Graduate intern Beth Hall updates us on what she’s been up to recently…
Hello, Beth again here with an update on my Archives and Special Collections internship. This time, I’ve been spending the last month with Visitor Services – an entirely different side to the building I’m used to seeing so far.
In my first week I was introduced to what Durham University has on offer for members of the public to visit. In the Palace Green Library (PGL) building, we currently have two exhibition spaces open to the public – the Museum of Archaeology exhibit and the Durham Light Infantry Collection Gallery upstairs. These are free to access and while they can be booked online via Eventbrite, we do have spaces available to curious visitors who walk in subject to availability. We also have the UNESCO World Heritage Site Visitor Centre that has recently been relocated into the building and is freely open to the public without any booking. We also have the front desk, where visitors can ask for directions or assistance and buy tickets to tour the Castle, tourist information leaflets and a gift shop.
Durham Castle is a part of Durham University and when it isn’t in use as anything from student accommodation to a wedding venue, it is open to the public with a ticket. During the time I was helping out, and at time of writing, they’re running self-guided tours a few days a week. These are run by volunteers and interns like myself – including student and external volunteers who are situated in every room open to the public to answer any questions, offering their wealth of knowledge to the public.
In addition to the front desk, exhibitions, the UNESCO visitor centre and the Castle, I was also introduced to the Oriental Museum. This is a lovely, peaceful space tucked away amongst some of the university colleges which has a surprisingly large and fascinating collection on display. It’s a bit of a hidden gem (with a fantastic little gift shop) and is currently also free for visitors to look around with the recommendation to pre-book.
After being introduced to all of these wonderful sites and the basics of how they function to the public, I was put to work! I spent most of my time based at PGL, so I could dip in to the search room in the mornings or afternoons when my help was needed. I greeted people at the front door, answering any basic tourist information questions that I could or directing people to those who probably knew how to answer their question a lot more competently than myself, or signing them up to visit the exhibitions if they wished to have a look around! I also spent some time behind the front desk. This involved pointing people in the right direction, taking contact information and handling payment for Castle tour tickets. I even answered phone calls – an irrationally scary thing for most people, but once I got over my initial hesitation I learned to trust my own knowledge and found that I did actually know the answers to a lot of the questions people had.
I learned how to perform the daily routines of Visitor Service staff – including locking up and opening the exhibitions and making sure the retail space was clean and presentable. One thing that’s important for opening and closing is security and maintaining the safety of the collections (my conservation knowledge came in handy here). It is important to make sure the keys you use are stored away safely as soon as you’re finished with them, to double check everything is locked at the end of the day and to make sure the appropriate lights are turned off or on. This last point ensures the collections aren’t exposed to too much or too little light which can damage them (and ensures, of course, that the visitors can see them properly).
Aside from the daily routines in PGL, I had a couple of one-off days helping out in the Castle. I processed visitor’s tickets and pointed them to the right place to buy them if they hadn’t pre-booked. I also stood outside of the Normal Chapel, one of the few places in the Castle with a very limited visitor capacity. I kept track of who was entering and exiting the space to ensure the safe limit was not exceeded, and made sure people were aware that they could view the rest of the Castle if they didn’t wish to wait.
This month was such fun. I haven’t dealt too much with the public since I started working here (a big shift for me after years spent in food retail!). I was a little nervous that I didn’t know all that much about Durham or the way the building worked to serve the public – but I surprised myself with how quickly I got back into assisting the public and how easily I picked up what to say and who to direct them to. Of course, I couldn’t have done it without the support of the fantastic staff and security who work in Front of House. I’d shout them all out by name but there’s too many to mention – but a huge thank you from me from all the heroes who help make visitors to Palace Green’s experience a lovely one (and as always, a thank you for setting time aside to teach me your ways!).
If you want to visit anything we have open, please have a look around our website for more information on what’s on and how you can book!