We caught up with Helena to find out more about her research project, her experience at the Warburg, and why she recommends the Institute as a place to study.
You’re currently undertaking a Collaborative Doctoral Award between the University of Oxford and the British Library. Could you tell us more about this?
A Collaborative Doctoral Award is a PhD research project that is proposed between a university and a cultural institution with the aim of benefitting both organisations and giving the employed student a chance to work simultaneously within an academic and cultural setting. The consortium that funds my research advertises different humanities projects every year. While supervisors choose the subject of the project, CDA students expand upon this initial brief, where, like other PhD students, they make the research entirely their own.
My project between the University of Oxford and British Library means that I split my time between both institutions, where I attend and teach seminars at the former and work alongside curatorial staff at the latter. I have supervisors from three institutions – Dr Alexandra Gajda (University of Oxford), Dr Neil Younger (Open University) and Julian Harrison (Lead Curator of Medieval Historical Manuscripts at the British Library) – who I regularly meet with to help me progress with my research.
What is the focus of your PhD research?
I am examining the neglected manuscript drafts of William Camden’s Annals, the first official history of Elizabeth I’s reign, currently kept at the British Library. Published in Latin in 1615 and 1625 during King James I’s reign, the Annals has often been considered the first “modern” history of England due to Camden’s supposed impartiality and use of primary sources. Yet, despite a large amount of material evidence being available regarding the work’s creation – Camden’s manuscript drafts, correspondence and documents that he collected from Elizabeth’s reign – no scholar has examined these in depth to substantiate their claims on the history. The aim of my research is to analyse these materials to reveal more about the authorship of the Annals, the sources used within it and the intentions behind creating the work.
What key things have you learnt while undertaking this project?
On a professional level, I have learnt the importance of collaboration to produce meaningful work. While I have some essential expertise for my PhD project, I also have many gaps in my knowledge. It is thanks to my supervisors and scholarly community that I have been able to fill those in and it has made me realise that the best research is conducted when different experts bring their skills together.
On a personal level, I have also learnt how to better deal with imposter syndrome, navigate a work-life balance, and foster important life skills such as perseverance, flexibility and curiosity.
You recently uncovered previously hidden pages of the Annals, shedding new light on the reign of Elizabeth I. Could you tell us more about this discovery?
While cataloguing the manuscript drafts for my research, I became aware that out of the 4050 folios still extant, 165 of them contained pastedowns, where some of them were clearly hiding text underneath. Thanks to a generous grant from the British Library Collections Trust, we were able to digitise the manuscripts in their entirety and use transmitted light technology to reveal the original text for the first time in 400 years. Analysing this text has not only revealed details about Camden’s writing process as a historian, but it has also helped us uncover new information about Elizabeth I’s reign that has hitherto been unknown. Such information provides new insights into some of Britain’s most important historical figures and events. I am delighted that this research made it onto ITV News, and can be watched in full, here.
What did you study at the Warburg Institute, and did your experience equip you with the skills and knowledge to pursue a PhD?
I undertook the MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture in 2019-2020. As someone who has always loved academia and heritage, it was the MA programme of my dreams – being taught by industry professionals at the National Gallery alongside conducting research with excellent scholars at the Warburg. It was thanks to the MA programme that I was taught English and Latin palaeography, Renaissance history in all its forms, and the methodology and techniques of scholarship. All of these classes equipped me with a unique skill set that made me the right candidate for my interdisciplinary PhD project.
Do you have any particularly fond memories of your time at the Warburg Institute?
Despite having my experience drastically change in 2020 due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, I can wholeheartedly say that studying at the Warburg Institute was one of the best years of my life. Every member of staff and student was so passionate and committed to learning and I have come away with not only an incredible amount of knowledge, but with lifelong friends too.
Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place to study, and why?
If you want to be part of a rigorous yet supportive academic community that fosters interdisciplinary research in all its forms, the Warburg Institute is for you! What I really loved about my course was how you could choose modules and adapt your coursework in ways to suit your own research interests – all while getting advice from academics and cultural professionals. At the time of making applications, I had not seen any other MA programme that made this possible, which is why I fully recommend studying at the Warburg.
What advice would you give to graduating students?
Stay open minded when planning next career steps and try not to lose hope in the face of rejection. Before my MA, I had been rejected from countless academic and heritage opportunities, but I learnt a lot from all of those experiences – interview skills, what further experience I needed to get the jobs I wanted and above all, patience. I worked in digital marketing for a year and half before I landed my first museum role, where my skills from that previous work made me an asset. Wanting to bolster my chances of climbing up the heritage career ladder is one reason why I ended up at the Warburg – though when I started, I never thought I would do a PhD. Studying at the Warburg, however, reignited my passion for research and now I get the best of both worlds (academia and heritage) thanks to my collaborative PhD project.
All of this is to say that even if you have one career path in mind, it is not shameful to try something new if things are not working out as you hoped – in fact, it could just benefit you in future!
Do you have any future plans?
In light of my advice above, you can probably guess – I am keeping an open mind regarding my future! However, I plan to submit my PhD thesis in early 2025, where I then hope to find a job that will blend my love for academia, public education, and heritage.
Helena graduated with a BA degree in Classics from Durham University in 2017 and an MA degree in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture from the Warburg Institute in 2020. She is in her second year of an Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP Studentship (Collaborative Doctoral Award) between the University of Oxford and the British Library, supervised by Dr Alexandra Gajda, Dr Neil Younger and Julian Harrison. Her project focuses on establishing the authorship and sources used to create the first ever history of Elizabeth I’s reign by studying the manuscript drafts of the work, currently held at the British Library.