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.
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