What do you actually do? Episode 40: Paul Backhouse, Head of the Historic England Archive

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We’re back for a new season! In this episode Kate talks to Paul Backhouse, Head of the Historic England Archive. They cover tech skills in museums, imposter syndrome, the pandemic and a lot more.

Paul is an archaeologist at heart, whose accidental career has spanned roles in graphics, publications, survey, archive, IT and telecoms. His projects include the complete 3D laser-scan survey of Stonehenge, the creation of an exhibition in Da Ming, China on the Archaeology of the Silk Road. The project he is most proud of, is his contribution to the excavation and identification of 400 First World War soldiers killed in the Battle of Fromelles in the Somme, France.

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Episodes about alternative (non-heritage) career areas a History/Archaeology degree can lead to:


(With time-stamps)

Kate  0:02  

You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do? podcast. Each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. 

Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do?. My name is Kate Morris and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about working in Heritage. Today we’re joined by Paul Backhouse, who works as the Head of Archive at Historic England. So, Paul, what do you actually do? 

Paul 00:28

At the moment I do a lot of working from home, but I would say that I’m a leader. So my role is to sort of work with experts in the archive to look after the 14 million objects that we have in our special store in Swindon, and to help promote heritage.Our organisation is about helping people care and love heritage as much as we do within the organisation.So we look for fantastic images and fantastic stories that come out of the archive to highlight the incredible heritage we have in England.


So it’s kind of bringing it to life through kind of examples and case studies and stuff?


Yeah, and also, you know, we get the public involved quite a lot in terms of either sort of submitting images; so we ran a campaign about picturing lockdown this year – or rather last year – which got people sending in images of heritage and lockdown. And also, we send images out into the Internet and people come back to us with stories about those images, or they help identify them for us. So it’s really about – especially in this time – it’s really about helping people to see the wonderful resources that we’ve got, and how they can interact with that.


So what are the key elements of your role then? If that’s the kind of the main goal – engaging the public with these wonderful resources, and kind of getting more resources and information from the public as well, this kind of two way conversation. What does that look like in terms of tasks for you? 


At the moment we’re having a really big think about where we’re going next and what we’re doing. So we’ve just finished a really big project in the Laing archive, which was called Breaking New Ground, which was a project that looked at post-war England, and looked at the building of the M6 or Coventry Cathedral, and now we’re looking wider. Obviously some of the basic tasks that my team do are to look after the objects we’ve got. As I said, 14 million photographs and artwork, and plans and sections, some of which are very very fragile and almost explosive in terms of the chemicals they give up. So we are trying to look after those. And then my team are constantly bringing new material in. We have photographers in-house who take photographs and we put them onto the archive. So there’s lots of maintenance tasks around the collection, but then there’s also getting them up onto the website, making them available to our colleagues, who will then use them for everything from… We’re looking at climate change, we’re picking out images for climate change, through to trying to tell stories about, you know, events across the centuries.


I’m just wondering, you mentioned you’re doing a lot of home working at the moment. How is your day different from normal now that we’re in a third lockdown in this kind of ongoing global pandemic?


How’s my day going? I spend a lot of time on Zoom. My team misses – and I must admit I miss – the physical, kind of, being able to go down to the stores and have a look at an amazing piece of work or photography, or artwork. So we do need to… We can’t run the service because a lot of our material is analogue, it’s physical, it needs to come out of the storage area and it needs to be scanned, conservators need to work on it. And this applies to nearly all of the archives I’ve spoken to over the last 12 months. We’re doing a lot of work on backlog, we’re doing a lot of descriptions of already existing material. We’re looking at the material that’s on the digital catalogue and cleaning it up, or looking for duplicates. So there’s a lot of that work, which usually we pushed to one side because we’re so busy.


So that’s interesting, it sounds like you’re having to kind of pause your regular tasks that you would do and get on with this other stuff that can be done remotely.


Yeah, very much so, very much so. The material and the work that we’re doing at the moment is absolutely, vitally important, because it helps us get material out and it helps material categorise. But we desperately want to get back into the office and start. We handle a lot of requests from researchers, from publishers, and we can’t provide them that material. Our aerial photography catalogue, which is around 6 million images, is 98% physical. And so if someone wants an aerial photograph of a particular street, we have to go into the archive, look for it and then scan it, and then make it available. Obviously we can’t do that at the moment. 


So that must be having an impact on other industries then – the members of the public, but I guess also perhaps commercial clients, and colleagues that you have in other organisations?


