Interview with Emily Nelson

by Kirsty Warner

On Monday 22th February, the Discover Careers in: Libraries, Museums & Heritage event saw four panelists gather to discuss the growing variety of routes into Libraries, Museums & Heritage. Emily Nelson was one member of this panel discussion. I followed up with her after the event to discuss how her studies at King’s prepared her for her future, and to gain advice for students who aspire to join the Art’s & Cultural Heritage Sector.


Emily Nelson is a museum and outreach professional with a passion for history and its use in engaging the community, particularly young people and hard to reach groups. 

She undertook King’s College London’s BA Comparative Literature course between 2011 and 2014. 

After completing an MA at the University of York, Emily took a role at Askham Bryan College as a Network for Collaborative Outreach Project Officer. Whilst in this role she liaised with schools and other local HE providers to deliver collaborative HE focused outreach days and activities. In 2016 Emily moved to Scarborough Museums Trust where she continued to develop her community programming and outreach skills through her role as a Community Curator. Most recently Emily has been working as a Learning and Access Officer at the Leeds Discovery Centre, Leeds Museums and Galleries. 


Could you describe one of your typical workdays? 

My workdays can be quite varied, but in a typical pre-covid (and hopefully post-covid) day I would probably be delivering a school session. I would get in early to get set up, greet the school class (generally KS2) and spend the next 2 hours delivering an engaging, object based session involving a mix of content, object handling, hands on activities and a tour of the Discovery Centre store (containing over 1 million artefacts not currently on display). Sometimes I teach 2 classes in a row. Otherwise, the afternoon would be spent dealing with bookings, responding to enquiries, updating or planning new school sessions. If it’s the run up to the school holidays, there’s also planning and purchasing materials for family activities, advertising them through social media, and sorting the Eventbrite or bookings form for them. I also run the school membership scheme, so am in constant contact with teachers from our member schools, and collaboratively developing loans boxes alongside our Curators and Conservation colleagues for the scheme. I also support our members with topic resources and curriculum planning. This may mean I finish the day delivering a training session for teachers in a primary school (or on Zoom), or working on curriculum documents or resources for On days where I have a little spare time, I may also have meetings with people across the council, as well as other charities and organisations, to see how we can develop events and projects to support the most vulnerable and deprived children and young people in Leeds.

Can you tell me some more about how you came to enter this field? and how did the BA course or your time at King’s help you prepare for your current role?

Comparative Literature is a very interdisciplinary course, through which we covered a huge range of historical time periods and countries of the world. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would really be a good introduction to the huge variety of collections I now work with, and the wide range of topics I have to teach, even just in terms of giving me a love of learning about all sorts of different things. The transferable skills from both my BA and MA have been really important too – being able to think laterally and in an interdisciplinary way helps me to approach problems, or topics, from different angles. My interest in historiography can be applied to the teaching I do, and how I plan my workshops around curiosity and questioning skills rather than ‘learning facts’. While at KCL I was also President of the Tennis Club, and the organisational work involved in that helped me to evidence practical experience of project and time management which was important in getting my first job at Askham Bryan College. I was lucky to manage to make the move across into Museums by getting the job at Scarborough. One of the reasons is that Scarborough is harder to get to than somewhere like Leeds, and the museum service is smaller too. Work I had done with Brownie Guides before KCL also helped me to get the job! I joined Leeds initially as a maternity cover at one of the historic house sited, before getting the job at the Discovery Centre. Every job I had prior to my current role was a 12 month short term contract.

If you could give any advice to students currently enrolled on a course at King’s, but with aspirations to join the Art’s & Cultural Heritage Sector, what would it be? Are there any skills or experience that you suggest they develop? 

I think it is really important to try to build skills and experience in practice. The Museum and Heritage sector is very competitive, and also often not overly concerned about grades or qualifications specifically. What is equally important is evidence that candidates can confidently work with the public, can use their initiative, and are able and willing to do whatever the role requires, from the public facing side of things to moving objects, cleaning, risk assessments, and the wide range of other things we do. Volunteering is a great way to build experience, but you can also look out for internships and freelance/contract roles such as Learning Facilitators. Sector bodies such as the Museums Association and GEM (Group for Education in Museums) offer support, training and networking opportunities. Finally, as my own pathway shows, there are ways to develop and evidence skills and experience outside of the sector, and cross curricular activities while at university can be more valuable than you might think.