Jagoda Olender

Reflections of a Collections Intern

Jagoda was educated in her native Poland before moving to York to study firstly for a BA in English at the University of York and then for a MA in Medieval Literatures. She is particularly interested in History, Old Norse and Old English and previously volunteered at a number of Heritage sites including York Museums Trust and Barley Hall as well as York Explore Libraries, York Minster Library and Penguin Books

September 2015

Untitled-1As a person passionate about history and slightly (ok, more than slightly) obsessed with the Viking- age, I couldn’t imagine myself working anywhere else than in the heritage environment. Although securing a job in this particular sector is not easy, I was beyond happy when I received a year-long position with York Archaeological Trust as a Collections Intern. I was more than excited to start my new job. All the helping with the collection, researching, assisting with the exhibitions…sounded perfect! Is it as good as I expected? So far, it’s much better than my expectations. These reflections which I will be sharing here will give you some insight on working in the Curatorial department and my role as a Collections Intern.

If anyone thinks that working in the Curatorial department is fairly straightforward and simple (just looking after the collection, right?), think again. One of the things that surprised me most when I joined the department, was how many different projects we are working on simultaneously (trust me, it’s a LOT) and how many different tasks we are undertaking as a team. Whether it is working on the collection documentation, putting together a Viking exhibition or participating in the medieval festival, each day brings something new and exciting. It is a creative, high-paced environment; you work with a variety of different people (colleagues from other departments, researchers, volunteers), participate in meetings and discussions and exchange ideas. I truly enjoy working within the team, as it allows you to learn so much from  others- the other day I’ve learned a lot about the animal bone while helping one of the colleagues with documentation. Working with people who are so passionate about archaeology, history and artefacts collection is indeed a brilliant experience! Not to mention that it gives you a true feeling of satisfaction when you see that your  work contributes to the collection preservation for the future generations, making you a part of the cultural heritage.

Untitled-2So, what does the Collection Intern do exactly? The truth is there is no one simple answer as to what my job consists of- and that is the best part of it! As a Collections Intern I am involved in many different projects and performing a variety of different tasks; I enjoy this variety very much. I work closely with our collection helping with documentation, assist with putting together exhibitions, do research and get involved in Trust’s events. The last three months have been both busy and intense but I learned so many new things about the Trust’s collections and the Curatorial department’s work environment. I have been involved in many different projects and worked with a variety of different people. I have been working on the general collection documentation, as well as updating the specific documentation for the Roman sites in York as a part of the Resilience Project that YAT is involved in.  I have also worked on documentation relating to external  applications for research on the collection (it was very interesting to see what some researchers desired to see from our collection- it involved human skeletons, medieval coins and even some hazelnuts found at Coppergate site!). Shadowing the Head of the Curatorial and Archives Services was a great opportunity for me to learn more about the department and see how things work in the heritage environment. I helped to identify the material for the small display of pots at York Archaeological Trust’s Resource Centre (that’s where we keep our collection) and assisted with delivering public tours there. I’ve also been involved in doing the documentation of the selection of the animal bone and helped with the environmental monitoring of the collections store. Selecting objects for the exhibition purposes (Valhalla exhibition) was a great chance to gain knowledge about the Viking-age objects such as leather shoes, antler combs or bone gaming pieces that we have in our collection. As you can see, I’ve definitely been busy!

Untitled-3My favourite project so far was doing the research for the ‘Meet the Experts’ event which was a part of the JORVIK Medieval Festival in York. I’ve researched and prepared information about medieval pottery, iron horseshoes and keys, medieval floor tiles, copper- alloy pins and pendants to later deliver this information to the public. I very much enjoyed this front-of-house experience; it was very rewarding to see that the public was genuinely interested in the history and origin of our medieval artefacts!

As I’ve enjoyed the last three months immensely, I am very much looking forward to working on new projects in the upcoming month- putting together an on-line pottery catalogue, working on the documentation of Viking coffins from Swinegate and assisting the archivists with the cataloguing of prehistoric collection. September, bring it on!