Yeah, we have a lot of what we would call – business to business relationships. So we support a lot of industries, from planning through to, kind of, legal disputes where they look for our resources. We have, our unique collection is aerial photography of the whole of England, and that is a regular resource that’s being used. But as you can imagine, 6 million photographs is a lot of material. And so even if we digitise all day every day, it takes a long time before we make a dent on that. And nobody asks for the same image. So I might say – “Can I have a photograph of Cheltenham Town Centre?”. And then the next query we have is – “Can I have a photograph of Cheltenham Town Centre, but a little bit left from the one that that person wanted?”. 


It’s always the way, isn’t it? So where did your starting point kind of come from? Where did your interest in Heritage come from?


It came from Jackanory. So Tony Robinson was reading The Iliad and it was an outside broadcast, and he was talking about… He was reading The Iliad, so The Tale of Achilles and the Siege of Troy. And it captured my imagination. And from there, I had a love of the past, a love of… I sort of went into Greek sculpture, and Greek sculpture and art was where my first love of heritage came. And then I went to university and did a degree in Archaeology, and it sort of stuck from there. 


But from my LinkedIn stalking, it looks like you’ve kind of combined an interest in tech and heritage through your studies and throughout your career. You sort of switch between those two industries. And then it sounds like in your current role, you’re really combining those two things. Was that a deliberate choice or did life just kind of unfold as you went along? 


After university I got a job with Oxford Archaeology and did a series of excavations across the country. And I sort of felt that I wasn’t a very good excavator. I wasn’t very inspired by it. It was hard work, and it was difficult conditions. And I take my hat off to any archaeologist who is working at the moment. And I saw an opportunity to go back to uni, and to go to Southampton and do a bit of sort of tech work. And I’d always had an interest in technology, and I was really lucky to marry those two together. And then I sort of… It’s an accidental career, I’ll be absolutely honest with you. I’ve never planned anything. I’ve always kind of grabbed an opportunity as and when it came. The computing and the technology give me an edge above other people in the sector, because I’ve got that broad understanding and everything has an underpinning of technology now. So an understanding of that really helps you. 


And would you say that for students thinking about that, they would be best getting some kind of formal tech training or qualifications? Or is it just even things that they can, they’re using in their everyday lives? And that kind of idea that once you know how to use some bit of technology, you are more easily able to adapt and learn other types of technology. Or do you think it’s better sort of getting some formal training or just building up skills individually?


I think it’s a balance of both. As I said, I was really lucky to go to Southampton, where they had this kind of digital archaeology course. And I know people who have invested, you know, kind of they spent time with drones. They bought a drone, they’ve played around with it. They’ve looked at how they can use it in archaeology and they’ve forged a career out of that without having to get formal qualifications. I’ve seen, you know, other people who’ve done sort of part time courses or those kinds of things. And then there were opportunities where I sort of learnt surveying by watching other people, or I kind of volunteered for things once I’d got a job. But I guess – I had a really long kind of think about this before this interview – I’d be tempted to look at a course like Southampton or look at a course, I think there’s one in York as well, and see if I could supplement my skill set in terms of digital before I went on into the job market, because it would give a little bit more of a kind of edge to my application for roles.


So you’ve mentioned having that really strong understanding of technology is something that is going to give you an edge in the employment market, for this area in particular. Are there any other personal strengths or qualities that you’d say it’s good to have if you want to be kind of happy and successful working in archives, or working in the heritage sector in general?


Well, that’s a tough one. I’m not sure about that, to be honest. I’ve always treated everyone with respect, I’ve always listened. I’ve learnt so much from everyone that I’ve worked with because I’ve kept an open mind, and listened to what they said. They may be wrong, but I still have learnt something from them. For me, I’ve been able to repay that by teaching other people and giving other people opportunities. But I most respect people who take some time out, especially for people who are in their very early stages of their career, to give them some time. So I think perseverance is the other one, I think that there’s no quick way of learning skills, it just takes time.


I think that ability to really build those strong relationships and as you say, sort of having respect and listening to others. I get the impression that the heritage world is relatively small. You know, people tend to stay in it for many, many years because they’re passionate about what they do. So then you build up this network within the sector. So I guess the people who don’t have that respect, or kind of listen, and have humility to learn from others – that could be detrimental for them in their career, because everyone knows everyone. Is that part of it, would you say? 


