Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?
Alexandra Ault, Lead Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850 at the British Library.
What does your job involve? Give us the typical outline of a day?
My work involves helping to care for a vast collection of manuscripts from 1601-1850 with particularly strong holdings relating to literature, science, history and politics. Although much of the material relates to Great Britain and Europe, it is a global collection and contains items from around the world. No one day is the same. I assess material for display, loan and exhibition; write exhibition labels; acquire new manuscripts from donors, at auctions and from dealers; write exhibition proposals; manage small and large digitisation projects; collaborate with external academic partners on research projects; give talks (both online and in person); present material for film and sound broadcast; help members of the public and researchers with queries; identify cataloguing and conservation priorities; manage PhD student research placements; and so much more.
What’s great about your job?
The manuscripts! The material is so varied there is always something new to discover. From original manuscripts by William Blake, Jane Austen and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to letters by Ada Lovelace and Royal Society volumes, there is so much breadth and depth to the collections. I also love the variety of the job and I am lucky enough to work with lots of incredible people.
What are the bits you don’t like or find challenging?
There is nothing I dislike about my job. There is often more demand on the collections than can be accommodated, so that sometimes means we can’t say yes to each exhibition or research proposal. There is also a lot of administration but it is entirely necessary! Much of the role can feel a little like project management but this is also necessary and I don’t see it as a bad thing.
What are the highlights of your career to date?
Curating a series of manuscript exhibitions across China for the British Library in 2016-2018; successfully acquiring the ‘Melford Hall’ manuscript (an ‘unknown’ volume of poems by John Donne); filming with Fiona Bruce and Nicola Benedetti for a Sky Arts Programme about the British Library.
What was your career path into this job? Have you also worked outside the arts?
I read History of Art at the Courtauld for my BA and MA. I always worked in school holidays so I obtained sound administrative and computer skills mostly through temping. My first job after University was for an American firm called Artnet which led to me finding a Sales Administrator role in the Chinese Department at Sotheby’s Auctioneers. I moved to the British Pictures Department at Sotheby’s where I worked with the wonderful Henry Wemyss in the British and European watercolours and drawings section. From there I moved to Bonhams Auctioneers as a junior specialist in Watercolours and Drawings. My next role was as an Assistant Curator at the National Portrait Gallery which in turn led me to the British Library as a cataloguer of King George III’s Topographical Collection of prints and drawings. I was then lucky enough to move to the Manuscripts Department first as curator, then as lead curator. Having sound organisational and management skills coupled with a love of works on paper helped me navigate a career stretching between private and public institutions.
Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?
I have faced both redundancy and multiple temporary and short term contracts at various points in my career. While unsettling, they provided incredible opportunity for change and development – each temporary contract meant I was willing to look for other short-term contracts – which in turn yielded varied experience.
Have you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what?
Digital skills are increasingly necessary for curatorial work. Additionally, the ability to write across many different formats is now expected – I am often required to write an academic article and a series of tweets at the same time.
You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?
Continue to follow the subjects in which you are most interested. And spend your spare time visiting museums and galleries. If an interview isn’t successful, it just means another opportunity is waiting round the corner.
Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?
Get as much experience in your holidays as you can. And apply for internships. If you can temp then obtaining office skills (or digital skills) is a great way to add to your CV while earning some extra money. Make sure you are thoroughly prepared for interviews – and research each role and institution so you feel confident when being questioned. Interviewers like to see the candidates are familiar with their organisation and work.