Spotlight on Celine West
30 August 2016
This week the spotlight is on Celine West, Head of Learning & Access, UCL Culture.
What is your role and what does it involve?
I work across UCL Museums as Head of Learning & Access. There are three public museums here - the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, the Grant Museum of Zoology and the UCL Art Museum (all of which I urge you to visit, often) - and many wonderful collections that don't have public display space. All are regularly used in teaching and research in UCL, however my role is to work with groups from outside the university, mainly schools. My work is funded by Widening Participation to use the collections in ways that raise young people's aspirations towards higher education and encourage them to apply to UCL.
I work part-time and have two part-time Museum Learning Officers working with me as well as a number of regular freelance museum education professionals, and UCL graduate students. I manage the programme of activities they devise and deliver, such as object-based activities in primary and secondary schools on topics such as Life in Ancient Greece, Habitats and Adaptations, or Marvellous Materials, with some intensive week-long programmes in school holidays. I also run occasional conversation and handling sessions in a pop-up kiosk, that is popular at events like the UCL Festival of Culture and the Bloomsbury Festival.
Working with museum collections and people is a varied job - the objects we get to handle and explore are fantastic and have many interesting and strange stories associated with them. Finding ways to use them with school subjects and children and young people from ages 8-18 is a never-ending process of discovery and learning for all of us, and when teenagers, especially, become enthused it's very rewarding.
How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
Unbelievably to me, I've been here 12 years. I have worked in UCL Museums throughout that time, beginning as a museum education officer, which involved teaching in schools all over London with museum objects and running three or four summer schools every year. I started my current role in 2008; since then our department has changed a lot, with the museums and collections being incorporated with the Public Engagement Unit and the Bloomsbury Theatre into UCL Culture. Before I came to UCL I worked in Brighton Museums as the community and families education officer, putting together the activities programme for the seven sites there, including the Royal Pavilion. That was following a museum studies degree that took me out of the doldrums of local council education work.
What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
Soon after I started at UCL I set up a programme of work with families in schools in Haringey, taking objects out to most of the schools in the borough. I got some external funding and I had a great partnership with local family learning teachers. We facilitated many lovely, heart-warming classes with parents and their children, handling objects like a bronze mirror from the Petrie Museum or a snakeskin from the Grant Museum. The purpose of the sessions was to introduce museums to the parents who were from hugely diverse backgrounds, and to show them how they could use objects to have conversations with their children. I visited a lot of schools in deprived areas in north Tottenham and felt that together we were carving out time for culture and creativity in a lot of unsuspecting spaces, and we were always well-received. Many of the families then came to visit UCL.
I'm also proud of a Widening Participation summer school for secondary school students that I set up many years ago, initially in partnership with the Wellcome Collection. It was designed to be an arts and science week, using the human body as a starting point, for 13-year-olds. It still runs very successfully - some of the highlights are a visit from a Renaissance surgeon that includes leeches, exploring our Pathology collections, and creating stop-motion animation films.
Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of you to-do list?
I am changing the way we work with secondary schools to offer real, sustained engagement. I'm promoting our work as a special chance for a limited number of widening participation schools to access a menu of activities that they will take part in over several years, working in partnership rather than simply having workshops from us at various times. We are developing work in the museums with UCL researchers so that we can give schools direct access to different strands of knowledge they can't experience elsewhere, which is also beneficial for the academics who want to have an impact on school audiences.
This will build towards our plans for UCL Culture's involvement in UCL East, as I will be working far more with schools in the boroughs around Olympicopolis. It's a huge opportunity for new ways of working with culture and communities, finding ways to be a truly publicly engaged organisation and being socially inclusive.
What is your favourite album, film and novel?
Album: Stone Roses by The Stone Roses
Novel: it's a tough call between A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Life: A User's Manual by George Perec.
What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
A skeleton walks into a bar.
"A pint," he says, "and a mop."
Who would be your dream dinner guests?
A well-behaved, cutlery-using version of my daughter, and my new husband, Professor Joe Cain.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Now is the time.
What would it surprise people to know about you?
I'm a published fiction writer, with a few short stories in various places. I started not that many years ago by entering a competition for women writers and my first story was published by Virago in a collection called Something Was There. That was a ghost story about someone dealing with objects mysteriously moving around their house.
What is your favourite place?
A secret beach in Catalonia.