October, November 2015

flintsThe last couple of months have been busy in the Curatorial Department. As a Collections Intern, I have been actively involved in many different projects including working on the “In search of Valhalla” exhibition,  assisting with the  “on-line Roman finds” and  the “2,000 Flints and More” Resilience projects and “on-line Pottery” photography. I have also participated in events like York Museums Forum where I gave a talk on my work (together with the Head of Curatorial and Archives Services and Volunteer and Placement Coordinator) and the Small Finds Identification Course.  My work has been very varied and I have continued to learn more about the work of the Curatorial Department , the Trust and the greater museum’s world. The Roman project involved working with two Roman sites at Rougier Street and adjacent Tanner Row, both in the area of the roman civil town and  assisting project worker Annie Jowett to identify priority objects for photography. Looking through the small finds was a fantastic experience for me as I could handle Roman small finds such as leather shoes, antler combs, copper alloy pendants and glass bowls and cups.  Apart from the photography list, the project also included writing a list of recommendations of further work required to improve the documentation of those sites.

Shrewsbury 015The “2000 Flints or More” project involved working  on prehistoric flints from our collection in order to put together a reference collection and distinguish between different types of flints. My responsibility was to compose a spreadsheet containing all the information on prehistoric flints that  Don Henson (a prehistory specialist) and our pre-historic intern, Katie Rawlinson, would need for their research. As my knowledge of prehistoric objects was very limited before I started working on this project, I gladly welcomed the opportunity to learn more about them. Don Henson also provided us with the training called ‘Lithics and Flints Identification’ during which I and my colleagues had a chance to discover the interesting world of prehistoric flints.

The project I’ve enjoyed most in the past few months was assisting with the preparation for the “In Search of Valhalla” exhibition. Before the finds go on an exhibition, it is necessary to carefully plan how they are going to be placed in the cases. Together with the Finds Officer, we prepared a layout of the Viking-Age small finds and worked on their valuation. As I am very interested in the Viking-Age, helping with the Valhalla exhibition was a great experience for me!

pottery photographyOne of the projects that I am working on, currently and in the future is helping with photographing pottery from different sites. The aim of this project is to compose an online catalogue that will contain the most interesting pots from our collection and make them more accessible for people. I am responsible for preparing particular pots (e.g. Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval finds), delivering them to the photography studio and then updating the new information onto our database.

I am looking forward to the next couple of months and more new and exciting projects!

December 2015 and January 2016

As mentioned in my previous post, in the past few months I was assisting with the preparation of the ” Valhalla- Life and Death in Viking Britain” exhibition which was being installed at the Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery. The process of putting together such exhibition is a long and complex one. Not only the finds need to be selected and the layout carefully planned, but also other items such as blocks, labels, and mounting kit need to be arranged. Together with the logistics and all the essential documentation, it takes a lot of time to put everything in the right place and get a satisfying result of creating an interesting and informative exhibition.

6Or8aJF lowBefore the finds are ready to go, it is necessary to carefully plan how they are going to be placed in the cases. I have focused  time arranging the finds in temporary cases, so that when they travel to Shrewsbury, the team will know exactly where to place them in the cases. It was also important to take photographs along the way for the future record- you never know when you may need them!

The next step was the documentation. While Christine, the Head of Curatorial and Archive Services,  has been preparing the loan agreement, my task was to work on a detailed list of all the finds with their small find and context numbers, catalogues figures and valuation.  We have around 120 objects that are used for “Valhalla” exhibition, so it was a long process. Once the list was composed, we also used it as a reference for the photography project where one of my colleagues, Pete, photographed all the finds for our record and the online catalogue.

One of the final steps in preparing the exhibition was the repackaging and labelling of the finds. While doing so together with my colleague Louis, we had a chance to look at those amazing Viking-Age objects such as buckles, bone pins, iron keys, combs or pottery. Apart from repackaging, I was also responsible for ordering the blocks that we were going to use in the cases, preparing the mounting kit and making sure that everything is wrapped safely and ready to go.

