Career pathways: Head of Exhibitions and Collections Management

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Q. Who are you?
I’m Sarah Tinsley and I’m head of exhibitions and collections management.
Q. What does your job involve?
I look after a very broad range of sections in the gallery. The exhibitions that happen here in the National Portrait Gallery, the national programme that happens outside of London, the design studio who work on all of the all the exhibitions, displays and signage, and then the care of the collection involves collections management, documentation, recording of the collection, conservation, and the art handling team.
Q. What would be a typical day for you?
I have a huge amount of meetings, partly because there’s so many sections, and partly because we have quit a rigorous exhibition schedule, so there’s quite a lot of meetings around that. So a typical day for me is being for meetings with other people within the department, within the gallery, and then also externally, because for an exhibition programme there are a lot of people from the outside who one needs to meet and discuss things with. I try within that also to have some time where I walk around the gallery, not every day, but at least every week, and also to see other exhibitions, which is very important. But it’s meetings-based, unfortunately, in some respects. (Laughs)
Q. What’s good about your job?
The fantastic thing about portraits is that they’re about people, and it’s a whole range of people. Whether it be paintings or it be photographs it just keeps changing and every exhibition is different, and it’s actually why I love working in exhibitions, because you think it might be one thing and it turns out to be something else. Just being close to works of art is exciting and interaction with that, seeing how other people interact with it is what drives one on.
Q. What skills do you need?
For this job, because I’m leading a department, I need to have skills that are around really good organisation. To understand about resources and budgets, to understand about planning, long-term planning, to understand the needs of the gallery and be able to articulate them, so a good communicator. I need to motivate people, not only within my department but within the gallery, I need to be able to influence and network, with people outside of the gallery. A lot of what I do is about diplomacy, really. of encouraging, nurturing, empowering, giving support and advice to my colleagues.
Q. What was your career path?
I took art at school, and was very interested in art and history of art, and that led me to do a degree in history of art. But my first involvement in museums and galleries was at the Ashmolean Museum when I did a summer job as a volunteer, and I worked behind the scenes in the Asian department cataloguing some Japanese subas, which are metal buckles, and it was fascinating to be behind the scenes to be looking at objects, to be handling objects, recording, measuring them, taking them to the photography department. It was a very short-term job but it got my interested in what happens in a museum and gallery. Once I finished my degree I was lucky enough to get a job art the Courtauld Institute Galleries. I was selling tickets. But I was in the atmosphere, I was in the building, I was seeing what was going on, understanding different roles within that gallery. I then got a job at the British Museum where I was a museum assistant and very much doing practical work behind the scenes, preparing objects to put them on display for when they went out on loan. It gave me a really good background in what happens, what are the things that go on behind the scenes. From there I moved to the Tate, and it was the time before there were any other Tates, so just the one Tate, and I worked at the registrar’s department. My job was to record all the locations, manually (before computers)of the works of art, when they moved around, and I made appointments for visitors when they wanted to see things that were stored. To a certain extent I was involved in the displays, preparing the works for exhibition, and from there I moved into the exhibitions department. That’s where I had my longest career in exhibition making. I was an exhibitions assistant first of all, and just worked with the head of department, doing a lot of the routine work behind an exhibition. It gave me a really good grounding in what is involved in an exhibition, what you need to think about, just all the different levels of complexity that go into it. I progressed from there to becoming an exhibitions officer, and then a senior exhibitions officer, and then I moved from there to the Tate Modern and was involved in the opening in the Tate Modern and was involved in the first major exhibition they had there. And they I had a slight change and moved into the digital programmes team at Tate and worked on Tate Online which is their website, and I was helping create content for their website, so a very different kind of role, but fascinating, and has been really helpful in this role. Then I moved into this role at the National Portrait Gallery combining all the skills and experience I’d developed to that point.
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