The National Trust
To my fellow countrymen: The National Trust is not a bank. It is a conservation organization in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a charity which in its own words “works to preserve and protect historic places and spaces”. The Trust owns an array of heritage properties, most of which were donated to the Trust by private owners. To date, the Trust is the largest voluntary conservation organisation in Europe, it owns numerous heritage properties in the UK (minus Scotland): Historic houses and gardens, social history sites, industrial monuments, museums and nature reserves. About 60,000 volunteers work for the Trust, as room guides, gardeners, beekeepers, catering assistants, volunteer pianists, event organizers…the list goes on! And of course, there are also numerous positions for full-members of staff at the sites, house managers, marketing assistants, gardeners, conservation assistants, curators, chefs… There is indeed a lot of work to do.
Ham House and Garden
Two days after I had arrived in London I set out on my first journey to Ham, 21 stops on the tube, a bus ride and a short walk later I stood at the bank of the Thames, looked to my right and, well:
My first day as a “house intern” then began with a diary meeting in the Mess Room, with tea and homemade shortbread, flowers on the table and a bunch of nice people discussing the scheduled events for the week ahead. Homemade shortbread! I wasn’t sure whether that really was „work“. I liked it.
Afterwards I went on a garden tour with one of the volunteers and then stepped in for a room steward. Room stewards are an ubiquitous presence at National Trust properties, they welcome visitors, answer questions and give short talks on the interior and collections. After a quick read through the Trust’s info folder on the „Marble Dining Room“ I started chatting to visitors, explaining the use of the leather wall hangings (less prone to food smell than tapestries), pointing out the wine coolers, the posset pot, the brilliantly helpful Monteith bowls and one of my favourite paintings in the house: The head gardener John Rose presenting Charles II with a pineapple (have a look). Later, I helped closing down the house, locking doors and closing window shutters (mostly still with the original 17th c locks), switching off lights and putting radiators in some of the rooms. And when I left Ham in the evening I was a lot closer to what I „really wanna do“ than before.
The weeks that followed turned out to be so varied that I find it quite hard to sum them up neatly as there were so many things I did and helped out with! Victoria, Ham’s House and Collections Manager, had made a schedule for me and arranged for me to work in all the different departments of the property. Thus in my time at Ham I learned how to clean textiles, helped out in the shop, baked cookies for the café, assisted the gardening volunteers, measured hooks for paintings, made spiders out of egg cartons, greeted visitors at the front gate, was shown how to clean a 17th c chapel and – one of my favourite tasks – waxed the buttery.
Victoria took me on a tour of the house’s paintings collection with a curator from the Eremitage, I designed and conducted a little survey to gather some feedback from visitors on the house’s route guide, proofread the German info sheet, did some research on 18th c pole screens and wrote the interpretation for some new paintings in the Great Staircase.
And then, all of a sudden: Four weeks gone! Just gone! Four weeks and not a single day went by when I wasn’t at one point hit by the realization how lucky I was: Commuting from Holloway to Richmond in the morning, from screeching trains to cows on the meadow. Mornings spent walking through this gorgeous house, through the Queen’s Bedchamber on my way to the Withdrawing Room, opening the shutters:
Tea and biscuits. The politeness of the volunteers. Chatting about „Bake Off“ and the shocking brilliance of the Green Closet every time I went inside. The exhaustion after a busy day and hours on the tube, the exhaustion from London, the content tiredness from impression-overload. The „I just wanna watch TV now“ as a result. Bus rides spent wondering whether working in heritage is not the most serious case of escapism there is and whether that’s a bad thing. The privilege of hoovering William Murray’s old house!
I learned so much and I deeply cared about what I learned. Each to their own, but knowing why Charles II is given a pineapple in that portrait makes me more the kind of person I like to be. It was joyful to finally again be able to tie my own expertise in English history up with other histories and to experience that knowledge to be relevant and valuable. Dusting the Long Gallery in the morning and wondering whether it’s too late to become an expert in portraiture? Writing a few pages on the new paintings in the Great Stairace and – I hereby admit it – for a long time not only enjoying the thinking and writing process, but the fact that I actually know what I’m doing. And as a result: No care how long it takes and trying hard for it to be good. I decided I wanted more of that.
Working in such a house, such a property, is of course not only a privilege, but also comes with complex duties. Not only the challenge to keep up and preserve a valuable historic site, but the challenge to accomplish this while having visitors flocking through it. Ideally, you wouldn’t let any light in. Ideally, you wouldn’t have so many feet walking through, so much careless touching, so much humidity. Yet, as a National Trust property, the house is open to the public and staff have to not only cater for people’s enjoyment of a “day out”, but have to find a balance between conservation needs and visitors‘ wishes. Next to these more practical difficulties of how to protect a historical house, there are more conceptual, more abstract questions to manage: The house is not a museum. How do you guide visitors through a 17th century house without disfiguring the interior with plugs and signs and plates? What sort of interpretation do you offer? Route guides? Little books? Leaflets? How do you want them to look? How expensive can they be? Is there no way of “teaching” people to just browse and trust their instincts, their taste, their sense of beauty and style? What do you want visitors to take with them, apart from a postcard and a belly full of cake? It is such a complex and gorgeously tricky task to tackle these questions, I am a little jealous of everyone who gets paid for it!
There was London. Four weeks spend with good friends in their house, watching Made in Chelsea, the V&A, pale ale, driving on a bus late at night, pubs and bars, supa noodles and pizza, wine at Gordon’s, theatre in Islington, lazylazy sundays. Trying to make sense of this huge city by staring at it, with its small houses, its masses of people, its greyness and its redness. The opportunities, the abundance and the craziness of actually living there. Everyone is working. Money isn’t real anymore, it is absolutely everywhere and absolutely nowhere.
I loved it, yet it made me so knackered, I wasn’t sure if I could have kept it up for much longer. In theory, I didn’t want to leave.