Callum McDonald’s AberForward Experience at the School of Art, Summer 2022

I serendipitously happened upon the School of Art’s vacancy for a Curatorial Assistant in the late spring, having just completed the taught portion of my master’s degree course in Information and Library Studies a few weeks prior. I jumped at the opportunity to learn new skills and gain work experience relevant to my interest in cultural heritage. Beginning in mid-June, I spent a month working in the School of Art assisting the departmental staff in a variety of ways.

One of my first major tasks was assisting my supervisor Phil Garratt in hanging a number of works, selected from the extensive collection recently donated by Derbyshire County Council Schools Library Service, in the School of Art’s seminar room. This first involved screwing mirror plates into frames to ensure they could be securely attached to the wall – a relatively benign task for someone who felt a little daunted to be handling some of the more valuable works! We then worked together to hang the works around the room.

View of a seminar room with a ladder, paintings on the walls, stacked chairs and various DIY tools lying on tables.
Room 206
Seminar room tables with two paintings lying on them and more paintings in frames standing on the floor and leaning against the wall opposite the tables.
Room 206
Panorama view of a room with paintings on each wall and tables and chairs grouped together at the centre of the room.
Room 206

The We Live with the Land / The Land as Other exhibition was in the process of being set up during my placement. Neil Holland guided me through the process of hanging artworks, first my finding an appropriate eye line and making sure works were suitably spaced. After this, I applied some finishing touches by giving the mirror plates on the frames a coating of paint to match the walls – a simple touch that helped make the wall displays look much more presentable.

Gallery view with a ladder in the middle of the room and a variety of framed prints on the walls.
We Live with the Land / The Land as Other exhibition

In my third week, I was introduced to the rudiments of mount cutting by Neil. I was able to cut my teeth on a small mix of lithographs, engravings and digital prints which needed to be mounted. This was a challenging job that demanded a mixture of dexterity, precision, and focus, and involved the use of a variety of tools and equipment that were completely new to me. As tricky as the work could be, it was great seeing a finished product which was created through my own work from first measuring out the large pieces of card used to create the mounts, right through to framing the prints at the end.

Tools for mount cutting, including white mountboard, a print a ruler, a pencil and a green, vinyl cutting mat
Mount cutting-tools
Tools for cutting mounts
Mount cutting-tools
Two illustrations mounted on white mount board
Freshly mounted

In the run up to one of the department’s open days, Phil and I set to preparing one of the large studio spaces on the first floor for the exhibit of various works by faculty and students, both past and present, to show off to prospective students. This was a great chance to handle works in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and formats. This included multiple audio-visual works which required the set-up of monitors and speakers (and more than a little trial and error!) to achieve a desired result.

This was an incredibly satisfying project, as I could see the studio space slowly take shape as the it was filled and more works were put on the walls, and it was fascinating to get an insight into Phil’s thought processes as he considered which artworks could work in a specific space or configuration. It was nice to see a couple of the prints I had mounted a few days prior on the walls too!

Installation of black squares lying on a wooden floor.
Getting ready for Open Day
Large studio space with white walls and wooden floors. Framed pictures are placed on the floor and leaning against the walls
Getting ready for Open Day

There were various other smaller jobs I helped with through the placement, including helping Phil to hang works in corridors in preparation for the open day; helping Louise Chennell to prepare the ceramics gallery in the Arts Centre for the arrival of Paul Scott’s exhibition on New American Scenery; organising prints in the store room; and updating the biographies of ceramicists whose works could be found in the university’s extensive ceramics collection.

The entire month was a brilliant experience, and it was a pleasure meeting and working with all of the friendly staff in the department. A special thanks are due to my supervisors Phil and Neil who spent so much time guiding me through my work. I ended the placement with a new confidence that I was fully capable of working in a cultural heritage environment, performing an array of different tasks. Being able to describe my time at the School of Art also looked great on my job applications and CV coming out of my degree course! I would recommend this placement to any students, undergrad or postgrad, who feel like they might benefit from the experience.

Callum McDonald 

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