You’re right, it’s quite a small sector. And, you know, I can look on Twitter and see people I’ve worked with and people I’ve been involved, you know, kind of involved on projects with. But at the same time, I think that  archaeology is a very – and the heritage sector – is a very welcoming sector. And I think it’s broad enough now, that if you look at it on one side, you’ve got museums. On the other side, you have kind of social media accounts and virtual museums, and those kinds of things. There’s lots of skill sets. And I think it’s broad enough that you can jump from discipline to discipline. Whereas I think previously it was very much – “You’re staying here, and you’ll stay here for quite a long time before you move on”. So yeah, it takes time to build confidence, I think. I wasn’t always as confident about what I was doing, and it’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I am now.


But being flexible and open to opportunities is also something important, because it sounds like the sector is going through a lot of changes, and, you know, you said yourself – your career has sort of been a bit of luck rather than by design. But it is about seizing those opportunities and being willing to pivot when necessary. So I think perhaps it’s something where having that open mind in that flexible attitude is perhaps important within the sector as well.


I think the things that I, not regret, because I don’t think regret is the right word, but the opportunities I didn’t take were the ones that I felt were a bit risky. And those are the ones I really think I should have, you know, there were points where I could have gone in a different direction with my career. So there was a role as working on the Stonehenge Visitor Centre when it was first, you know, kind of they were building it. And I looked at it and went – “Oh, you know, I am a bit old for a temporary contract. And I really don’t think I can do it”. So I didn’t apply. And actually I worked with the person who applied for that role and they went off to do another role in Australia, and then they came back. And I look at that and go – “I should have been braver, I should have done it”. He was the same age as me and he had the same sort of family situation. And I was the third person who was offered the role in China to go over and work in China for two to three weeks on a museum. And that’s when I went – yes. It didn’t necessarily play to my strengths, but I thought three weeks working in China with a museum building company is something that I can’t turn down. And it was only because they kind of knew I would say yes, and they knew that I was positive about it, that I got the role.


That’s interesting. So the one that got away kind of inspired you then to take more risks and not pass up on those kinds of exciting opportunities in the future.


Yeah, I think so. I think that the Stonehenge one happened after China, so it was the other way round.




But I think that that kind of both, from working in Northern France and working in China, have kind of shaped how I kind of… And that’s why it seems a bit of a weird thing that I, you know, I’ve taken that risk by going to China, but then couldn’t bring myself to look at that as a risk for Stonehenge.


What was it that held you back, do you think? Was it just that job uncertainty that, you know, you don’t know where that pay check is going to come from, and if another job will be easy to get at the end of the temporary contract? Was it something else that you were kind of like – “Ehm, I’m not too sure about this”.


Okay, so first of all, imposter syndrome. You know that whole thing about – “Oh, can I really do that?!”. And secondly, I think it was that. It was –  “well, if I do this, maybe somebody won’t want to employ me next, and therefore I better stay where I am, than to go for something where I could end up 12 months down the line and not be employable”.


I was just going to say that imposter syndrome comes up a lot and I was chatting to somebody who works in academia, and I think anything where you’re having to trust your own instincts and put yourself out there, it’s quite exposing. And that’s where that self-doubt can really kick in, I think.


Yeah. And I think for me, I would say, if I asked some people who know me well, they would say that I don’t believe in myself enough. And so when I get to a big decision, or when I get something like that, then it takes me a long time. And that doesn’t necessarily play into if you’ve got 15 days to apply for a job, it usually takes me 20 days to decide whether I want to go for it or not. I think I’ve learnt that I’ve applied for roles that have been a bit more kind of out of my comfort zone over the last sort of 10 years. And I have failed. I have failed at getting jobs that I thought that I was really good at. But each failure has made me think more about kind of what makes me happy and what I want to do next in my career.


I think that’s a really powerful reflection, because we’re all so afraid of failure. But when it happens, sometimes it can be quite liberating because it’s kind of like – “Okay, there is, the world has not ended, there are other options from this”. And as you say, you can kind of take from it – well, maybe this wasn’t quite the right opportunity. And let’s look at something else, where it perhaps misses some of the stuff I was less good at, but involves the things I feel I am stronger at.


