Four years ago, having moved from Muscat, Oman, to Birmingham to study History of Art, I was just a little bit lost. Like most students starting university, I was moving away from home to a place where I didn’t know anyone or where anything was; you suddenly have to become completely independent, make new friends, take care of yourself and try to cover up your ridiculously low alcohol tolerance, all the while working towards a degree so that, in three years’ time, you hopefully know a little bit more than you knew before! It’s fun, very fun! However, when your mind turns to work experience (so important for finding a job these days) it can often become clear that not everyone is in the same boat: some people have had gap years in which they gained experience or their parents know someone who knows someone who knows someone who can get them a job over the summer. I had nothing like this. In Oman you couldn’t work anywhere unless you had a work permit (generally not given to 17 year olds), my parents hadn’t lived in Europe for about thirty years, and I went to university straight out of High School. So I decided to gain my work experience right on my door step – at the Barber Institute.
In the second term of my first year, after I had settled in a bit, I started to volunteer. I spent many mornings and afternoons at the welcome desk, greeting and providing information to the patrons; I also spent a couple of afternoons in the galleries, talking to people about the paintings, and asking the children to stop running around and not to throw themselves at the paintings. Then when the current volunteering scheme at the Barber was introduced, I began volunteering in the Learning and Access department. Immediately it became evident that this was what I preferred: I was working with children during workshops, helping out on tours, assisting at seasonal ‘fairs’ and generally setting up and cleaning up from activities. I volunteered so much that the members of the department knew me – I was even asked to pose (fully clothed and paid!) for a portrait sculpture class and to represent the Barber at Careers fairs. Although as a History of Art student I was spending a lot of time in the Barber, there is so much that I wouldn’t have known about it if I had only spent my time in its library or seminar rooms. There is so much going on in the Barber Institute besides it being the home of the University of Birmingham’s History of Art and Music departments. It was especially enlightening to learn about the different departments that make a working gallery successful: it’s not as simple as hanging some paintings on the wall and waiting for the visitors and money to roll in.
After two and half years of regular volunteering, I was coming to the end of my degree and becoming slightly concerned about what to do next. The opportunity to apply for a paid Learning and Access internship at the Barber came up and I knew that I wanted it! In fact, I had known about the internship during my degree and the thought of applying had been an added incentive to volunteer; thankfully it paid off! After I graduated in June 2012, I was offered the 5 month internship to start in February 2013. I was nervous starting here since it felt strange: for the previous three years I had gone to the Barber for lectures and seminars or to spend hours poring over books in the library. Suddenly it was completely different. I had a desk, a computer, and an office, and I was actually responsible for aspects of how of the gallery as a business was run, rather than a place to study! Initially the internship involved lot of admin, answering phone calls, making bookings and passing things onto members of the department who actually knew what was going on. However after about 2 months I felt completely at home. Alex with whom I mainly work has been unbelievably patient with me, answering every little question I come up with and giving me every opportunity to challenge myself and learn more. In fact all the staff behind the scenes at the Barber have been a delight to work with. From the security guards who help me move big furniture to set up for workshops, to the lovely ladies in HR who deal with the payroll, and the marketing and collections team (who also have interns) who are so easy and helpful to work alongside, it has been a real pleasure. Instead of ‘just’ an intern, I feel like a part of the team. It has also been incredible to be specifically trained to become part of a professional team. As I write this I have just under 4 weeks left of my internship, and the interviews for the next ‘lot’ of interns are taking place very shortly. I find that I’m passing the phone over less and less to somebody else, and if anything it’s actually very satisfying and enjoyable being a point of contact.
One of my tasks at the beginning of my internship was to put together the initial draft of the Family Guide for our new exhibition About Face: the guide is now finished and the exhibition is open and all has turned out very well! I’m responsible for the Learning Room, and the activities that are placed there for children when they visit the galleries. As I’ve grown into the role, I now help out a lot more with gallery visits and workshops, and my confidence had soared; I genuinely feel beneficial to the department and part of the team. Last week the Barber Institute’s staff were invited to the National Gallery’s private view for the opening of the exhibition Birth of a Collection: Masterpieces from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Unbelievably, I was invited as well! And I must say, I didn’t think that at the start of my career I would be attending a private view at the National Gallery in the company of so many important and influential people in the art world. This internship has given me opportunities and experience that I genuinely was not expecting and for which I will be forever grateful.
It is rare to find an internship in a respected, impressive and successful gallery that is not only long enough to allow you to learn something new and to challenge yourself, but also where you’re part of a team in which you have real responsibility – and one which is paid! My internship here has given me incredible experience that I know will hugely benefit me in the future. Working in the Learning and Access department has made me sure that I want to continue in this direction. I truly feel that I owe the Barber Institute so much: I not only studied for my degree here, but I gained so much relevant experience here through volunteering, all of which led to the most amazing opportunity of actually working here. I’m now looking into doing a MA in a relevant field once I finish here in June, but really, I’d quite like to be the intern all over again…!
Read about Sophie Rycroft’s experience as an intern in the curating department here. The next round of Barber interns will be recruited in May 2014.