An ‘alt-ac’ career within the academy: working on Oxford’s National Trust Partnership

By Hanna Smyth

Since finishing my PhD in Global & Imperial History in 2019, I’ve spent most of the last three years working on the Heritage Partnerships Team at the University of Oxford, specifically as the Support Officer for its National Trust Partnership. This was a career path I’d never known existed before the PhD, and has opened doors to further unexpected opportunities (case in point: I now work for…. the Clinical Neurosciences department). In this post I’ll be reflecting on what I learned from my time on the National Trust Partnership about the benefits of university/heritage partnerships.

Earlier this year I was kindly invited to speak on a panel called “Jobs Outside Academia” as part of the HistoryLab series for early career researchers at the Institute for Historical Research. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hearing about the incredibly varied and fulfilling career paths of the other speakers. I was struck however that I wasn’t able to define what I do as ‘outside academia’ per se, and in fact was the only speaker who had ended up in a career closer to academia than intended.  

Figure 1. “Post-Conflict Landscapes” symposium convened by the University of Oxford National Trust Partnership for academics and heritage professionals. Image Credit: Hanna Smyth.

Joining the National Trust Partnership

By the time I submitted my PhD thesis in April 2019, I had held a variety of part-time contracts with the University of Oxford’s Humanities Division and its History Faculty, including coordinating the TORCH Public Engagement with Research Summer School and working on a public history exhibition. I had also participated in various seminars and activities offered by the Heritage Partnerships Team, based in the Humanities Division. My background was in museums and heritage, and I had no plans to pursue a career in academia after my PhD, instead intending to return to the museum sector. However, I became increasingly aware of the similarities between museum work and university public engagement work, and when there was an opening on the university’s National Trust Partnership team, I jumped at the chance to combine both worlds.

The National Trust Partnership, led by Alice Purkiss, is an award-winning collaboration which creates new opportunities for interdisciplinary research, knowledge exchange, public engagement with research, and training, at both institutions and beyond. Working with specialists across a wide range of subject areas and locations, the partnership facilitates cutting-edge research into the National Trust’s inspiring places and collections which is then embedded into interpretation and public programming initiatives. Activities take place through a range of workstreams at both organisations, including academic placements and consultancy, conferences, workshops, public lectures and events, and student opportunities. The partnership also supports training and cross-institutional knowledge-exchange.

The National Trust Partnership grew out of the Trusted Source Knowledge Transfer Partnership, which ran from 2016-18 and was funded by the National Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and InnovateUK. The National Trust Partnership is based in the Humanities Division but is interdisciplinary, drawing on and building connections across the university.

Figure 2. University of Oxford curatorial research interns visit
National Trust site Powis Castle. Image Credit: Hanna Smyth.

Mutual benefits of university/heritage partnerships

My time on working on the National Trust Partnership taught me the principles and practicalities of three key mutual benefits in university/heritage partnerships: building connections, growing expertise, and sharing knowledge.

Building connections between universities and heritage organisations allows both to be more ambitious than they could be individually; and, crucially, requires dedicated staff time to achieve. A core element of the work we did was developing familiarity and close working relationships with colleagues in both the heritage and university sectors, so that we could not only understand the strategic and logistical factors driving their respective decisions, but identify ways to align them. For example, in summer 2021 we were involved in developing the National Trust’s list of priority areas for new research, and how these could best dovetail with research specialisms and strategic priorities at the university.

Growing expertise involves harnessing the resources and skills of both institutions to benefit each other, both to support individual researchers’ and heritage professionals’ development and to lay stronger groundwork for their ability to initiate future collaborative projects themselves. An example of this was bringing in National Trust staff as speakers on Oxford’s Heritage Pathway training programme, while also hiring Oxford early career researchers to develop and deliver academic skills training sessions for National Trust curators. We also supervised more than 100 students on one-week research internship placements for live National Trust curatorial projects.

Sharing knowledge looks like sharing outcomes of university/heritage collaborative work as widely as possible, ensuring that stories, skills, and case studies are accessible and relevant to a range of different audiences. This includes academic events, including lectures, symposia and conferences; online resources (e.g. blog-postsnews articlespodcasts, and videos); and publications (peer-reviewed and open access).

Figure 3. Students hired by the University of Oxford National Trust Partnership
deliver academic research skills training to National Trust curators. Image Credit: Hanna Smyth.

Next steps

I left my role on the National Trust Partnership in January 2022, as I needed a job that fitted certain criteria for my immigration visa as I’m a Canadian citizen. The public engagement expertise and experience working with heritage partners I’d gained in that post turned out to be a perfect fit for a very different kind of role: I now work on the public engagement team for a neuroscience research centre, which does a variety of arts and heritage collaborations, including a major exhibition and engagement programme with Banbury Museum. I may not be a neuroscientist, but I don’t need to be; instead what I’ve needed are the skills I learned on the National Trust Partnership, and I’m excited to see where it – and I – go next.

Dr Hanna Smyth (@hannamsmyth) is the Public Engagement Officer for the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging (University of Oxford) and a Public Engagement with Research Associate at the Ashmolean Museum. She is on the Board of Directors of the International Society for First World War Studies, and the Executive Committee of War Through Other Stuff. She completed her PhD in Global & Imperial History at the University of Oxford in 2019, with prior degrees in Museum Studies and Classical Archaeology.

All images are author’s own and not to be reproduced without permission.

Cover Image. National Trust site Waddesdon Manor. 

Figure 1. “Post-Conflict Landscapes” symposium convened by the University of Oxford National Trust Partnership for academics and heritage professionals. 

Figure 2. University of Oxford curatorial research interns visit National Trust site Powis Castle. 

Figure 3. Students hired by the University of Oxford National Trust Partnership deliver academic research skills training to National Trust curators. 

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