Experiencing Local History: A Student Placement

Female Gym Students from Carshalton Convent (St. Philomenas), photographed in 1907 by David Knights-Whittome

Female Gym Students from Carshalton Convent (St. Philomenas), photographed in 1907 by David Knights-Whittome

One of the most enjoyable parts of this job is meeting new people every week – both historical (in our glass plates) and real life flesh and blood through the door! Most of the people I talk to in the course of my work have a lifelong passion for history and heritage – most of our volunteers certainly fall into this category. And those I meet who do similar work on other projects are likewise invariably enthusiastic about their vocation. It is unusual to meet anyone in this field who does not love what they do. Last week we were lucky enough to be joined by a student from a local school who was here for a short work experience placement. It is hard to imagine what the world of work is like when you are just setting out. Certainly I had no idea myself of the sheer variety of work out there while still at school, and so you always wonder how these experiences will be for a student. Will they find the week interesting? Inspiring? Boring? Will it reinforce an interest, or set them on another path altogether? My own week of work experience in a museum while at school did not really give me any idea of what a career in heritage would entail and I was largely kept busy making tea and lists. Had I based my eventual choices on this week I’m not sure I would be here today.

Luckily, at The Past on Glass, we are happy for any additional help which comes our way and we have some real and essential tasks to offer a student here in the Archives; tasks that my team of fabulous volunteers and myself undertake everyday. Our student, Momina set about them with enthusiasm and an eye for detail which ensured she fitted right in to the team. We were pleased to have her here and would welcome her back anytime should she like to come and volunteer in future. Hosting a student work experience placement is something I have found to be a very worthwhile exercise in my past workplaces and again here. Rather than being a one-way street, it can be a beneficial experience for both parties. In today’s blog, Momina talks about her week with us here at Sutton. What she has written makes me very proud. We have a great project in which we all feel very privileged to play a part and I am so pleased that Momina enjoyed her week here with us. I certainly hope she will find it useful when it comes to making decisions about her own future career path.

Momina at work on a school placement with the project.

Momina at work on a school placement with the project.

“I showed up, nervous, scared and a bit unsure of what I was going to be doing for a week, on my first day as a volunteer. This was the first time I was anywhere near a project like this and I was ready to sit in a corner and silently do whatever job required of me, for a week, but that was not how it was to be.

Spending my hours in the local studies and archives office in Sutton has been an incredibly engaging experience, and one that pleasantly surprised me in the best of ways.

I am an enthusiastic reader of fiction, but here in the room where we sit and clean, research and catalogue these delicate glass plates, history comes alive. When you look in the eyes of these people in the glass plates that lived more than a hundred years ago, many in the same area from where I sit and write this blog now, it’s captivating. These people are not conjured up from an author’s imagination, they were real, they lived, had hopes had dreams and though they seemed distant and only seemed to exist in history books before I joined this project, now however, they exist outside the plates for me.

I have experienced almost an entire rainbow of emotion here in the room that we work, while I meticulously cleaned the plates another volunteer next to me would research a young soldier who we all agreed looked so young and vulnerable in an oversized uniform, only to find out that he died 4 months after the photograph was taken in WW1. It breaks my heart, and makes me want to repeat what Rita said, with sad reluctance “you can’t die, I just met you!”

The life of a nurse who was found dead in a French hotel stays with me longer then it should being the last thing I think about as I fall asleep. As well as the photo I came across scanning the plates of a mother and child staring endearingly into each other’s eyes, and the laugh of another baby forever immortalised in the moment where the flash first captured it in 1911 will lastingly stay with me.

I am glad I stumbled on this project and I am ever grateful that I was given this opportunity to learn new skills, where I was incredibly comfortable and eased out of my shell surrounded by the volunteers and supervisors who were ever so helpful and patient when I would hold up an envelope confused as to what name was spelled out, unable to decipher the Edwardian handwriting. The energy of the place has been constantly positive and being with people who are just as fascinated by history and the past as I am has led to this being an extremely delightful week.  I will most probably be back to the Sutton Local Studies and Archives office (and the past), what can I say? I’m hooked.”

With thanks to Momina, and to Carshalton High School for Girls.  If you are interested in volunteering for the project yourself you can get in touch with project officer Abby Matthews by filling in the form below.

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