Part of Parliament: Melissa Hamnett, head of Heritage Collections and curator of Works of Art
From planning for the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, to caring for a vast portfolio of more than 25,000 items, Melissa Hamnett has a role as varied as the Heritage Collections themselves
Before joining Parliament, I worked for the Victoria and Albert Museum as Curator in the Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass. My role was to look after the collection, which involved everything from providing the best possible storage and display, to building on the strengths and weaknesses of the collection through , and improving public access through research, publications, loans and exhibitions.
I joined Parliament as Head of Heritage Collections in June 2019. While interested and engaged in politics and history before I joined, I certainly felt that I was not fully conversant with the complicated procedures that govern Parliament day-to-day. I knew I would be joining at an unprecedented time due to the possibility of Brexit and a new government, so I was keen to see what ‘being on the inside’ would hold. I also wondered how on earth I would make my way around the vast and complicated estate. Nine months in and I still get lost!
There is something very powerful about working in the seat of government within a building that represents so much to the nation politically and in terms of public heritage and history
I have quickly realised that the magic of working on the Parliamentary Estate should not be underestimated; there is something very powerful about working in the seat of government within a building that represents so much to the nation politically and in terms of public heritage and history. This became apparent when I was given a tour of the medieval cloisters, which were formerly linked to the old St Stephen’s chapel, once the centre of political and religious life for the nation These fabulous spaces are one of the few parts of the medieval palace to survive and they have the most fantastic vaulting and bosses decorated with carved portcullises and pomegranates. Their original use by the college of canons only lasted about 20 years after which time they housed the Exchequer and later became part of Speaker’s House. They speak much about how past administrators combined their religious duties with service to the Crown and the tour reiterated to me how important these spaces would be to conserve.
My role here takes on much of what I did previously, but I am also now responsible for directing the strategy and requirements of the Parliamentary Art Collection, the Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts Collection and the growing Architectural Fabric Collection. The Palace is the nucleus for the heritage collections, many of which were specifically designed or made for the interiors in which they now sit. While the collection and its remit has since grown, this unique historical context makes everything from the furniture to the sculpture and paintings full of agency as they have such a clear association with the building and its political and decorative history. I would say that the collections form a fundamental part of the Palace’s heritage, not just of the building’s significance, but of its identity.
The Heritage Collections Team manage a vast portfolio of work to care for, display and store upwards of 25,000 items. In addition to this, we also manage 500 active loans; curate exhibitions; facilitate ceremonial events and office hangs; and provide an extensive programme of conservation and management to the works of art and actively used historic furniture collection across the Estate. One of our biggest focuses now is planning for the imminent decant of the Northern Estate and the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace. My typical day can therefore be very varied, from discussing new acquisitions, to planning how we will move and conserve large paintings in the committee rooms during recess. I am often feeding into design briefs about how the new spaces could look and function, or attending meetings to discuss how and where we will relocate the collection items when they are decanted from the Palace. You would be surprised at how many spaces across the estate have heritage holdings in them. All these need to be assessed, protected in situ or safely moved, transported and stored so that they can be researched and cared for off-site.
I feel honoured to work here and my friends and family are very intrigued by what I do. In many ways, the V&A was a known entity so they could understand that I worked on gallery displays and exhibitions, but the Palace of Westminster is an altogether different offering, with much going on behind the scenes. They often ask how much the business of the Houses affects my day to day work and what hidden spaces I have seen. Since starting at Parliament, I’ve had some surreal experiences including a visit with Hansard to the Chamber while it was sitting, when I had a wonderful spot directly above the Speaker.