An Example of Resilience and Strength amongst UK Art Institutions

The Heritage Partnerships Team and the Oxford University Heritage Network (OUHN), working closely with the Oxford University Careers Service, set up and funded this four-week summer internship with Milton Keynes (MK) Gallery. This internship was funded through the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF). 

The current global pandemic has hit the heritage sector with unprecedented severity, forcing many institutions to put a halt to their artistic programmes and close their doors to the public for several months. More than a mere inconvenience, this crisis has put museums and galleries in jeopardy, and, with them, the millions of passionate professionals who work behind the scenes to provide a dynamic and vibrant cultural offer to nurture our mind and soul. Nevertheless, the hardship has also exposed the unyielding spirit and unwavering commitment of this group of inspiring people who, in the face of adversity, have found novel and imaginative ways to bring art into our homes. This internship with MK Gallery was an opportunity to witness the tenacity, resilience and hard work of those dedicated to supporting and promoting art and artists throughout the country and the rest of the world.

As an Exhibitions Assistant, I worked closely with the Exhibitions team, which comprises Fay Blanchard, the Head of Exhibitions, and Alice Riddy, the Exhibitions Coordinator and my immediate supervisor, on the delivery of the gallery’s artistic programme. Before the start of my internship, the team and I exchanged emails to brief me about the gallery’s two upcoming shows and discuss practical arrangements. Due to the current circumstances, the gallery was still closed to the public and employees were only then starting to go back to the office, so my work was going to be predominantly carried out remotely. Armed with press releases, I began preparing for my assignment by researching  and familiarising myself with the artists included in each show.

On my first day, we held a virtual meeting in which the whole team was introduced, and we proceeded to go through the list of tasks which had been prepared for me. Most of my work was going to be centred around the gallery’s next exhibition, Memphis: Plastic Field (21 November 2020- 24 April 2021). The show brings together over 150 objects to explore the work of Memphis, an international design collective active in Milan during the 1980s, whose cheerful and irreverent style revolutionised the world of design. The Exhibitions team, working closely together, was preparing display and interpretation material for the show, including artists’ biographies and object labels. The ability to research and collate information in a concise and informative way is crucial to carry out this type of task, and Fay and Alice were both extremely helpful and supportive as they guided me through this process.

As I was working from home, my schedule was mainly occupied by research tasks. Every Monday morning Alice took time to talk to me to discuss my progress and future developments, and we would go through any questions or clarifications. Fay and Alice’s continuous support throughout this experience, more important than ever given the unusual circumstances, was invaluable to me and immensely appreciated. My list of tasks was therefore divided between Memphis, which had priority, and various other research assignments. After the gallery’s re-opening, as soon as it was safe for the rest of the staff and me, I was invited to visit the gallery and work from the office. For anyone with a passion for contemporary art and a curious temperament, MK Gallery is the place to be. One of the UK’s major contemporary art venues, MK Gallery has reopened in the spring of 2019 after a major expansion, and now offers, alongside a large exhibition space for historic and modern art, a multi-purpose auditorium and dedicated learning spaces, positioning itself as the region’s cultural centre. Every member of the staff is zealously committed to bringing art and culture to the residents of Milton Keynes and the many visitors who come to explore the gallery from all over the country. Here I had the opportunity to be involved in practical and logistical arrangements concerning the installation of the exhibition, gaining some invaluable insight into the many different aspects of the work carried out by the Exhibitions team.

Despite the atypical and challenging circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I had the fortune of working for an institution dedicated to its community, its wellbeing and entertainment, alongside a team who did everything in their power to make my experience enjoyable, constructive and rewarding. During these difficult times, it has become apparent how much art means to all of us, as an escape and as an inspiration, and it is because of remarkable people like Fay and Alice that we can all appreciate it.

 I recommend to anyone with a passion for art and a desire to learn about curatorial practices to apply for this opportunity in the future. Thanks to the funds provided by the Oxford University Heritage Network Career Development Placements, I was able to safely commute to the gallery every time I needed to and purchase material which helped with my research. I can assure it is more than worth it.

Eva Haghighi is a recent DPhil graduate in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. Her research addresses the representation of Etruscan people in the poetry of the Augustan age, and more broadly her interests gravitate around issues related to cultural representation, access and inclusivity. She is currently involved in a number of heritage initiatives, with particular focus on curatorial practices.

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MK Calling 2020 (11 Sept.– 1 Nov. 2020), MK Gallery. © MK Gallery / Photography by Andy Keate