A Day in the Life of…Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Have you ever wondered what its like to work at a national museum? Spending everyday up close to one of the UK’s largest collections of arms and armour? As part of #Museumweek, we found out from Curatorial Assistant, Kathleen McIlvenna. 

Kathleen at the opening of exhibition Line of Kings

Kathleen at the opening of exhibition Line of Kings

My role is very varied and involves working with the collections and research, as well as working with the public – answering enquires, managing volunteer projects and some education work.

I started at the Royal Armouries in October 2012, having previously worked and volunteered in a number of museums including the Science Museum, National Maritime Museum and Hackney Museum. In addition to the experience of working within a museum I soon realised in order to pursue a curatorial career that worked with collections and included research, I probably needed an MA. I gained an MA in Historical Research in 2011. My first paid museum job working with collections was a part-time role as Museum Assistant at Enfield Museum Service during which I also started a part-time PhD. The PhD is one of the Collaborative Doctoral Awards with the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) looking at the nineteenth century Post Office. Subsequently I was in a good position with practical museum experience and strong research skills to get this role, and who could turn down a job at the Tower of London?

Luckily there is no such thing as a normal day in my job. Being part of a small team based at the Tower can involve travelling across London to inspect a loan or pick up an acquisition. Alternatively I could be based in the office doing research or overseeing volunteers. We have several offices and stores within the Tower, so on some days if I need to move objects or escort researchers I feel like I have walked miles!

I really enjoy the variety of the job and working with such an astounding collection in a spectacular location.

I’m passionate about history so I really enjoy being able to do research into the history of the Tower of London, those that worked here and the collection held here. The more challenging aspects are probably finding different ways to communicate that history with the public. Writing for a blog or an online exhibition requires different skills to working with colleagues to present a handling session or giving a formal paper, but I enjoy every opportunity to share my enthusiasm.

Benjamin Disraeli visiting the Tower of London in 1871

Benjamin Disraeli visiting the Tower of London in 1871

I have recently worked on a great volunteer project repackaging a collection of foreshore finds from a dig in 1986.  I worked with the Museum of London Archaeological Archive (formerly LAARC) to get advice on best practice for storing archaeological finds and also to recruit four volunteers to work on the collection.

The project has nearly finished, but it has been a real joy to work with these skilled people, sharing both experience and knowledge. The volunteers had experience of working with archaeological objects and had often done some archaeological mapping of the Thames foreshore. We were able to give them additional historical background on that section of the foreshore, as the material we were repackaging is evidence of Ordnance workshops, and we could share our expertise in identifying standard issue weapon parts.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Furthermore, working with groups and individuals with an active interest in the areas these collections touched on, has allowed us to discover new value to the material, as the photographic archive of the dig clearly demonstrates the amount of erosion that has occurred to the site. In light of current concerns about the speed and extent of foreshore erosion, our dig assumes new importance in recording an area now lost. You can read more about what the volunteers have been up to on their blog.

This probably sounds quite grim, but my favourite objects in the Royal Armouries collection are the block and axe. They are ubiquitous to the Tower of London and the biographies of these objects are fantastic representations of the history of the Tower as a prison and then tourist attraction. The block was used in the execution of Lord Lovat in 1747, and has two cuts on the upper surface, suggesting the axe man either had a trial cut or the block was possibly used for a beheading before Lovat. The axe is from the Tower stores, and although we don’t have anything to confirm its use, records suggest the Tower had four execution axes in store in the 17th century. Both these items have been on display together since the nineteenth century when Yeoman Warders of the time would take delight in asking visitors to lay their heads on the block.

Something people might not know is how old we are, the Royal Armouries’ collection originates from the Office of Ordnance stores that were based in and around the Tower of London and had objects on display for visitors to enjoy from the seventeenth century!

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.