I'm A Museum Person

I’m A Museum Person: Amy Cotterill

Colchester Castle is just one of the many museums Amy works with. Photo by giborn_134 via Flickr.

Colchester Castle is just one of the many museums Amy works with. Photo by giborn_134 via Flickr.

My name is Amy Cotterill, and I’m a Museum Person.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m the Museum Development Officer for the UK county of Essex. My job is to support all the museums in the county—most of which are volunteer run—with collections care, business sustainability, and audience engagement. I started off studying Ancient History and Archaeology, followed by Cultural Heritage Management, and worked in a variety of learning and engagement roles in different museums before starting my current role last January.

In my spare time, I help run a local branch of the Young Archaeologists Club, volunteer for the Museums Association, the Group for Education in Museums, and the Digital Learning Network. So, you could say I’m a complete museum geek! I do have non-museumy hobbies too: I’m a member of the Women’s Institute, and I love reading, photography, and going to the movies.

You deal with hundreds of museums in your job, whereas most museum professionals deal with just one. Can you share a few insights into how difficult or rewarding that can be?

I cover a pretty big patch, with an astounding variety of museums. The biggest is a Norman castle, which has a team of professional staff and local authority funding. The smallest takes up half a railway carriage. Most of them are local history museums, but I also work with WW1 and WW2 airfields, art collections, a Natural History Museum and even a Pirate Radio Museum! They all have very different needs, including issues with governance and trustee structures, securing funding or even just getting people through the door. I have to know about all different aspects of running a museum (or know who else to ask for advice!) but it’s really rewarding because the role really makes a difference. I’m helping keep museums open and their collections in good condition and available to the public.

Why do museums matter to you?

My previous museum roles have been in community outreach and engagement, so I’ve seen first-hand the difference they can make. I’ve worked with young offenders, teenage asylum seekers, adults with learning disabilities, and children in care—all of whom have lit up when visiting a museum. The collections they hold inspire creativity as well as teaching us about our past and the world around us. Families come together to explore the contents of our glass cases. Museums aren’t just a place for learning; they are a place for fun!

Photo by the lost gallery via Flickr.

Photo by the lost gallery via Flickr.

What is your favorite museum memory?

My favourite childhood museum memory is of the Museum of London’s Great Fire exhibit. You stood in a room with a model of London in front of you, listening to Samuel Pepys’ diary describe what happened. A spark started in the model and slowly the flames spread across the model and onto the walls around you. I was completely enthralled!

My favourite memory as a museum professional is from a project I co-created with a group of young people, developing workshops for younger children. About a year later, one of the participants came to a public workshop I was running and told me he’d applied to study childcare at college because he’d enjoyed working on the project so much.

What museum would you love to visit that you haven’t been to yet?

Can I only pick one? There are so many! The Rijksmuseum, the Louvre, the Smithsonian…but the one that tops the list is The Crime Museum (also known as The Black Museum). It’s the collection of Scotland Yard and is made up of items connected to some of the most chilling crimes in British history. It’s not that I’m ghoulish, it’s just that it’s only open to police officers and even then only by appointment. Not being allowed to see it makes me want to even more.

What is your favorite museum that you have visited so far?

Ruling out all the museums I work with in Essex (you can’t ask me to choose between them!) my favourite is probably the Natural History Museum in Tring. I used to visit on rainy afternoons while I was growing up so it holds a lot of fond memories. It houses some amazing examples of Victorian taxidermy, including Mexican fleas dressed in full sets of clothes—someone actually sewed clothes for fleas!

When you think of the perfect exhibition, what is in it?

It’s not the subject, but how you present it. My favourite exhibitions have all had clear themes with text panels which presented the information in an understandable way without being patronising—usually with different levels of information so you can either take away the gist or read deeper if you wish. For example, I hate gardening, but really enjoyed my visit to the Garden Museum because they present things so well. However, I’ve seen archaeology exhibitions that I’ve expected to love and found disappointing because there was nothing to connect with non-academic audiences.

Photo from Historic Royal Palaces online store.

Photo from Historic Royal Palaces online store.

What is the most random item you’ve bought in a museum gift shop?

When I was a child, it seemed like all of my friends had wooden rulers that listed the kings and queens of England in chronological order on the back. I really wanted one, but could never convince my parents. Two years ago, I was working for English Heritage as Education Manager for their London properties and spotted these rulers in the gift shop of Wellington’s House and couldn’t resist.

What museum would you move into for a month if you could?

Eltham Palace in Greenwich. It was given to Edward II in 1305 and was a royal residence through to the 16th Century. Henry VIII spent much of his childhood there and the Tudor courts often used it for their Christmas celebrations. However, it fell into disuse and ruin. In the 1930s a new house was built incorporating much of the original building including the Great Hall. It has the most beautiful Art Deco interiors. It’s just fabulous!

What’s the most bizarre museum you’ve ever visited?

Lumina Domestica (The Lamp Museum) in Bruges. My husband and I visited last year while we were on holiday because we could get a joint ticket with the Chocolate Museum and the Frites Museum. It was actually really interesting, telling the story of man-made lighting through the centuries. I would definitely recommend a visit if you get the chance!

Photo by JD Hancock via Flickr.

Photo by JD Hancock via Flickr.

There seem to be a million books and movies set in museums. Do you have a favorite?

I could try and come up with a really intellectual answer for this, but if I’m honest it’s Ghostbusters 2. We’ve all seen portraits that look like they’ve got an evil being trapped inside waiting to escape. Plus, it has the Statue of Liberty dancing through the streets of New York—what’s not to love?

What angers/upsets/frustrates you about the way museums operate today? On the flip side, what pleases/amuses/gives you hope for the future about the way museums operate today?

People have donated objects to public museums in the belief that they’ll be looked after by professionals and enjoyed by future generations, so it upsets me when funding is cut to the point where museums aren’t able to properly care for their collections or stay open. When councils sell off museum objects to plug gaps in other parts of their budget, they’re betraying not only the original donor but everyone who’s invested in that museum through their taxes or donations.

However, there is much to give us hope for UK museums. Every week, I meet museum staff and volunteers who love what they do and have so much passion for their collections. The Museums Association’s publication Museums Change Lives illustrates the hard work museums of all sizes are doing to make a difference in their local communities.