I did a presentation a couple of years ago about everything that went wrong with laser scanning. So everything from, you know, the kind of client wanting something that we couldn’t even deliver, through to kind of the mistakes we’ve made in terms of dropping stuff down holes. And it was the one presentation where I had so much feedback from people going – “Thank goodness it’s not just me” or “that’s really interesting. I’m going to avoid that next time”. We all make mistakes all the time. And in fact, I want people to make mistakes. I want the people that work with me and for me to make mistakes, because they’ll learn from them. If you get it right the whole time, if you go through your whole career getting everything right, not only do you get a bit arrogant, but also you don’t learn anything. And learning is what I want from my career; I want a job where I’m learning every day and making mistakes every day.


So what is it that you’d say you really love about the job? Because you’ve, despite your doubts in yourself, you obviously got a really, really amazing role now and had a very successful career. So what’s the thing that you feel it keeps you within heritage and within archives? What is it that you really, really love?


From the Historic England archive, from Historic England, we have the possibility of inspiring people, and that is what excites me the most, is that we hold an amazing collection of images and photographs, and I want to inspire someone. I want to inspire someone to go and look around the local churchyard, or for a group of children, who’ve been working on a project we’ve been working on, to then go and say – “Well, I’d quite like to be an archaeologist” or “I quite like to design buildings for people to live in”. There is this potential with everything that you do within Heritage to make a mark on someone’s life. And I want that to be the thing that I can say afterwards, is that, when I get to the end of my career, I say that I made a difference to the next generation. And that’s what inspires me to kind of get up and go to work every day because I know we can do it.


What’s the worst bit of the job then? Because that sounds really nice, to feel that you can do something that has a positive impact on people’s lives. What’s the bit of the job that you feel like – “Ugh, I could live without this element of it”?


There’s quite a lot of meetings, and strategies, and those kind of things. I think that as you go up the corporate ladder – or the ladder – is that you get more meetings and less doing. And I think that, that’s… I’ve seen colleagues who have gone up the ladder and then have really struggled, because it’s not the stuff they want to do, They want to do pottery, they want to do illustration. They don’t want to balance the books and manage the figures and those kind of things. And that is really difficult, and I don’t really find it rewarding. The inspiration side is the stuff that I find rewarding. 


It’s interesting. I think that’s true in a lot of professions like teaching, you know, if you’re a really good teacher, you might then get promoted to be at more senior level. But the higher up you go – it’s the same within the university setting – the higher up you go, the less contact you actually have with the students and doing the things that you actually feel kind of motivated by. And I think that must be true of so many professions. I was chatting to a lawyer the other day, and he said the same, that he’s a managing partner of a really big international firm, but he really misses being just an early career lawyer, where you’re doing a lot of problem-solving, and speaking to clients, and doing the actual work. So it is that tricky situation of: the better you become at something, the higher up the ranks you go, as you say… 


And it doesn’t make any sense if you think about it, because actually I prise a cataloguer, or a conservator, or, you know, a photographer on their skillset, and to then promote them to a point where I’m not using the skill set that I, you know, kind of prise above all else. But it’s the way that… I think it’s every industry, you’ve got to get more management so that you can have a pay rise. It’s never about – you’re an amazing photographer, so we’ll give you more money. For me, in heritage that’s always been a kind of big issue.


For students or recent graduates who are thinking about, they do want to break into the sector, what do you think are the key challenges for the sector that people should sort of have in their minds to kind of perhaps research a bit more or anticipate in the next few years? We’ve got so many to pick from that are going on in the world right now.


Yeah, and I think that’s…. I don’t like to use the word ‘relevant’, but actually, heritage reflects – or should reflect – society. And the big challenge is… I was listening to this amazing archivist yesterday who’d been working on a project which involved the reggae community in London. And there you have an archive that’s working with the culture around the people that it’s most relevant to. And that’s an amazing kind of… The reggae to society around it, if they get forgotten and they’re not recorded, they slip out of memory, because some of those things, like oral history, disappear. So I think relevancy and looking to…. I think I can speak for most in the profession, that we want to broaden our appeal, we want to engage with more people. I think the technology challenges are really, really interesting. I think that the ageing workforce within heritage means that we are not, as an industry, very strong on technology. We’ve got young members of staff and geeks who are kind of bringing some of that. But I think there are some real game changers going to happen, especially with this move to homeworking. I think that it will be easier to work in a London museum, but not be in London. The kind of virtual and the telecommuting will really make a difference to the industry. I’ve been working on things like VR and augmented reality projects for the last five or six years, and none have really come to fruition. And I really want to see that kind of work coming through. And I think the new technology and people coming into the job market can make that happen.


