Each month, Herstory Club feature an interview with a woman currently working in History. For Women’s History Month 2021 we are expanding this feature! We are aiming to share the experiences women face in the industry (the good and the bad!) and to shine a light on the incredible work currently being undertaken by women across a wide range of specialist disciplines.
Herstory Club (HC): Thank you so much for taking the time to share you story with everyone. Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
Katy Jackson (KJ):
I’m Katy Jackson and I manage the adult learning programme at the British Library. I develop and run adult learning courses that combine skills development, knowledge exchange and social interaction. Since the British Library has everything the courses cover a vast range of topics. My favourites are Gothic literature, food writing, and ‘Vagina: Know Your Anatomy’ – a course on the gynaecological anatomy run in partnership with the brilliant Vagina Museum.
HC: What period of history are you interested in?
KJ: If you’d asked me this question three years’ ago before I joined the BL I’d have said Twentieth century conflict, and absolutely nothing pre-1900. Snore. From university and the first 6 years of my career I was (and still am) interested in contemporary conflict, how we understand it and how it influences our perceptions of who we are as individuals, as societies, and as nation states. Since being at the BL I’ve really had my mind opened to so many other areas of history. I picked up Hallie Rubenhold’s ‘The Five’ last year and became fascinated by the social history of the 19th century, which I studied at AS Level and hated. Exploring it through women’s lives and experiences really made it come alive.
HC: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history.
KJ: I’m going to be controversial and choose someone from very very recent history and I’ll leave the historians to debate when history ‘starts’.
I don’t know about you but I was completely transfixed by Amanda’s Gorman’s performance of her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ during the inauguration of President Biden and Vice-President Harris in January this year. It’s a strange feeling when you know that you’re witnessing history in that moment. The combination of her words, her presence and delivery, the significance of a young Black woman taking centre stage, when just 14 days earlier the Capitol was the scene of a violent insurrection. Gorman embodied hope, spoke with power, and called us to action:
‘For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it’.
HC: How did you get to where you are now?
KJ: Privilege, plain and simple. I grew up in a loving, middle class family, went to a good school, loved learning and had everything I needed. After my BA I was supported by bank of mum and dad to do a Masters degree. I was in the right place at the right time to get an interview for my first job at the Wiener Library, and here is the one bit I’ll give credit to myself for tenacity because I worked incredibly hard to smash that job interview. I have passion, drive and skills in abundance, but I exist within a system that was designed to benefit me as a white, cis-het, able-bodied woman. I’ve experienced my fair share of dreadful treatment from management/ general public, and I did almost leave the cultural sector. I decided I wanted to contribute to change rather than giving up altogether.
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current role/research interests?
KJ: I started my career running community outreach activities at the Wiener Holocaust Library. The work I found most interesting was engaging adult audiences with the themes and issues of the Holocaust that had contemporary relevance, such as refugee and migrant rights. I took this interest to my next job at the National Army Museum, where I ran a public programme that engaged audiences with the multifaceted history and present-day relevance (and controversies) of the British Army.
I moved away from the history of conflict by taking my role at the British Library (although I have run related learning courses, just to keep my hand in!) and focus more on the direct impact cultural organisations can have on adults’ skills, knowledge and confidence.
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your experiences within the wider historical field and your line of work – both positive and negative experiences are welcome!
KJ: I have experienced the full spectrum of positive and negative experiences in the cultural sector. I’ve worked with amazing people who have inspired me, lifted me up, mentored me and I’ve had encounters with the public that have been magical and spine-tingling.
I’ve also had people take credit for my work, take opportunities away from me for themselves, humiliate me in front of my peers, treading on me to get ahead.
I don’t think this spectrum of experience is unique to the cultural sector. I take my negative experiences and use them to make myself a better person, so I will never treat someone how I’ve been treated. I hope I lead by example, and I’m not done trying to make change in this sector.
HC: What are your thoughts on how women are treated in your sector/this field?
KJ: Women are not treated well in the museum and cultural sector. Black women, women of colour, disabled women, and LGBTQ women experience even worse treatment than a person of privilege like me. Low pay, short contracts, inflexible working, inaccessible buildings, poor parental leave policies, etc etc, mean that the glass ceiling is in-tact, keeping women from reaching their full potential, and excluding some altogether.
From an outside-in perspective, I have first-hand experience of being patronised and dismissed by the general public for being a woman with expertise in history. I sum this up in two words: Dear Sirs.
It is Twenty Twenty One people.
HC: If you could give any advice to women in this sector/those wanting to get into history, what would it be?
KJ: My advice is to do what makes you happy, focus on the things that make you happy and do them. Put yourself, your health, your energy, your wellbeing, first. Success looks different on everyone – it’s not a linear upward trajectory, it’s not your job title or your salary, as society tells us it is. Work out what success looks like to you, and pursue that.
For the museum/cultural sector, start by researching job specs and finding out what jobs are out there. Museums are just like businesses and there are so many roles that exist that you might not even realise exist – like finance, retail, operations.
DON’T WORK FOR FREE.
Know that the museum/cultural sector is deeply flawed by design (notoriously low pay, short contracts, rife bullying and harassment) and decide whether this is an environment that’s going to allow you to thrive (as a person, as well as a professional). I’m in it to change it.
Transferable skills are your best friend. You might love museums, but you can still enjoy them when you’re working in a different sector. And whatever skills you gain from any job will be transferable, so you can come and go in the sector as you please. Try not to pigeon-hole yourself. It’s never too late to change career or change direction. You have power. Use it.