What It’s Like To Be A Curator With No Collection To Look After

Programme Curator at Historic England Tamsin Silvey on the misconceptions about her job

By Google Arts & Culture

Tamsin Silvey, Historic England Cultural Programme Curator, prepares a maquette for display (2018-08-29) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Cultural programme curator Tamsin Silvey says Historic England “helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s spectacular historic environment”. From pie shops to palaces, the governing body preserves England’s heritage through myriad ways by listing buildings and sites, advising on planning decisions, and collaborating with partners in the arts and culture sector. Historic England’s latest project sees them working with the Imperial War Museum London on the exhibition, What Remains, which Silvey has co-curated with Carl Warner from the IWM. The exhibition explores why cultural heritage is attacked during war and the ways we save, protect and restore what is targeted.

Here Silvey talks about what it’s like to be a curator for an organization without an official collection and the most interesting object she’s discovered through her role.

Green Moor Conscientious Objectors' Stone, Kirkby Ireleth, Cumbria (2016-04) by Eric Branse-Instone, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Why is it important to preserve England’s buildings and monuments?

Because they are easily overlooked and taken for granted, yet our buildings and monuments are the keeper of the nation’s memories, both good and bad. The people we love and loathe, the events we want to commemorate and personal stories are all etched into our landscape. This memory matters, as What Remains heartbreakingly shows, and organisations like Historic England are essential to show that when heritage is lost, whether in war or peacetime, this is a devastating blow to communities everywhere.

Historic England oversees the National Heritage List, what’s the strangest, most interesting thing that’s made it on the list?

In 2016, inscriptions left by First World War conscientious objectors, near Broughton-in-Furness, Lake District National Park, Cumbria, were added to the list. These were carvings on a natural rock outcrop left by people who were on the run from the authorities, avoiding conscription, and are very rare. They are possibly a unique physical reminder that support for the First World War was not universal, and it’s important that the list can reflect this history.

Historic England's PROCESSIONS banners outside HMP Holloway, London (2018) by Lance Tabraham, London College of FashionHistoric England

What does your role as curator involve?

As Cultural Programme Curator at Historic England my role differs from a museum curator because Historic England is not working with a collection or a space. This means that I frequently collaborate with partners in the arts and culture sector to produce cultural programming including exhibitions, events and artist commissions. My task is to find creative ways to present our heritage that truly represent the country we live in.

Last year, for example, we commissioned artist Lucy Orta to work with the London College of Fashion and female residents at HMP Downview to create a banner inspired by the heritage of Holloway Prison for the national PROCESSIONS project. I also co-curated an exhibition at NOW Gallery, Human Stories: Another England, a photographic exhibition surveying historical and contemporary narratives in Black and Asian Heritage in England. So my role is very varied!

The Sunbathers, Station Gate, Festival of Britain South Bank Exhibition, Lambeth, Greater London (1951) by MW ParryHistoric England

What’s the best thing about your job?

Variety and working with so many creative people inside our organization and with partners. It is a happy challenge to develop and deliver content that helps people understand why heritage is important to everyone, and I learn something new every day doing this.

What's the most interesting discovery/thing you've uncovered in your role?

A sculpture from the Festival of Britain presumed lost since 1951 called The Sunbathers by Peter Laszlo Peri. In the first exhibition I worked on at Historic England, Out There: Our Post-War Public Art, we asked the public if they knew about a list of artworks thought to be lost or destroyed. We were amazed when a couple visiting the exhibition said they had seen The Sunbathers in the garden of a hotel in Blackheath, London. After some detective work, we uncovered the sculpture and launched a crowdfunding campaign to have it restored and put back on public view. The public rose to the challenge and the sculptures can now be seen at the Royal Festival Hall, just a short distance from where they were originally displayed.

Human Stories: Another England exhibition at NOW Gallery, Peninsula Square, Greenwich, London (2018) by Katy DaviesHistoric England

What's the biggest misconception about your job?

That I work with a collection – you can be a curator without one, and I love that I am able to work with so many different art forms and curate content that champions our heritage.

Bankside Power Station under construction, The Borough, Southwark, Greater London (1952-03-14) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

If it was someone's first trip to England, what three protect buildings, monuments or parks etc. would you say they have to visit?

1. Saltdean Lido near Brighton: I grew up nearby and this art deco swimming lido I think is a good introduction to the charm of the English seaside. It was featured in our campaign 100 Places, which actually would be a great list for anyone first visiting England. It uncovered the 100 historic places that tell the remarkable story of England and its impact on the world.

2. Tate Modern in London: it’s an amazing building with amazing contents, my favorite in London. If they only had time to see one gallery, I would recommend Tate Modern and tell them to go to the new Blavatnik Building to take in the incredible views of St Paul’s Cathedral, a building which we are working to illuminate for a project called Where Light Falls, telling the story of the people who risked their lives to preserve the country’s heritage during the Second World War.

3. Stonehenge: it has such a mysteriously intriguing history, is in a beautiful part of the country and nothing compares to seeing it in reality. I really want to visit one time on solstice.

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