Volunteering at King Richard III Visitor Center in Leicester, United Kingdom. Photo Credits: Inesa Sulaj (Albania)

A whirlwind year gaining much more than a degree in museum studies – so many new friends and rich experiences – all thanks to a scholarship.

 It was July 2021. I just went to my office to continue my everyday tasks and an email arrived in my inbox that said Congratulations.  I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had won a Chevening Scholarship to study in the UK, competing with 60,000 professionals from all over the world and I was one of the 1,600 winners.

I didn’t think that my life was going to change from that moment. After preparations, a lot of documents and a visa, I arrived in the UK to start my Master of Arts in Museums Studies. The university I chose to continue my studies is the University of Leicester with a museum studies department established in 1966 – the only autonomous department in the UK dedicated to the study of museums and galleries. It is the oldest and largest academic unit of its kind in the world. Over the past 50 years, this department has acquired a global reputation for leading-edge thinking and experimental practice in museum studies.

This academic experience was quite challenging for me, coming from a country with a very different education system, but also very enjoyable while reading a lot of new materials and spending most of my days in the library, exchanging information with other students from all over the world, including China, Japan, India, USA…

During the year, I enjoyed a lot of field trips and visited several museums in London, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford, and even up to Scotland, and we looked carefully at their programmes. One of the best things about this course was that the theory was combined very well with practice or hands-on training in the museum studies department, where we received training on collection management, museum environments, safety & security, risk management in museums – a subfield that I had never worked in before and had no background on.

In the same year, I also had the chance to work as a gallery education assistant at the Attenborough Arts Centre and I volunteered as a tour guide at the King Richard III Visitor Center in Leicester. The Attenborough Arts Centre (https://attenborougharts.com/)  is a socially and civically engaged public cultural venue based at the University of Leicester, producing visual arts, live performance, learning, community, and research programmes. The King Richard III Visitor Centre (https://kriii.com/)  tells the fascinating and moving story of the life, death, and discovery of King Richard III, using great storytelling, beautiful design, and 21st-century technology. Both experiences were very wonderful opportunities for me, not only professionally but also personally. I gained a lot of skills and it helped me to improve my communication skills and not be afraid that my English was not perfect. In both institutions, I also shared my experience and expertise and challenges as a museum professional from another country.

Let me briefly describe the city I was living in during my studies. Leicester is a small student city, 2.5 hours from London by bus and just 50 minutes by train. The city is rich in culture and famed for diversity, making it feel like the world is on your doorstep. The city is home to one of the biggest celebrations of Diwali outside of India, centred on the city’s Golden Mile. By 1936 the city was recognised as the second richest in Europe thanks to its booming textile industry. The remains of Richard III, the last English king killed in battle, were discovered within the site of the former Grey Friars Priory in Leicester, in September 2012.

This scholarship also helped me get to know people from all over the world. I felt incredibly lucky to have found lifelong friends from Kenya, China, Japan, Nepal, and all over the world and to be able to travel together, and share cultural experiences, customs, and traditions. I have been organising and welcoming my friends, as Albanians do back in my country, for delicious and very big dinners. I am a very proud Albanian and have tried to share my culture with a lot of people that maybe didn’t have any idea about Albania and the richness of our country.

While my education journey was ending, I had the opportunity to choose my placement somewhere far from Leicester, in a very small seaside town in Scotland. Arbroath is a beautiful coastal town in the east of Scotland with a rich history stretching as far back as 1178, when Arbroath Abbey was founded by King William the Lion of Scotland. This traditional seaside town, with its picturesque harbour, is also home to the famous Arbroath Smokie – haddock smoked over hard wood – which is considered a delicacy all over the world. I did my placement at Hospitalfield Arts and Crafts Centre and helped with a very important project for them, the museum accreditation, while I worked very closely with volunteers and the education team. I had the chance to meet a lot of people that stayed at the Hospitalfield to do their artist residencies and see their artworks and get so much inspiration.

At the same time, I was lucky to attend some important events of Hospitalfield such as exhibiting one of the artworks of Scottish artist Eduardo Palazzi. Rio is a bronze sculpture on loan to Hospitalfield from the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. Another important event to mention is Echo in the Dark Silent Raves by artist Hanna Tuulikki. Echo in the Dark is a major collaborative music and performance project by artist, musician and vocalist Hanna Tuulikki. It explores the interconnections of raving and bat echolocating as a model for ecological coexistence. The last one to mention is Beer and Berries 2022, where locals celebrated the food and drink production of the Angus region.

While this was my first experience in museum accreditation, I had a chance to visit museum professionals all over Scotland and share experiences and discuss more about how museums function in Scotland and their programmes. I fell in love with Scotland. The nature there was fascinating, the seaside, and the gardens were amazing, and the people were very welcoming and friendly. Not to forget to mention, that during my stay, I also made a very special friend and his name was Isaac. I have been afraid of dogs all my life but since I first met Isaac, I knew that we were going to be very good friends.

My experience in the UK came to an end very fast and the year went so quickly but I can say that this experience has changed my life and made me see the world from another perspective. I am very happy that I made my dream come true, obtained a degree from one of the best universities in the UK, to have met people from all over the world, and to have spent most of my days between the library of the university and a hundred museums in the United Kingdom.

Inesa Sulaj has worked in the field of cultural heritage and museums field for eight years in the Balkan Region. She is the Co-founder of MuZEH Lab (www.muzehlab.org), a community center based in Durres, Albania. Inesa is also the office manager for Interpret Europe. She can be contacted at: inesa.sulaj@interpret-europe.net.

To cite this article: Sulaj, Inesa (2022) ‘Adventures in the UK’ in Interpret Europe Newsletter 4-2022, pg.17-18

Available online: https://interpret-europe.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Newsletter-2022_4-winter.pdf