Open University student Tom Chambers reflects on Heritage Placement with WCIA

Tom Chambers is an Ancient History student with the Open University, who has recently completed a 6-week Heritage Placement with WCIA funded through OU’s ‘GROW’ programme.

Tom Chambers leads a ‘Temple Tour’ in July 2023 with leaders of Soka Gakkai International, who donated a valuable collection of books to the Temple of Peace Library for use by future generations of students and peace researchers. As well as facilitating their visit, Tom assisted in the cataloguing and curation of the SGI-UK collection.

Setting up the Placement

I first got in touch with Julie Bush from the Open University’s placement scheme as I wanted to gain work experience where I could apply the skills I had learned over my Undergraduate degree and my current Masters in Classical Studies. When Julie first mentioned the possibility of doing a placement with the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, I was interested but did not really know what to expect – at this stage I had not heard of the WCIA or the Temple of Peace. I met with Craig Owen, Heritage Advisor at the WCIA, to discuss potential ‘Peace Heritage‘ projects that I could do as part of my placement. I realised I could apply skills learned through my studies, to WCIA’s work environment – while also gaining a wide range of new skills beyond the academic environment, or that I might not have considered.

Temple Tours

Some tasks definitely pushed me beyond existing comfort zones: Craig’s suggestion for me to take on leading some of the public ‘Temple Tours‘ did make me a little nervous! In the end I particulraly enjoyed leading and preparing for the Tours; they were nerve-wracking at first, because I don’t consider myself a natural public speaker – particularly when everyone is looking at you as an ‘expert’ on some topics I had only learned about a week before my first tour! But as time went on, and with the experience of conducting more tour groups, I grew more comfortable and confident in speaking – occasionally taking on quite large groups. To help in learning the ‘narrative’ and stories behind the tours, Craig got me to go through existing guide materials and consolidate these into a folder for future volunteer tour guides – which helped in structuring and breaking down all the information into ‘manageable chunks’. I don’t think I would have picked up experience of public speaking in this way before entering the world of work anywhere else, and it is such a valuable and transferable skill to develop.

Peace Heritage

As someone who is fascinated by history, I really enjoyed learning about the Temple’s own history, its connections to both the First and Second World Wars, the founding of the United Nations and the National Health Service. On a personal level, I was both happy and surprised to realise how much my hometown of Merthyr Tydfil appeared in the Temple’s history, and in the histories of peace movements in Wales. The building itself was opened by Minnie James, a bereaved war mother from Dowlais, whose archival collections from WW1 were actually being curated by volunteers I was able to support during my placement with WCIA.

Tom Chambers (2nd from RH) with other Temple Heritage volunteers during one of WCIA’s fortnightly Wednesday ‘Archiveathon’ sessions. As party of his placement role, Tom supported other volunteers working on research projects

Temple Library Project

The main ‘strategic’ project I led over my WCIA placement was reorganisation of the Temple of Peace Library. As with the Temple Tours, this was a daunting prospect at first – as I had to think through and develop a ‘master plan’ for the whole process, and then move – both physically and digitally (in the online catalogue) – over 30 floor-to-ceiling cabinets filled with thousands of books, magazines and pamphlets. It took some time for me to come up with a clear plan on how to best organise the books into thematic collections, and then to map out where they could most logically be grouped within the library to make sense to users – for example, bringing together topical collections such as histories, georgraphy, international development, or human rights. There was also the more ruthless process of disposals – identifying materials of low or no heritage or reference value for donations / recycling, to make space for the important stuff. This was a piece of work that Craig had been lining up for a couple of years, which with ‘many hands on deck’ (from several volunteers helping out!), we were able to clear this in a couple of days.

During my degrees I have learned organisational skills – but never on anything of this size and complexity. Re-organising the Temple Library has given me an insight into applying more ‘strategic’ organisational skills towards larger-scale projects, something that I will very likely need for the world of work. I was given a great deal of autonomy to use my own initiative and ideas througghout the process, another tremendously useful skill that probably best developed through tangible work experience. WCIA is quite a small charity and team, with a strong culture of trust and support for ‘learning through doing’ – I felt I was able to take on a level of responsibility as a volunteer placement that might not be possible in a larger institution (for example, handling original archives, curating exhibition displays and leading visitor discussions).

Visiting the National Library of Wales

Towards the end of placement, I was offered the opportunity to accompany WCIA’s Heritage Advisor Craig and fellow placement volunteer Sam, on a ‘work trip’ to Aberystwyth to meet some of the teams ‘behind the scenes’ at the National Library of Wales (NLW), and to undertake some research using Temple Archives from the 1920s-30s that had been accessioned to NLW many decades ago. Using the NLW Archives for research was a valuable experience, and it was interesting to meet with the team behind People’s Collection Wales to understand the work and thinking that goes in to enable digitised archival materials to be accessible online to people anywhere in the world. It was also my first visit to Mid / West Wales – and a long train journey!

Tom Chambers and Sam Mutter at the entrance to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth – enjoying the views across Cardigan Bay before delving into the archives.

Reflections

Overall, I have really enjoyed my time on placement with the WCIA. I have picked up new skills that I don’t think I would have gained elsewhere before entering the world of employment, and I’ve learned things I knew next to nothing about. The whole WCIA team made me feel very welcome, and I enjoyed working with all of them – but I want to particularly thank Craig for setting up and overseeing my placement with the Temple of Peace, and Gunel and Susie for all their help, particularly in the early weeks when I was finding my feet at the Temple. Despite being a relatively small organisation, the WCIA is very well respected and does a lot of important work – and I am very grateful that I was a small part of that for the ten weeks of my placement.

Heritage Advisor Craig Owen also reflected on Tom’s contribution towards WCIA’s heritage work, and the ‘GROW’ placement scheme: “It’s been a real joy to work with Tom over Summer 2023, as he’s turned his hand and applied his skills to the practical challenges of managing day to day heritage work for a very active organisation. The jump from academic theory and ideals of how people think things ‘should’ work, to the realities of juggling lots of tasks with very limited resources, is a huge shift in gear – requiring a lot of strategic thinking, planning, and understanding the needs of a wide range of users far beyond your own specific discipline or interests. Reliability, dependability and initiative are critical, responding to needs and opportunities on a day to day basis – which can be quite daunting to career entrants, who often have quite idealised expectations.

Tom really rose to these challenges throughout his placement, and embraced pushing his ‘comfort zones’ – for example in taking on Temple Tours, and seeing through reorganisation of the Temple library. As a result, his placement has really made a tangible contribution towards the Temple’s Peace Heritage work, and laid foundations for future projects. This is mostly a credit to Tom himself and his pro-active attitude and approach. But it’s also a credit to placement schemes such as GROW, which when well-designed can make a great difference to small organisations like WCIA with quite limited resources. Poorly designed work experience schemes can be very extractive, expecting alot of staff time, support and capacity with limited return. Provision of dedicated funding (a salary to the student) over a decent period of 4-8 weeks, enables students to really get their teeth into a project(s) without having to juggle other part-time jobs and studies alongside. This makes all the difference – both employer and students can really focus on productivity, and as we’ve seen from Tom’s placement, deliver work that is really valuable for the long-term.

A big thankyou to OU’s GROW team, and of course to Tom himself.”