Explore Your Archive: Interview with Guy Baxter, University Archivist

Whitney, our marketing volunteer, has been continuing her exploration of the world of archives in an interview with University Archivist, Guy Baxter…


Guy image interview

  1. What is your job title and what do you do within the museum?

I’m the University archivist. I’m responsible for the University’s archive collections. Most of the archives I look after are the ones the University has collected but I also have responsibility for University’s own records that are of historical importance. The high profile archives we have are the archives of the Museum of English Rural Life, the archive of British Publishing and Printing and the Samuel Beckett archive

  1. What skills have you learnt within the world of archiving?

To be an archivist you need to have enthusiasm for history. You often have to deal with complex information in a way that has long term outcomes. In order to achieve that you must learn how to deal with people; sometimes people facing delicate circumstances in the context of bereavement, going into residential care or becoming redundant.

  1. Did you study a degree relevant to what you are doing at the moment?

I did history as my undergraduate degree and I did a one year taught master’s professional qualification in archive administration. There aren’t many archive courses but to get into a museum you need to have large blocks of experience, so after your degree you generally do a year’s graduate trainee type experience which is something we support here.

  1. Has your job role changed since you started?

I think my role has broadened.  You end up involved in lots of different things when you work somewhere like MERL where it’s a small team. You have to be able to cover for each other. I now spend a lot of doing things like facilitating relationships between different stakeholders and supporting academics, or negotiating how we make archives available.

  1. What type of jobs and projects do you manage or oversee?

Some are externally funded projects and some are in-house projects. There might be digitisation, cataloguing or outreach projects. We’ve got short terms and long term projects, like our relationship with the Landscape Institute which I oversee which is a cataloguing and engagement project they’re funding. So it’s very varied. At the moment a lot of our focus is on the new Museum of English Rural Life galleries

  1. Have you had to branch outside of archiving and adapt yourself to other museum roles throughout your career?

Yes. In my previous role I was the Archivist as well as the Conservation Manager across collections. At one point I was managing the Loans Officer which means I had to understand that whole process. You need to understand elements of lots of different roles which makes for a varied career but obviously it’s a big challenge.

  1. Does it help to understand the bigger picture of your work and the organization as a whole?

The University needs us to be keyed into lots of things that are going on. We can’t just do what we want we need to think about the University’s priorities. We therefore have to be broad in the kind of things we support. That’s one of the great things about working here.

  1. What has kept you passionate and curious about museum work?

What I really love is making links between things that people haven’t thought of before and being able to see those pathways and occasionally even make new discoveries. You need to want to create order out of chaos and you have to get a certain amount of innate satisfaction from that to keep the drive going. The end result is that people discover new things they didn’t know which they can put into their essays.

  1. What is the most important quality you look for in an archivist?

You need a good level of attention to detail and accuracy. You need to be able to prioritize. I always look for people who have good professional instincts. Archive work is tricky if you overthink it because although we have to base decisions on some evidence, we don’t always know what the future research value of something will be. So we have to make informed guesses about what’s important and what’s a footnote. You need to have a passion for the stories that would come out of our past.

  1. Whats the most exciting part of your job?

I always really like teaching especially when the students give me something back or they’ve discovered something new. I find that really amazing. I like it when we make progress on things that have been waiting for a long time. For instance, we’ve had an archive on loan for about 40years which has finally been granted to the University.

  1. Do you have any projects or ongoing work youre doing at the moment?

A lot of our work is going into the relaunch of new galleries and on the Landscape Institute archive with the initial stages for the funding now coming to an end. We are also engaged in a lot of academic projects.

  1. What advice would you give to students hoping to become archivists or work in a museum?

Get work experience! I know it’s hard to volunteering work or an internship when you need paid work. I would suggest just getting good blocks of experience as well. You can pick up a flavour of somewhere from a short stay but you really need to be in every day to get an idea of what the place and the job is really like.


Students take over!

This update from our Activity Plan team is written by Rachael Rogers, who has been a member of the MERL Student Panel since September. Over the last year, members have been advising us and getting involved in many aspects of the museum’s redevelopment. Rachael writes about the current project which the panel has been managing: the design of the museum’s ‘Social Learning Space’… somewhere for our visitors to relax in, reflect upon their visit and to discover more about our collections.

Since it was launched in 2013, MERL’s Student Panel has played a key role in the museum’s redevelopment plans, contributing to areas such as facilities, collections, accessibility and design, helping to bring new perspective to how the museum works and its accessibility to students and the wider public. So far this term, the panel’s discussions have been focused on our new Social Learning Space which will be located in the area in front of the reception foyer, and the adjacent room.

Student ideas

Our main incentive has been to make this an accessible area, somewhere people can relax, consider the museum’s collection, and, especially for students, work in a comfortable environment; all factors we considered in our 28th October session where we created mood boards, taking ideas from home and design magazines to build upon our own vision of the space we want to create.

Student panel ideas

We then took our ideas to London on  11th November, where we met with Penny Richards, founder director of Pringle Richards Sharratt, whose sister company GuM is heading MERL’s redevelopment design plans.

