Variety makes Sheffield heritage work an enjoyable industry

Helen Shepherd works as the PR and marketing co ordinator at the National Emergency Services Museum (NESM) at West Bar in Sheffield. Here she tells us her favourite things about working in the city’s heritage sector.

Thursday, 1st April 2021, 12:00 am
Helen Shepherd.

Sharing our passion

I’ve been interested in history for as long as I can remember. I was the kid at school who chose

to write about World War II (if I wasn’t writing about football!) while my friends were writing about

fashion and music. There are so many fascinating stories from the past but there are still people

who say that history is ‘boring’ or that it’s not relevant to their lives today. Working in heritage is

a wonderful opportunity to change that perception; to involve people of all ages with the past in

different ways. Seeing people in our museum and at our events, learning about their history and

engaging with our objects but also having fun and developing a whole new relationship with the

past, is a real pleasure.

An opportunity for change

Despite my love of history, it’s only in recent years that I’ve actually begun to work in heritage

after 20 years in communications in the public sector. What gave me the chance to move into

the field was volunteering. A lot of heritage sites offer volunteering opportunities - not something

that is true of every industry. For me, volunteering was a brilliant way to learn more about the

sector, get an idea of whether it was right for me, and to meet some fabulous people who

offered support and advice. Although heritage jobs are highly sought-after, in my experience the

sector was more open to volunteers that others I had explored. Undertaking volunteer work at a

variety of sites around Sheffield, including NESM - where I was made to feel so welcome -

ultimately led to working with the museum.

Part of a dedicated team

I’ve yet to meet anyone working in heritage who isn’t passionate about what they do. It’s not the

easiest sector to work in - budgets are tight, workloads can be heavy, and of course the

coronavirus pandemic has made things especially precarious for museums and heritage sites.

Because of this, it’s a sector that seems to attract people who really, genuinely care about what

they do and that’s a great thing to be part of. This extends not just to those I’ve met in museums

but also those who give their time to support us through events, outreach and exhibition

planning; a community of people who are dedicated to sharing our history.

The team of staff and volunteers I work with at NESM is a small one but we’re like a little family,

and everyone is dedicated to making the museum the best it can be. When a few years ago I

started to look in earnest at new career opportunities one of the things I knew I wanted was to

work somewhere where I felt I could make a real contribution, and I have definitely found that at

NESM. The last year has been so hard and there were times we weren’t sure if the museum

would survive, but the way everyone has pulled together has been amazing and I’m really proud

to be part of it.

Creativity and variety

In many ways working at NESM is a unique experience. We’re an independent, self-funded

museum and budgets are always tight, so our small team of staff and volunteers do as much as

we can in-house. This means that, although PR and marketing is my priority, I get to work on a

much wider variety of projects than I might do elsewhere. Just in the last few weeks, for

example, I’ve been writing interpretation for a new exhibition, researching the early history of our

building and been up a ladder with a paintbrush!

It also means I get to do some really fun jobs. As the proud holder of a genuine Blue Peter

badge (a fact I’m never slow to share) I’m often called on to create props and items for our

exhibitions, from the contents of a Victorian apothecary to fake foodstuffs for our new crime and

punishment gallery. I’m also partial to a bit of dressing up, so whether it’s a 1940s outfit for our

wartime Christmas event or even a turn as a Victorian criminal, I don’t need much

encouragement to don a period costume. It’s that kind of variety that makes the job so

enjoyable.