How I Do History: Isabelle Richards

So… what am I doing with that history degree?

Mine’s actually a degree in Archaeology, followed by an MA in Cultural Heritage Management. But I studied and loved history at school, all the way up to my A Levels (age 16-18 in England). If I hadn’t, I’d never have picked my degree subjects!

Archaeology sounded like hands-on, team-work history to me, and I thought ‘what could be better?’. After one too many rainy days kneeling in a trench, I realised I’d much rather spend my time above ground and with the public. That led me to choose my MA subject, which gave me a good grounding in a range of disciplines related to keeping history safe and helping people to understand and appreciate it. I argued for local landmarks to be added to heritage lists, I designed resources to be used by school groups in a military museum, I assisted with the winter clean of a historic property during one of my placements.

That sounds like a really broad spectrum of tasks, but it’s a good job it was, because the best thing about my current role is how varied it is! I work as the Heritage Engagement Officer on a Heritage Lottery Funded project that commemorates the history of the Separatists who became Mayflower Pilgrims. (Better known, in previous years as the Pilgrim Fathers: best known for ‘founding America’ – although the continent had been occupied for thousands of years already!) 

I work in the Pilgrims Gallery at Bassetlaw Museum (Retford, Nottinghamshire, UK) and across the Pilgrim Roots region (North Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire & Lincolnshire, UK). My work involves connecting with stakeholders; supporting, recruiting and training volunteers; managing our social media strategy; writing content for our website, interpretation and learning offer; delivering sessions to schools and informal learners; giving talks to local community groups; and very occasionally appearing on TV and radio. 

Oh! And dressing up – that seems to be the most memorable bit for a lot of my friends. On a given day I may put on and take off my 17th century persona several times, attend strategic staff meetings, process invoices, make a short film or podcast, deal with delightfully giddy children, and then deal with trolls on the internet. I don’t mind any of this, I try to remember that engagement is not just enjoyment but reaction, and the best interpretation is a provocation of some kind. 

Beyond the variety of tasks I get to sink my teeth into, the best bit of my job is its overarching purpose. Whenever I’m caught up in admin or budgeting and my enthusiasm starts to lag, I can think about why this project, and in fact heritage as a whole, matters. History and heritage can be about more than facts and dates, but developing a sense of self through examining the big questions in life. The Pilgrim Roots project has the themes of migration, freedom, acceptance and democracy. Looking at these things through historic and modern lenses lets our visitors, of all ages, consider what matters to them, what they believe in, and what they would be prepared to travel half the way around the world for. 

It’s also a narrative with lots to tell us today about how information can be manipulated deliberately or gradually through the passage of time: a useful thing for us all to remember. The Mayflower story has been populated with myths and misconceptions through the centuries, some tiny – like the fact buckles on hats were not fashionable until decades later – and some really momentous – like the fact Native Americans had been living in that part of America for at least 10,000 years before the Pilgrims arrived. I’m using my degree to help people engage with the layers in that story. 

But sometimes it does feel like I am using my degree just to make a spectacle of myself! When in costume and chatting to the youngest school groups about vomit on the Mayflower, I definitely can’t take myself too seriously! But actually, the costume is a great tool to get people interested, and maybe part of that interest is people wondering ‘What would lead someone to make themselves conspicuous like that?!’. 

I’m also using my degree outside of work, where I support a lot of churches and lead my own through our council. My degree helps me in all of my volunteering roles (most of which involve committee meetings) through my experience of weighing up evidence and balancing seemingly contradictory needs. Studying history through the years has helped make me a critical thinker, able to see if prejudice is swaying someone’s stance and often able to help in bringing them around. With the churches, heritage building modules in my degrees have also given me enough understanding to advise on conservation and maintenance issues before they deteriorate so much we have to bring in an expensive expert. 

I’m using research skills developed through years of historic and archaeological study to gather evidence whenever and wherever I need it in my life. Years of essay writing and debate crafting help give me confidence in leading a discussion or, say, volunteering to write a guest blog! There are so many advantages to studying history that apply in everyday life and would make students sterling candidates for all manner of jobs. Any industry needs people who can research, write and debate well: who can nimbly handle evidence and express themselves fluently. 

I know I’m biased, but I can’t see any real downside to studying history or heritage if it’s something you’re naturally drawn to. Choosing those subjects for a period of study gives you opportunities to connect with the stories and people of the past, which can ground and shape you as an individual, as well as give you quirky anecdotes to share. Heritage jobs are competitive, but they’re also incredibly rewarding. If you find that the heritage sector is not for you, you’ll still be equipped with transferable skills and a unique perspective that will always be an advantage in the job market. 

In the meantime, you might actually enjoy yourself!

You can find out more about the Pilgrim Roots project on our website http://www.pilgrimroots.org

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