BY PAM SEHMI (BA History of Art 2016, Birmingham; MA History of Art 2017, Birmingham)
Hello, my name is Paramjit Sehmi and I am a former History of Art student at the University of Birmingham, and the current Collections Intern at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. I completed my History of Art Bachelor’s degree in 2016 and then studied the MA in History of Art in 2017.
Since completing my studies in 2017 (which seems like ages ago … !) I have gone through several short-term roles. I soon learnt that temporary work is part of the nature of the arts and heritage sector. It’s not all doom and gloom though because with every role I have learnt something valuable and have been given a greater insight into different aspects of a very diverse sector.
Honestly, when I finished my BA I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a living. I did know, though, that I had thoroughly enjoyed writing my dissertation. I remember one particular Archivist being really helpful when I was researching my thesis and thought, maybe I could that? However, I quickly gathered from a series of rejection emails that I didn’t have enough experience to get there yet ….
That’s when I decided to study my MA. In addition, I was determined to be more outgoing, so that year I started volunteering at a local archive, became Student Representative for my course, and attended an extra module which related to my MA dissertation topic. (*Author’s Note*: In hindsight, this was insane and I’m not sure if I would recommend such an overloaded schedule – I did survive though!)
All of this must have counted for something because when I finished my MA I got a job! Okay, it was a 6 week role… but it was still a job! I was working in a real archive, typing up handwritten notes for a collection. This sounds simple enough but I also picked up on how The National Archive catalogued information. These standards are followed by several institutions and it has been pretty valuable for me in applying for other jobs.
I think I mainly got this role because the institution’s collection was similar to the place where I was previously volunteering. But obviously my degrees were key as well! Employers are very keen to have someone with genuine enthusiasm for the sector (and if you’ve studied History of Art for 3+ years you tick that box!). They also like people who are flexible, observant, diligent and concise which again are all skills I acquired from my degrees. Hey, if I can cut 2,000 words out from my 14,000 word dissertation draft, I can do anything!
After this role ended I was back to volunteering. This can be a bit disheartening, especially when voluntary roles themselves can be a struggle to get. I was shocked by the sheer amount of competition – on one occasion I found out that there were over 40 applicants for one voluntary role! Despite this, I managed to get 2 voluntary roles at different museums to keep myself busy whilst I looked for paid work. I was doing this for a few months before having several interviews all in the same week!
From that one hectic week of interviews, I gained a 10-week internship as an Archivist at a school in Birmingham and following that a role at the British Library in London. The first role was full-time, paid and I was lucky enough to have great colleagues. I took on this role with another intern and we were both given varied work and a lot of responsibility. Basically we organised an entire collection from scratch – we ordered storage materials, catalogued and researched items, and curated an exhibition!
The following role at the British Library was very different. For a start, it was part-time which meant it was not financially possible for me to move to London. So instead I commuted on the train. This meant having 3 very intense and long days, catching the cheaper (and therefore slower) trains and planning everything in advance. It was not as glamorous as working in London is often advertised and I didn’t really get a chance to visit any other museums or anything. Aside from this, the role involved digitising Indian printed books which was great! It was very different to anything I had ever done and I got to look at South Asian books which is an area that I had never studied before. I met a lot of academics in this field and learnt about how cataloguing works in a library setting.
Ultimately I probably would have continued the BL job had I not been offered the role of Collections Intern at the Barber Institute. You might have gathered that the roles I’ve had have spanned across curating, cataloguing and digitising collections -and quite honestly I enjoy all of those things. They can be very different, and often separate roles, but this internship seemed to offer a healthy combination. I was also getting back to working with an art collection which I had missed from my previous jobs.
My degree has definitely helped me in this role as everything was familiar when I started – the artworks, the cataloguing system and the staff. Yet it is still a whole different thing working at the Barber compared to studying here. It’s great to see the ins and outs of putting on such a packed exhibition schedule and attending to requests from students and the public. I’m also curating my own exhibition, The Face of Fashion, exploring miniatures, lace and printed works which will went on display in the Barber Print Bay on June 7th!
Whilst I am still working at the Barber until July, I have grown accustomed to keep an eye out for the next role. I recently applied for a job at another local gallery and have gained my first permanent role as an Assistant Archivist. It is still only part-time but I’m glad for that as I can continue my internship at the Barber.
Overall, I would say that working in the arts and heritage sector can be bitty. It can often involve chasing roles and not having too much time to get settled. However, it has taught me to make the most of every opportunity I get and ultimately, if you stick at it, you will eventually get to where you want to be.