That’s really interesting. And those two things kind of go together, really, don’t they? Because the technology in a sense does widen the access, both in terms of visitors, but as you point out, in terms of people who can work in the sector. You don’t need to be able to live and work for free in London for a year getting work experience after you’ve graduated. It could be stuff where you can live somewhere more cheaply, and getting work experience, and break into the sector without having to make those massive sacrifices.


Yeah, and there are also other industries that really love heritage professionals. So I’ve worked and had conversations with Pixar. I’ve spoken to the researchers that work on Assassin’s Creed. And they would say that they are in the heritage business, they just happen to work in software or they just happen to work in films. And if you look at Brave, the Pixar film, that is heavily guided by heritage professionals who helped with the laser scanning, who helped with creation of some of the set pieces within that film. So there are many opportunities for people to bring their heritage and knowledge into different industries in a way that I think doesn’t happen before. My first experience of that was – I worked on a Lucas Arts project, which never got off the ground, but it gave me a sense that we could do so much more.


So that’s really interesting, it’s thinking about working in heritage, but not necessarily within a heritage organisation, working in a different type of organisation that collaborates with the heritage sector. We’ve done a podcast with a guy who’s working as a historical consultant for an educational computer games company. And we’re trying to organise one with a company, a kind of digital media company that’s created some really interesting resources for the Science Museum Group. So I think that’s another cool way to look at it, actually, that you could kind of flip this around, that to work in Heritage you don’t just have to be in heritage. The heritage sector is needing to open up and collaborate with so many different sectors. It could be working within one of those different sectors and kind of feeding back into the heritage sector.


I think so. And if you look at one of the big challenges for the world, which is climate change, you’re looking at an industry, you know, kind of in terms of heritage, who understand quite a lot of the evidence around climate change. And so we have so much to bring towards, not just in terms of those conversations, but also in terms of those solutions. Understanding landscape, understanding heritage is a real strength in terms, and will be a real strength going forward, certainly, to meet that challenge. 


Any sort of final tips for students thinking about pursuing a career in this sector? Any sort of specific types of work experience you’d recommend or anything else that would help them stand out from the crowd in a competitive application process?


There’s loads and loads of training around at the moment. There are loads of companies putting free training on, including, as I’ve said before, VR and augmented reality. And you can certainly, you could go down to your local heritage site and play with these technologies as well as learning about them. I would say volunteering, but we are in a really difficult situation at the moment with Covid, and I think local community groups, and local heritage groups are desperate for help in terms of the demographic we’re talking about, who would be able to help them out with technology and Twitter. And there are lots of small… Some small heritage groups have really extended their reach by using Twitter and online social media to kind of demonstrate what they do, whether it be small excavations, when, you know, we’re able to, or through to small local museums that need a little bit more help in terms of that. And there’s always voluntary work, but it might be a bit different from what we’re used to at the moment.


And I guess part of that is being proactive to perhaps create and suggest projects if it’s not being advertised as a formal volunteering opportunity, or work experience opportunity. If you’ve got an idea and you’ve got some skills, actually seeing if you can reach out to those groups to sort of suggest a way that you could help. Doesn’t have to be just waiting for the opportunity to come. 


I think so. And if I go back to the kind of example, the person that was involved in the project, the reggae archive project, had a kind of background in reggae music, and her father was a reggae musician. And so she was able to work on something that she already has a passion and an understanding for. So if you’ve got a passion and look at it in a different light, look at it in terms of, actually, you know, this is something that’s got a long history in the area of, say, Sheffield, or York, or Manchester, and not many people are talking about it. So sometimes heritage is about kind of your social connections. It could be the indie music scene or, you know, there’s quite a lot of work going on at the moment in terms of looking at some of those almost pop up kind of heritage events, where you get kind of raves or, as I said, those kind of areas where they need to be recorded and we need to capture that content. You know, audio capturing, audio history and speaking to people who live through some of these events is a really powerful way of bringing to life some of the kind of events of the 60s and 70s.


Brilliant! Well, for more information about the careers we’ve mentioned today,I’ll add some relevant links to the episode description and a link to the full transcript of today’s show. But for now, just want to say, Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today, and thank you for your honesty and all your advice. I think that students will find that really, really helpful. So thank you. 


Thank you.


Thank you for joining us this week on What do you actually do?. This episode was hosted by me, Kate Morris, edited by Stephen Furlong and produced by both of us. If you love this podcast, spread the word and follow us. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers & Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers