Steph Bennett is a joint honours History and English student, currently undertaking a year in industry placement at the Cultural Institute. Now halfway through her campus placement year, she reflects on her experience to date.
This role is part of the campus internships- exclusive to University of Leeds students they are a fantastic way for undergraduates to secure paid work experience. To find out how to register your interest and receive updates visit the Leeds Internship Programme page.
Why I applied
I was initially attracted to a placement year at the Cultural Institute because I wanted more experience in the cultural sector. My personal tutor had frequently recommended taking a year out between second and third year to either do an industrial placement or to go abroad, but at first I dismissed this idea in favour of continuing straight to third year. However, when on a whim I read the job description for the Cultural Institute internship, I was intrigued about the prospect of working with such influential arts organisations in the city like the Thackray Medical Museum, Henry Moore Institute and The Tetley. Financially, the idea was also attractive because I wanted to have a comfortable cushion which I could potentially use to fund a postgraduate course. I thought that gaining some experience would be valuable after graduation as I have grudgingly accepted that graduate roles are often difficult to obtain in the arts sector and are often poorly paid.
When I was invited to interview, I had to prepare a presentation about the cultural industries, which began to develop my thinking about the wider context of the sector from the start. I hadn’t been sure how relevant my experience as a History and English student would be to the role — I’ve volunteered for English Heritage and the West Yorkshire Archive Service for over a year and had a year-long internship with the School of History, but was unsure if this would be applicable to any role outside of an archive or heritage position. However, my previous experience was seen favourably by the panel because of its relevance to the wider cultural industries. I was delighted when I was offered the role, and began my internship in July 2018.
From nervous beginnings to dream work experience
Unbelievably, I am now six months in, or half way through my placement. At first, a placement year seemed daunting, and I was nervous about what might be expected of me in a professional setting after the flexibility of student life. I anticipated the stereotype of the intern: making cups of tea and photocopies. In reality however, my initial idea of the role has been transformed entirely. My colleagues at the Cultural Institute made it clear that the internship is a development role and really took my ambitions into account so that I had opportunities to flourish professionally. After mentioning my interest in gaining experience in a museum setting, they arranged for me to take a placement with Leeds Museums and Galleries.
Primarily working alongside the curator of Archaeology, Kat Baxter, I’ve developed skills in object-handling and analysis, preservation of materials, cataloguing and accessioning objects, and how also valuable experience of how exhibitions are planned and run. This placement will now continue until the end of my internship in June 2019, and I’m excited to work with Kat on the Egyptology and numismatics collections alongside the medieval objects that I have been focussing on until now. I am hoping to use this experience to delve further into the museum sector and eventually develop a career in a museum setting after graduation.
Understanding the sector
Crucially, through my role at the Cultural Institute I’ve deepened my understanding of the current problems facing the cultural and creative sector, and the strategies being implemented to combat them. For example, by researching news and strategy information and compiling monthly briefing reports for colleagues at the University, I’ve developed a strong understanding of the cultural landscape at the moment. I’ve reported to colleagues throughout the University, and prepared briefing materials for important meetings, supporting the team and ensuring that everyone is updated with the relevant information. However, I still feel there’s more to learn, and I’m looking forward to another six months at the Cultural Institute with new challenges.
As an English student, I have always prided myself on my writing ability, but the placement has so far offered new opportunities for writing for many different purposes and audiences. I’ve learned that clear communication is key to the running of such a small team, and I have a keener appreciation for the value of teamwork. I have learned how to write detailed shorthand notes and compose minutes for meetings in the chosen style of the University, but also adapted to the sense of style, tone and purpose for the Cultural Institute’s social media platforms and understood how to engage an audience through various methods to boost interaction. Building on journalism skills acquired through writing and editing for The Gryphon Arts, I’ve collaborated with DARE to publish blog posts to boost engagement on their site. I conducted a series of professional interviews with academics across the University about some of the programmes such as Leeds Creative Labs. These articles have been published on the DARE website and have helped to increase engagement and communication about the Leeds Creative Labs.
My placement year has also developed crucial administrative skills, and I’ve enjoyed settling into a professional office environment. I employ these skills to support my team in the booking of venues, catering and managing attendees and guests. I have supported my team in the running a range of events, including Light Night 2018 and the launch of an Arts and Health network in collaboration with Leeds City Council, building my confidence with event management and project development. Training opportunities have boosted the breadth of my experience of finance and travel administration, so that I can confidently support my team with anything that they may require.
A highlight of my time so far is the opportunity to independently coordinate a project between Opera North and Leeds University Libraries’ Special Collections, where I have developed policies which will be used to assess which materials should be included in Opera North’s archive. I enjoyed researching material acquisition in archives and museums. This independent, desk-based research was a good way to become familiar with new topics and concepts, and I hope will be useful in my future studies. This project will eventually yield an archive collections policy for Opera North, creating a resource to enable practitioners to make decisions about Opera North’s history is retained and ultimately creating a lasting legacy that researchers and students can use.
Support from colleagues
Having worked on a range of projects, both long and short-term, I’ve successfully managed to build various skills that will be transferable after graduation and into my chosen career path. My goals for the future are clearer than they were previously, and I now know the wealth of opportunities and resources that are available to help with this endeavour. I didn’t expect to make such close friends with my colleagues at the Institute, but I’m incredibly grateful for their enduring support. Having such lovely co-workers is a comforting thought whenever I am unsure about anything and need to ask for help. It is a fantastic working environment; intelligent, diligent and witty, and I can confidently say that I have never had a more enjoyable role.
The next six months
I am keen to continue my professional development in the final six months of my role at the Cultural Institute, which I’m sure will pass swiftly. In the next few months, as well as continuing my placement at Leeds Museums and Galleries with Kat Baxter, I will be commencing a large joint project with colleagues at Student Services to compile a report on student opportunities in the cultural and creative sector. The data has never before been analysed and shared across the University, but is incredibly important when developing new modules and placements for students in Leeds, so I’m looking forward to leading a project that will have real impact.
I am really glad that I decided to apply for the role, it’s truly amazing what can happen. I’m eager to improve my skills so that by the time I graduate I can be confident when applying for roles in the cultural sector. To any students that are considering a placement year, I really couldn’t recommend it highly enough. With passion and enthusiasm, you may just be surprised about how much you can achieve.
There are still campus internships available now- including placement year opportunities- but they are closing soon. For more information and to apply visit the jobs section on the University of Leeds website