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PeopleEmily Hicks

Emily Hicks

I grew up a few miles outside Oxford, and was lucky being so close to the city with the ease of connections to the rest of the country.
When I was tiny, my Dad, Chris Hicks, managed Blackwells bookshop in Oxford, having worked in various departments of the shop since school. When I was quite young he took up bookbinding full time, developing what had originally been a hobby. We had a brick-built workshop in our garden. With hindsight, I realise how formative his job was for me when I was young; to have a father whose job was his absolute passion, and was deeply creative. His work fell into three main categories; the restoration work, binding small print-runs of special press books, and theses binding for the academia of Oxford. At a certain time of the summer, students would deliver their PhD theses very early in the morning, and he would bind them within a 24hr turn-around. There was also the fine binding of valuable books, which were effectively works of art, and it was this work which won him several awards and much respect in the craft.
Unsurprisingly, our house was full of books, and an unlimited supply of paper and craft materials which my parents encouraged me and my brother to use creatively. I was a bit of a swot at school, my mum being keen on academic achievement. She taught me to read before I started school, which gave me confidence, and mainly I found school easy and enjoyable. My secondary school was called Wheatley Park, which was on the site of an old manor house. There was an island surrounded by a moat, and the place had a romantic, historic atmosphere. There was no doubt in my mind I wanted to go to university, but had no fixed ideas about a career. So given my upbringing I chose to read English, already being well into the classics, especially Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. I went to Royal Holloway in Egham, again studying in an historic old building. I loved uni so much I stayed on and did a Masters there, in Victorian Studies.
As a child I enjoyed visits to museums, my Dad taking me and my brother to the Natural History Museum and the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford. There was also an open-air farm museum near Oxford called Cogges Manor Farm, where my Dad would go and demonstrate bookbinding, and I would get roped in. I dressed as a Victorian kitchen maid and helped the cook make Welsh cakes on an old Aga. This experience, together with my family life and education, began to make me think about possibly looking for a museum job.
Finding a paid job in museums without any voluntary experience was a tall order, and these days it’s pretty much impossible. By a stroke of luck, I noticed an advert for an internship for the Wordsworth Trust, at Grasmere in the Lake District. As well as running Wordsworth’s house Dove Cottage, they own 90% of the poet’s manuscripts, and an incredible collection of British Romantic literature. I applied, and went to work there after my Masters degree. It was a bit like going back to uni again, the work being unpaid but with full training and accommodation provided. I was one of a group of interns there, and we had a great time and made friendships for life. We got a very good grounding of the whole spectrum of experiences the centre offered, such as guided tours, conservation cleaning, and teaching children. I did that for 18 months, and then the Education Officer left, so I applied for the job, was successful, and did a paid job for the next 18 months, running the schools programme. That was really the point at which I became focussed on museum work as a career.
Looking for more varied work experience, I became assistant curator at Farnham Museum in Surrey. There was a really friendly but small team there, so we all had to do a bit of everything. I seemed to be often dressing up as Victorian housekeeper (Mrs Muffins!), a Roman housewife, a Tudor housewife, and my acting as a Victorian schoolteacher fortunately only made a child cry once! The children’s reactions were sometimes quite funny; some thought that the past was all in black and white, because of the old photographs. Again, I was lucky to live in a beautiful part of the country and stayed there three years, but by then it felt time to look for another challenge.
Growing up, our family holidays were usually either in Totnes, where my Dad had a friend with a holiday cottage, or Dorset. I knew places like Lulworth and Milton Abbas, but had not actually heard of Bridport. So after the three years in Farnham I saw the job here in Bridport advertised. I came for a recce initially, which was before the museum’s redevelopment, and saw immediately that there were definitely opportunities to create an amazing Museum. The interview was rather formal, in the council room at Mountfield, and despite feeling really ill, adrenaline kicked in and I got the job, which I started in November 2010. In 2012, we received a bequest called the Sanctuary Rope and Net Collection. Anthony Sanctuary was a director of Bridport Gundry, and he and his wife Frances had created a private museum of net making at Uploders, We were also fortunate to attract a Lottery grant which enabled the redevelopment to go ahead, and we reopened in May 2017. It was an incredible team effort; I think projects like this only ever succeed with a truly collaborative approach. I am still very proud of the result: we are constantly told that it is fun and accessible, our ropemaking demonstrations are hugely popular, and hopefully the whole place will always feel quite “Bridport” and a key part of our community.
We only have three paid staff, with around 80 volunteers. During Covid last year, the other 2 staff were furloughed, but I stayed working, focussing on grant applications, and caretaking the building and collections. We ran digital campaigns such as ‘Bake Bridport’ and ‘Melplash Memories’, but when we reopened in October last year it was really powerful to be able to provide that ‘real’ physical experience again.
We are very lucky to be generously supported by Dorset Council and Bridport Town Council. But these are challenging times for everyone, so having been free entry since 2010, we introduced an entry charge last year of £5 per adult for a year’s entry, which we feel is amazing value and is now crucial for our survival. We also keep a close eye on what grants may be available, and have been lucky to recently receive £100,000 from the Esme Fairbairn Foundation to undertake a community engaged Collections Review Project. We are asking the community to have a say in what parts of our collections, 95% of which are in store, we should keep; what we don’t keep, where should it go, and what should we collect in the future. We really want the collections to reflect our communities.
I began piano lessons at the age of seven, often scraping my way through exams until eventually I made it to Grade 8 when I was 18. It was at times a painful process as I didn’t always practise thoroughly and I got really nervous for the exams! I was in the school orchestra, played clarinet and flute sometimes, but wasn’t really as passionate about playing as I was about singing. At university I sang in the chapel choir, and became a choral scholar. Occasionally I sang solo at concerts or weddings. When I moved to Bridport I took lessons with a teacher near Blandford, and two years ago started lessons with Anna Gregory at Hawkchurch. Anna is a professional opera singer and an incredible teacher who has really set my voice free and encouraged me with solo work. I have performed many times with the New Elizabeth Singers in Bridport, and am currently touring with local composer Matthew Coleridge, as the soprano soloist for his Requiem. This is an amazingly exciting project, but we only managed to perform at Portsmouth Cathedral before Covid hit and other dates were cancelled. Now we are up and running again we have been recently to Dorchester-on-Thames and Romsey. Warwick and Bristol are next on the list for me this year. They say that singing releases endorphins—it definitely makes me happy. It’s my favourite thing.

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