Jen Shaw

Jen Shaw tells us about her role as Exhibitions Officer of Special Collections, and her life before the University, studying and working in Manchester, Chicago and Warwickshire.

Tell us about your role at the University

I am the Exhibitions Officer for the Special Collections Centre. This involves programming the displays which go into the Gallery in the Sir Duncan Rice Library as well as the talks and events that run alongside them.

You may have seen some of the displays I’ve worked on since I joined the University. “City of Ghosts” in Autumn-Winter of 2015/2016 took a selection of George Washington Wilson’s images of Aberdeen and paired them up with the works of a contemporary photographer. Following on from that was “An Audience with Charles Dickens” which focussed on the complete set of 15 first editions of Dickens’s novels that the University holds and examined Dickens’s passion as a performer and his 2 visits to Aberdeen.

The current exhibition “Cover Stories” takes a different approach and looks at the outsides of some of our rare books – at their beautiful bindings and some of the individuals who commissioned or owned the books

It’s my job to showcase these amazing books, manuscripts and papers that are part of Special Collections, to highlight what we have, and to make each exhibition appealing to university and non-university visitors. Come and take a look!

How do you usually start your day?

I’m up at 6am to walk my dog in Seaton Park or along the Esplanade before getting my son up and ready for nursery. After dropping him off I walk to the Sir Duncan Rice Library to start the day’s work. My first task of the day is always to open up the Gallery on the ground floor of the Library before heading down to the Special Collections Centre on the Lower Ground Floor.

There’s no such thing as a typical day in exhibitions, I’ve discovered. It can be a mix of meetings with other members of the Special Collections team, designers or academics from across the university, store visits, research and writing, hosting talks and lectures or giving a group tour of the exhibition. If it’s an exhibition change-over week, I can be found doing all manner of jobs in the Gallery – anything from adjusting the lighting, moving cases and hanging artworks to applying vinyl lettering to the walls.

What brought you to the University of Aberdeen?

I joined the Special Collections team in May 2015. It’s quite a convoluted path that brought me to Aberdeen. Born and brought up in Staffordshire, I always had a plan to live in Scotland. After completing a Visual Arts Foundation Course, I spent a year, aged 18, working in a hotel in Glenshee.

I then studied History of Art at St Andrews, and after completing an MA in Museum & Gallery Studies at Manchester University, my first job was back in Scotland - as the Touring Exhibitions Officer for Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries. I stayed for three years before taking up a curatorial position as Keeper of Art at Bolton Museum & Art Gallery.

I later spent five years living in the USA, in Chicago, working as the Gallery Coordinator for two contemporary spaces at Columbia College and Moraine Valley Community College.

When I returned to the UK at the end of 2012, I took up a post as an Exhibitions Office in Warwickshire, but always wanted to find my way back to Scotland. So when the job in Aberdeen came up, I was delighted. It will be two years in April since I arrived in the city and the whole family feels at home here now.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

It is a real privilege to be able to work with rare objects from the Special Collections. There are always incredible things to discover, and it’s my job to present these historical items in ways that will make visitors to the Gallery feel that same sense of excitement.

With over 230,000 rare printed books as well as 5,000 irreplaceable archival collections, with material dating as far back as the 3rd century BC., it’s rather like being a kid in a sweet shop, there are so many wonderful things to choose from. That’s where other members of the Special Collections team and the wider academic community come in, with their expertise guiding the choice of exhibition theme and the selection and preparation of exhibits.

Working as an exhibitions officer requires a great deal of collaboration. Consulting with experts such as Paul Schlicke on the Dickens exhibition and with members of the music department to create sound pieces for the shows makes the whole process thoroughly enjoyable.

What are your work priorities at the moment?

At the moment I’m finalizing the design and interpretation for the summer exhibition which is called “Cooking the Books”. It will feature cookery books from the Special Collections dating from the late 18th/early 19th century. So far, I’ve come across some very weird and wonderful recipes for appetisers such as acorn bread and viper broth, main courses of ragooed larks and venison pasty, and puddings described as “Quaking” and “Transparent”. The exhibition is due to open on 5th June and will run until mid-August.

This month I will also begin drawing up a long list of objects and an outline plan for the exhibition which will open in September for the start of the new Semester. I even have to start lining things up in relation to projects that are planned as far ahead as September 2019!

How do you like to relax outside work?

Having a three year old doesn’t leave me much time for relaxing as I am required to play trains, go down the slide in Seaton Park and generally jump up and down in muddy puddles when not in the office. My partner – who has just completed his PhD (hurrah!) – edits an independent poetry magazine called “The Interpreter’s House” so quite a lot of our spare time goes into getting that into production. Any time left over is quite often spent sleeping.