IMG_5842 lowHowever, the most exciting part of this project was arriving at the Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery and assisting with putting the exhibition together. It was a very busy day (14 hours shift!) but the satisfaction you get after seeing the finished product makes it definitely worthwhile. As a part of the Exhibition Team I helped with cleaning up the cases, putting the artefacts in and organising the general layout of the display. Thanks to the prior preparations, we knew exactly where each of the artefacts should be placed and this allowed us to be quick and efficient on the day. As it is essential that while on display the finds remain safe, my colleague Bibi from the Conservation Department was responsible for providing the right environmental conditions in the cases. Putting the exhibition together involved so many different people (our Director of Attractions, Head of Curatorial and Archive Services, the Technical and Curatorial teams and Conservation) working very hard for many months, it was amazing to finally see it completed at the Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery. For me personally, it was an absolutely fantastic experience!

February – May 2016

The last few months were definitely the busiest ones during my Internship. Apart from collection management, I have been working mostly on the special JORVIK on Tour exhibitions that have been created in order to enable the visitors to continue exploring Viking culture, while JORVIK Viking Centre is being re-imagined following the 2015 flooding. The three exhibitions: ‘Jorvik: Life and Death’ at the York Theatre Royal, ‘Jorvik: Home and Abroad’ at York St Mary’s and ‘Jorvik: Treasures and Belief’ at the Undercroft of York Minster require detailed planning and preparations. In the Curatorial team we are responsible for selecting the right artefacts, preparing the cases’ layout and documenting them (photographing, updating them on our database, creating detailed lists). Working on three exhibitions at the same time is a very interesting experience. It greatly improves organisational skills, as through working on a tight schedule, one has to be extremely good at multitasking and communicating with the rest of the team. We have recently finished working on ‘Jorvik: Life and Death’ at the York Theatre Royal where, together with my colleagues Nienke and Giulia, I was responsible for placing the Viking- age and medieval artefacts in their cases and ensuring that they are all ready for the visitors.

2Apart from working on the exhibitions, I have also attended a couple of external events that my professional development benefited highly from. The Roman Finds Group conference in York was very educational and gave me a chance to attend the talks on archaeological finds and excavations delivered by some great speakers. ‘Moving On Up’ conference organised by the Museums Association was an event designed for early career museum professionals. It was very inspirational, and with many talks, workshops and interactive sessions planned, I have learned a great deal about developing a career in the museum sector and improving my professional skills. The conference allowed me to invest in my networks and meet some great contacts. I also won the Social Media Competition, and as a reward I will be able to attend a one-day seminar organised by the MA. What a fantastic experience! I am very grateful that YAT helped and enabled me to attend this event (http://www.museumsassociation.org/news/Mou-2016- winner-of- social-media- competition-announced).

As my yearly Internship is coming to an end, I am looking back at all the amazing things that I had a chance to do during my work with YAT and I am so pleased with how much experience I gained in just one year! I developed my professional skills, worked on many events and exhibitions, met some fantastic people and above all, had a chance to work with an incredible collection of artefacts on a daily basis. It has been a wonderful year and cheers to many more in the museums world!

Roman Wooden Small Finds Project (Resilience 2), 2017

Over the last few weeks I have had  the opportunity to assist Steve Allen, YAT’s Archaeological Wood Technologist, with the Roman Wood Small Finds project.  Steve’s main task was to identify what are the particular objects from various sites, gather more information about them and look for the potential items that could be displayable in the future.

Assisting with this project was a very interesting experience, as previously I have not have much involvement with wooden artefacts. Whilst looking at many objects from different sites (e.g. Swinegate, Tanner Row, Wellington Row, Rougier St), I had a chance to learn how to recognize the time period the object comes from, whether it has been previously recycled or damaged, how it was cut from the tree (conversion)  and what type of wood it was made of. Steve also explained to me in detail how a basic record for a wooden artefact is created. I learnt what kind of information goes into a Wooden Small Find Record Sheet. This includes an object’s dimensions, species identification, conversion, previous conservation methods and woodworking technology. By woodworking technology, Steve means whether there are any tool marks or fittings on the object or other intentional marks; all of which can provide us with more detail about an object.

