It’s that time of year when the first emails land in my inbox requesting placements on the History Centre’s popular work experience (WEX) programme.
This year it is a little different – those early requests are arriving, but students are now looking for Virtual WEX!
In my blog from March 2020 – Celebrating Archives – I was eagerly anticipating a year of anniversaries, the highlights of which were to be Salisbury’s 800th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Events were planned, projects finalised, and we had an excuse, though none is ever really needed, to dig out some of our archival treasures that show just how connected Wiltshire is to key moments of national commemoration. And letters from Florence Nightingale would have featured in the work experience programme.
And then… the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. All certainty about future events rapidly disappeared as History Centre staff joined colleagues from across Wiltshire Council in responding to the crisis. While statutory services at the History Centre had to be maintained our usual talks and courses were cancelled; we had to close during lockdowns; our regular jaunts around the county to speak to community groups and history societies ended; and as education officer there were no school visits to plan or deliver, and no work placements to organise.
It was clear we needed to transfer what we could online, and I found myself working with colleagues from Libraries and Leisure to create resources that gave Wiltshire residents virtual opportunities to enjoy heritage, arts, literature and physical activities. The result was the Active Communities page on the Wiltshire Council website – a great resource which will hopefully have a legacy post-pandemic.
I also found myself co-ordinating the History Centre’s online presence. Colleagues, missing out on the daily rhythm of dealing with enquiries and customers, turned their energies to our website and social media platforms. They kept regular users updated and entertained, and engaged with new followers. And the hard work has paid off as we see more users, followers, likes and engagements with our various social media accounts.
Necessity drove us online in 2020 providing many challenges, but now there are opportunities in 2021, opportunities the History Centre wants to exploit. Virtual Work Experience is one of those. There will always be a need for real world, physical engagement with archives and books, photographs, painting and sculpture, artefacts and objects, not to mention being in the audience for a live theatre or musical performance. But while we wait for the time when we can return to in-person talks, courses and classroom sessions we need to make the most of the technology available.
I am working on developing a virtual work experience programme for GCSE and A-level students. Our work placements are always popular and each year we are fully booked, but we are limited in how many students we can take – normally two GCSE students in any given week and a couple of Year 12 A-level students. Geography and public transport also play a part and, while I provide a county-wide heritage education service, WEX students tend to come from Chippenham and the surrounding area.
The plan is to use an online classroom platform to deliver Virtual WEX. This has the potential to significantly increase the number of students the History Centre can reach, extending coverage to the whole of Wiltshire and Swindon, and beyond. I will always champion in-person placements and visits to the History Centre to really get hands-on with historical documents – there is a thrill to seeing and touching a document signed by Charles I or Oliver Cromwell or, having learned about Henry VIII in school, holding the marriage contract between Henry and Jane Seymour. But as an advocate for cultural education, online sessions are a valuable tool in reaching and inspiring young minds. And while students will not be able to handle the documents in a virtual session they will still be able to see them and work with them.
A key aspect of our work placement programme is the breadth of experience students enjoy, not only working with archives and local studies collections, but also learning about the work of the conservators and archaeologists based at the History Centre. It is also satisfying to see the students grow in confidence over the course of their week with us and to hear back from schools about the positive impact the placement has had on the youngsters.
We hope that those who see what we do via an online taster day will be in-person users of our services in the months and years to come. This opening up of access also supports the History Centre’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, not only as part of Wiltshire Council but also within the Archives sector.
WEX 2021 won’t be the same as previous years but we hope a virtual experience will give young people an opportunity to see what enjoyable and rewarding careers can be had in the heritage sector.