Emma Halford-Forbes ’05: Black Watch Museum manager on radioactive paint and antique firearms

EHF at conference
Photo: Emma Halford-Forbes

When Emma Halford-Forbes arrived at the University of St Andrews, she decided to study Scottish history “on a bit of a whim.” Despite the fact that Ms Halford-Forbes had never taken a history course before, she had always been interested in the subject.

“At the age of 17, the concept of doing a degree that was actually going to be a useful degree that was going to get me a job […] was not something that really occurred to me,” Ms Halford-Forbes said. “For me, it was 100 per cent something that I wanted to do because I thought it sounded interesting and it would be something fun to do.”

After finishing her history degree, Ms Halford-Forbes decided to stay at the University to pursue a postgraduate degree in museum and gallery studies. She said that one of the most memorable moments of her course was a lesson that continues to impact her current curatorial work:

“One of the strange things we have to do at the museum has to do with marking objects. Every object has a unique identifying number, so if you find it in a box it will have the number on it so you can look it up on databases. Writing the number on the object is something that will always stick in your mind.”

In order to teach students how to write these numbers, Ms HalfordForbes’ professor gathered her class in the basement of the art history building and handed students rocks, pen nibs and ink. The class spent hours writing miniscule numbers on the rocks, all in hopes of fine-tuning their marking skills.

“It’s something that has turned out to be quite useful,” Ms Halford-Forbes said. “At the time, it seemed like quite a strange thing to be doing.”

Unlike the majority of her classmates, Ms Halford-Forbes secured a job before the course finished. The position, which was part of a project commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, combined her pre-university work in community development with her interest in Scottish history and museums. The contract only lasted for a year, however, so upon its conclusion she began the post-graduation job hunt.

Ms Halford-Forbes applied for 60 museum sector jobs in six weeks and was offered interviews for 10.

“Now you would be lucky in a year if there were 60 [entry-level] jobs coming up,” she said. “There are so few jobs and so many more museum studies graduates than 10 years ago when I was going into the sector.”

Ms Halford-Forbes was able to secure a management job in Tayside. From there, she moved to her current museum, the Black Watch Museum in Perth, which tells the story of the Black Watch regiment through a collection of uniforms, paintings, military equipment and more.

Ms Halford-Forbes began her career in a low-level management position, but she has since been promoted to the role of museum manager. In this position, she aids with tasks like project management and museum redevelopment. Additionally, Ms Halford-Forbes works with archivists, assistants and volunteers to manage the museum’s collections, lecture series, outreach and research inquiries.

“The main thing is looking after artifacts,” she said. “We have lots of bits of paper and photographs, lots of objects, medals, […] weapons, uniforms, boxes brought back from India, loot taken 200 years ago when they were fighting in far-reaching places.”

Some of the most unique aspects of taking care of the collection include handling old firearms safely, accounting for objects containing radioactive paint, and stopping photographs and costumes from decaying.

Today, finding a job in the museum sector is vastly different than it was when Ms Halford-Forbes entered the industry. Most positions require postgraduate qualifications, but in order to receive a postgraduate degree, one needs to be able to afford to take out a loan. This has led to an influx of workers from a privileged background.

Ms Halford-Forbes said: “Postgraduate qualifications are not necessarily the most inclusive way of bringing new people into the sector, but it’s hugely fulfilling. Nobody works in the museum sector unless they absolutely love it.”

Although Ms Halford-Forbes was able to study courses she enjoyed and apply them to her career, she warns that this is not always the case.

Her advice for students studying arts degrees? “If you’re lucky, you can become a teacher or an art historian. Otherwise, you’re probably going to end up in a job that has nothing to do with your degree. […] That’s probably why you’re there, because this is something that interests you. Enjoy it while you’re there and try to have a think about how you can work a career around that.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.