Her-Story #WHM2021: Sarah Laurenson

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.

Sarah Laurenson

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.

Sarah Laurenson (SL):

My name is Sarah Laurenson. I live in Edinburgh and work at National Museums Scotland, where I am Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary History. I am responsible for the contemporary collecting programme in the Department of Scottish History and Archaeology. My role involves collecting objects that document the impact of major social, cultural, political and environmental changes in Scotland today. The emphasis is on representing what is distinctive about Scotland today in a global context, mindful of the differences within and across the country. A strong focus is on objects embedded with a sense of place, and those which link to the museum’s existing collections to demonstrate how the past continually reshapes the present. I work in a section that covers the period from 1750 to today, so I also care for areas of our history collections, and my wider research spans that stretch of time.

HC: What period of history are you interested in?

SL: All of them. One of the best things about my job is that, even in my own department, colleagues are researching and caring for objects from prehistory right through to the present. That means I am constantly encountering aspects of the past that are unfamiliar to me, and it’s impossible not to be interested. My own research is focused on the period from around 1780 to the twenty-first century. The long nineteenth century is an era that fascinates me, and I feel privileged to have spent years immersed in it during my PhD research at the University of Edinburgh, which explored the ways in which craft skill – specifically those involved in making jewellery and small metalworks – evolved against the backdrop of industrialisation. I’m currently writing a book that explores exactly these themes: ‘The Material Landscapes of Scotland’s Jewellery Craft, c.1780-1914’ (forthcoming, Bloomsbury Academic). My day-to-day work is research-led so I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about contemporary history, including the ways in which the past has shaped the world around us today. 

HC: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history. 

SL: That’s a tough question. I don’t think I can possibly pick one. If you’ll allow me to gently sidestep, the women who really capture my imagination are those for whom we see the most fleeting of glimpses. The historical record, as we know, rarely records a full picture of the majority of ordinary women (particularly those who lived in rural areas). In museum collections, we encounter these women through the things they made or owned. Sometimes we have a name, or a photograph. Sometimes we have only the traces of their hand in a piece of embroidery, the wear from the repetition of their foot on the pedal of a spinning wheel, or their initials engraved in a well-loved brooch. In my research on historical craft, I often come across women who owned businesses in nineteenth-century Scotland – though it’s usually just their names in directories or in business records that happen to have survived. These fragmentary traces of past lives that happen to have survived are a constant source of fascination.

HC: How did you get to where you are now? 

SL: Via a squiggly sort of line. I grew up in the Shetland Islands and left to study textile design at university, in large part because I was interested in the role that knitting had played in the history and culture of the place I call home. I was interested in how the textiles craft told a story about women’s agency and economic autonomy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But I quickly realised that it was the history that fascinated me – textiles was my portal into an aspect of the past rather than the driver of my interest. For that reason, I turned my attention to researching dress history and historical construction methods and techniques. That set me up to do a masters at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in material cultures of the past with a focus on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I then moved home for a few years to work in the textiles industry in Shetland before returning to Edinburgh and starting my doctorate. Throughout my PhD I spent time teaching social and cultural history at the University, covering the period from 1650 to 2000, which I absolutely loved. (I still bump into old students in and around Edinburgh fairly regularly and they always make my day!) The final year of my doctorate overlapped with curatorial roles, first at Edinburgh Museums and Galleries and then in my current role at National Museums Scotland. 

HC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current role/research interests?

SL: Throughout my career, I’ve worked closely with museums and collections in different ways. During my undergrad, I made a point of teaching myself how to read historical objects, to understand how they were made and used and passed between people over time. My masters research applied that material knowledge to historical clothing made by a group of women at the centre of Scotland’s Arts and Crafts Movement, including Jessie Newbery and Ann Macbeth. I spent time as a Trustee and voluntary curator at a small textiles museum, and worked with a range of collections as a freelance researcher and editor. During my time in the textiles industry, I set up museum partnerships to explore reconstruction and conservation methods. My doctorate examined hundreds of jewellery objects in public and private collections, employing those material things as primary sources in a study focused on materiality. All of that previous experience has led me to a place where unpicking the stories embedded within objects and developing new material culture methodologies has become the core of my research focus and expertise. A thread running through all of my research has to do with the ways in which place and landscape shape material things. In recent years I’ve applied that line of thinking to new work, to explore contemporary cultural engagement with Scotland’s mountain and island landscapes, in an era marked by concerns about human activity on the environment.. 

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!

SL: I feel very lucky to work in an organisation where I am surrounded by amazing women who are very good at what they do and who support one another. I have also had strong and trusted mentorship from colleagues, past and present, for which I am grateful. I am conscious of the fact that I am privileged to have had hugely supportive supervisors and managers, both during my PhD and at the museum. Navigating some of the difficulties women experience in the field has been made easier with support and guidance from people I trust and respect.

HC: What are your thoughts on how women are treated in your sector/this field?

SL: The museum sector is not immune to the issues that affect women in the workplace more widely. The Museums Association is a good source for information on the structural issues affecting the sector including low pay and the gender pay gap, with 2018 report highlighting that – across the sector – men still get paid more than women and occupy more senior roles (https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2018/03/14032018-gender-pay-gap-favours-men-in-museums-and-galleries/). That said, another report from the same year showed a handful of museums, among them National Museums Scotland, with a pay gap in favour of women. (For more information, see: https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2018/04/11042018-pay-gap-larger-than-national-average-at-six-museum-and-heritage-organisations/ and here: https://www.nms.ac.uk/media/1156692/gender-pay-gap-data-march-2018.pdf). Since I became a mum, I’ve become acutely aware of how pregnancy and parenting affects women in the workplace. An article by Sarah Crook on ‘Parenting during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020: academia, labour and care work’ is a must-read on how women in history are faring right now: (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09612025.2020.1807690)

HC: If you could give any advice to women in this sector/those wanting to get into history, what would it be? 

SL: Given that my own route to curator resembles a rather winding country road, I’m reluctant to suggest anything that looks remotely like a roadmap for anyone else. In fact, my story up to this point is an example of how there are many gateways to working in the field of history. Sometimes jobs outside of the field offer scope to create opportunities that help with developing your interests and expertise in studying the past. If I had one top tip, it would be to read, read, read and write, write, write. Be curious, soak up information and write about it, critically, even if it’s just for yourself. That way, you keep your hand in and continue to hone your thoughts, your intellectual approach and your writing voice, even at points when the job market is being its tricky, tiresome self. Finally, no matter what stage you’re at in your career, know who your own supporters are and be generous in supporting the people around you.

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