10 Minutes With Rachel Cartwright

Each week I spend 10 minutes with someone from the cultural-sector-meets-digital and ask them about their career, opinions, and what’s on their radar.

This week I spoke with Rachel Cartwright.

Rachel Cartwright, Digital Engagement Officer at South West Museum Development

Don’t think of your career as linear: go for opportunities when they come up, you never know what elements from your wider experience might pave the way for what comes next.

Photo credit: ©Culture24.


☕ Tea or coffee?

Right now a cup of Yorkshire tea with milk though I am a morning coffee drinker.

💼 About your career and where you are now: accidental or intentional?

Possibly a bit of both I think – I have intentionally moved around in location and roles but it was never mapped out so definitely elements of the accidental. I graduated in History of Art and at first was not quite sure what pathway I could take but was aware I needed experience so I earned money through hospitality work in order to do internships / traineeships. I had always been interested in books, archives, preservation of heritage, so got a traineeship in an academic library about a year after my degree. Through this experience I applied for a summer traineeship at the Guggenheim in New York in the Library and Archive. It was an incredible opportunity and this definitely fuelled my interest contemporary art museums and specialist libraries.

After this I applied for a Europa scheme to work in Italy, Padova, to learn the language and receive a work placement (in an office) and a shared apartment. I wanted to stay in Italy so applied and got a paid traineeship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice during the Biennale. As well as general gallery duties I worked with the conservator and my placement was extended for another term to work on a project. I then returned to England and got a position in the library and archive at the Royal College of Art. After 2 years I started the role of Archivist at Damien Hirst’s studio Science Ltd. Here I worked on a wide range of things: publications, exhibition support including the retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012, image licensing and collections management. 

After two years there I had an itch to travel and, after some alignment of other factors, I left London with my partner and moved to Australia for 6 months to earn money to travel Asia for a year. Whilst travelling we couch surfed, worked on farms and vineyards, taught English and had some of the most incredible and memorable experiences. I wholeheartedly recommend those starting out to also take time to travel and experience things that aren’t as available once you are on a pathway… (and if there isn’t a pandemic restricting things).

I moved to Bristol in 2015 and worked freelance on public art projects including cataloguing the wood collection for Katie Paterson’s Hollow. I continued my freelance work for an Art Council England funded project with a focus on Cultural Tourism, where I project managed the website build GoBathBristol. Another strand I led on was to support the consortium of 25 cultural organisations across Bristol and Bath with a digital optimisation programme, led by Creative Tourist. After this temporarily funded project I came to this role as a Digital Engagement Officer for South West Museum Development. 

So it was never a straight pathway, and all the different experiences I’ve had I believe are benefiting me in this position today as I bring lots of influences to the table.

📚 Describe your current job

I have two jobs – I work for South West Museum Development 4 days a week, and one day a week I work for the contemporary artist, Richard Long, on their archive. 

South West Museum Development is part of the Museum Development Network funded by the Arts Council as a sector support organisation: we support museums with all elements of the accreditation standard. The organisation is hosted by Bristol City Council and our office is in Bristol Museums and Art Gallery. We work with mostly small to medium museums in the South West, non-NPOs, non-nationals, (it’s currently197 museums, 34% of these are volunteer-led). I support those museums with their online audience engagement: websites, social media, digital strategy, collections online and all things related to those topics. 

Every day is varied because I work on emerging trends, enquiries, projects and develop and deliver training.

🤩 What are you working on right now that you’re particularly enjoying?

There are lots of different things happening at the moment! I am traditionally more of a do-er and I like to implement things and get stuck into projects, this role is different as it is more advising and supporting. Since the pandemic started, there has been a huge shift in our museums thinking about online engagement and an emphasis to create and publish more content. I have recently been supporting some museums who have received recovery / emergency funding and this has been great to see them bring in extra support and investing in longer term strategy with online audience engagement.

📣 What’s happening in the industry that’s on your radar?

There are so many things changing continually and it is so much to stay connected with. I’m really interested in rights management, particularly in museums that are using their out of copyright works (CC0), making them available to everybody in high resolution. Birmingham Museums springs to mind here, with the work they have done with Cold War Steve: the way they have been rethinking how they’d use those images, and encouraging the engagement and reinterpretation of those images. Also, the National Lottery Heritage Fund has new criteria requiring open licenses to be made on any digital outputs created from funded projects, I think it’s a really bold and positive move for the sector. 

NFT’s have really caught my attention recently and I am fascinated to watch this unfold in relation to museums – the article in Museum Next is a good introduction.

There are so many great digital support unfolding for the cultural and heritage sector at the moment: the investment from the Arts Council with the DCN Tech Champions has been a huge and welcome shift, and the NLHF Digital Skills for Heritage programme over the past year. On the museum level, things I’m looking at with a keen eye are the Vagina Museum, the Happy Museum Project, and the Refugees Exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

📖 Anything you’d recommend to read/watch/listen to?

I recommend The DO Lectures: I volunteered for their yearly gathering, Do Wales, in 2019 and it was a real shift for me in thinking about our approach to the world, our lives and our decision making as humans… all big stuff! Their newsletter always brings light to my inbox and they have a series of ‘Do’ books, all on themes of personal development.

There are some really good museum podcasts: The Uncomfortable Truths from Bristol Museum, a great project and really worth a listen. And there is also the Museums n’That podcast, developed by Leeds Museums & Galleries, which is composed of nice conversational pieces. 

💡 What advice would you give someone who would like to do what you do?

Having varied experience can be a real bonus: coming to a role with a wide perspective (like mentoring others, how you work with people, soft skills) make a real difference. Don’t think of your career as linear: go for opportunities when they come up, you never know what elements from your wider experience might pave the way for what comes next. So don’t worry if you feel that you are currently in a position that doesn’t seem to add up to your dream role. Balance work with life and make sure you have a good time along the way.

Digital engagement is moving very quickly, and much innovation is coming from outside of the sector, so I’d say it can be useful to have a varied experience and not necessarily solely in this sector. 

Don’t compare yourself to others: take pride in what you do, let it bring you some joy, and good things will come. 

Network, but I don’t see it in a strategic way, get to know people well, making meaningful connections and support people where possible – it definitely makes a difference.

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