Students at GUM

We took this opportunity to put forward our ideas regarding furniture and décor, access to the collections, and lighting, using our mood boards to emphasise the predominantly Victorian styles we had in mind, a style that we felt would help to incorporate the history of the house. From this we toyed with the idea of features inspired by room’s original purpose as a kitchen, or alternatively creating a Victorian study feel, using Victorian style shelving, brown leather sofas, and a Victorian wall, incorporating various paintings and posters to emphasise the breadth of the collection and provide another means of access for students and the wider public.

Student mood board

This meeting provided us with the opportunity to really consider the finer details of the space we want to create. Penny took our points on board, building upon our ideas and helping us to design an environment that will fulfil its role as a social learning space. This included considering factors such as its providing access to the collection and other resources through Wi-Fi and iPads, as well as its privacy. The second room acts as a thoroughfare to the Reading Room and the museum’s offices. For this reason is can be busy at times with people walking through, opening and closing doors. This was one of our main focus points in this meeting, with Penny suggesting a number of potential solutions to this issue such as the use of high back chairs or curtains, creating a divide and therefore privacy for those working in the room. Overall this meeting allowed us to clarify our plans and ideas, helping us to identify the various components of this aspect of the redevelopment, and providing us with a professional insight to ensure our social learning space fulfils its intended role.

While in London we also went to the National Portrait Gallery and met with Rachel Moss, who heads NPG’s Youth Forum, where we discussed the structure of their young person’s outreach, considering the roles their forum undertakes both in the museum and within the wider community. Many of their ventures aim to promote youth involvement, local pride, and creativity, with ongoing events including;

  • ‘Pick Up a Pencil’, which runs every third Saturday of the month and hosts drop-in drawing sessions for 14-21 year olds
  • BP Next Generation, an annual event, currently in its sixth year and which engages 14-19 year olds in portraiture
  • Creative Connections: A four year project (2012-16) which aims to inspire and raise aspirations across four London boroughs.
  • Youth Insights: Van Dyck and Portraiture. Part of Museum Takeover Day 2015, involving youth forum volunteers in a public presentation regarding the work of portrait artist Van Dyck.

Students at NPG

Talking about NPG’s current ventures and future plans regarding expanding youth involvement and community outreach highlighted to us the ways that museums can be used, not only as a centre for learning and research, but also as a key figure within local communities, engaging a wide audience and creating greater accessibility into the heritage sector and, in the case of NPG, the artistic sector. One of the main things this meeting emphasised is how MERL’s redevelopment has the potential to expand beyond its collections and design. Through groups such as the student panel we hope to extend our outreach into local communities and areas slightly further afield, making the museum and its collections a more accessible facility and promoting awareness of the significance the heritage sector and the opportunities it can provide to all levels of the local community.

Since our trip to London, we have met again with Penny to discuss our ideas for the space and consider any developments. Overall, the main outcome of this meeting was that we would take more time to consider Penny’s ideas for the Social Learning Space, splitting ourselves three groups to focus on different areas of the development plans. Lisa, Clare, Siobhan, and Matthew have consulted with and presented their ideas to staff members in order to gain wider feedback. Chloe, Caroline, Aainaa, and Rhea have been considering the practicalities of the layout proposed by Penny, including the availability of kitchenalia and methods of obtaining these items. This has so far included considering public campaign ideas aimed towards the local Reading community.

Students SLS layout

Finally Phylicia, Imogen, Melina-Louise, Polly, Samuel, and myself have been considering power sources, including looking at both lighting and power outlets around the room, and the ways in which these facilities can be developed to suit the needs of those using the space. We’ll be meeting with Penny again soon to look at our developments and see how they can be incorporated into the design.

#merlshopisopen : Christmas!

The Museum might be closed, but we’re not missing out on a bit of Christmas cheer in the MERL shop! Find out more about some exciting new ranges and future plans…

Christmas is upon us! But here in the MERL shop, we’ve been ready for Christmas since early November. Out came the decorations, the beautiful Christmas cards and our special Christmas knitted sheep, perfect for hanging on the tree. This year we’re trying to make shopping easier, with specially selected gifts that make the perfect present and items that are great stocking fillers. With our wrapping paper and gift tags, you can get all you need for Christmas right here!

Shop Christmas sheep

The famous MERL sheep in her Christmas jumper

As a museum shop, we pride ourselves on being different from the high street chains and sourcing local products whenever we can. Our gifts are not only themed to fit our museum and archives, but also quirky and original. Our Suzy T range is exclusive to MERL and we also have a selection of gifts based on the Huntley and Palmers archive.

H&P shop3

Even though the museum galleries are currently closed, the shop is still open, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. With the museum developing, our shop will develop too. We’ve got plans for a larger shop area and have been expanding our stock, finding some great new gifts. We now have an even wider range of cards with beautiful designs, great for every occasion.

Shop Farmers Daughter

A tea towel in the Farmer’s Daughter range

Two new ranges we are selling are A Farmer’s Daughter, which has a lovely selection of kitchen items including place mats and tea towels, and Hanna products which use the beautiful images from the Country Fair magazines held at MERL.

Shop Hanna sheep tin

Sweet tin in the Hanna Country Fair range

We still have a large range of books, handmade pottery and locally produced chutneys, honey and fudge, so there is something for everyone.

With more space and stock, our shop will get even better whilst still maintaining the qualities that make us unique.