I had a chance to look at many small finds made of different wood species, such as alder, oak, ash, hazel, willow, yew and silver fir. Two of the most interesting artefacts that Steve examined were a cask head with an inscribed Roman numeral (VIII) and a possible bowl or a shallow beaker with some decoration.  Steve also drew some of the objects on the record sheets which could aid selecting objects for exhibitions. I assisted Steve with the documentation and updated the collections database, making sure that the information on wooden finds is recorded thoroughly. I have very much enjoyed working on this project as it allowed me to gain more insight into  the wooden objects identification process.

British Museum Knowledge Exchange, London 17th-21st September 2018

This year I applied for the British Museum Knowledge Exchange programme, as having an opportunity to observe different museum’s practices, build new relationships and share knowledge seemed very appealing and exciting. What I didn’t know is that the one week’s placement would exceed all my expectations!

I work in the Collections and Archives department, so my main aim was to improve my knowledge on general Collections management and care and see how different departments at the British Museum work and operate. I wanted to learn about documentation processes, different storage methods, collection database catalogue and keeping finds records.  I also wanted to gain more insight into loans procedures and exhibitions planning (with a focus on finds selection and research, administration and logistics). As I was spending a week at the British Museum, I also hoped to see some of their wonderful collections: both on display, as well as ‘behind the scenes’.

My Knowledge Exchange week was immaculately planned, and a variety of activities was introduced so that I could get the most out of the experience (meetings, shadowing sessions, tours of departments, informal lunch chats). I had a chance to meet with the colleagues across many different departments including Collections Services, Registrar’s Office, Exhibitions, National Programmes, Conservation, as well as the departments of Britain, Europe and Prehistory and Coins and Medals. This variety allowed me to learn in detail about each department’s practices and covered various aspects of work which I do on a day-to day basis.

An introduction to the general loan processes and travelling exhibitions gave me an overview on how all the details have to be arranged and planned on a larger scale and within wider time frame (for some of the International exhibitions the planning starts 3 years in advance!). As part of my responsibilities, I frequently deal with incoming and outgoing loans’ administration and logistics, so it was very stimulating to see how the British Museum approaches those. I will definitely implement some ideas I gained into my work performance (for example, creating detailed spreadsheets of all incoming/outgoing loans and required administration within a specific timeframe in order to organise work more efficiently).

It was a fantastic opportunity to be able to see the ‘behind the scenes’ at the British Museum, including all the work done on improving storage and documentation processes. I frequently work at our collections store so seeing how the British Museum creates new and efficient storage solutions definitely inspired me to implement some of the ideas at our store. It was very reassuring to see that most of the storage methods were similar to the ones we do in our organisation.

I also had a chance to look closely at some of the collections of the Coins and Medals and Britain, Europe and Prehistory departments which are not on display. It was an incredible opportunity as it doesn’t happen every day that you get a chance to look at a late Iron Age wine strainer or hold a piece of the Lewis Chessmen!



I came back from the Knowledge Exchange inspired and with so many fresh ideas! It is not possible to cover everything I learned in this writing piece, but my week at the British Museum was extremely interesting and diverse. Everyone was helpful and genuinely interested in exchanging ideas and learning about the work I do at my organisation. Also, it was encouraging to see that in my department we follow similar work practices (in regards to loans, exhibitions, documentation, storage) to the British Museum, as well as face the same issues and difficulties (and finding solutions to them!). The whole experience definitely boosted my confidence, and improved my interpersonal skills and was definitely one of the best opportunities I’ve had so far in my career.  I would like to thank everyone at the British Museum who shared their time with me during my placement and made me feel very welcome.


Knowledge Exchange is a national programme developed by the British Museum and generously supported by the Vivmar Foundation since 2010.