In edition #249 of Industry Insider, we spoke to the Eleanor Thomas about her role as Collections Officer at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, her career so far, what her normal week looks like and much more…
Tell us about yourself, what is your current role and what roles have you done previously?
Hello! I’m Eleanor Thomas and I am currently working as the Collections Officer at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum which is situated inside the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. The museum tells the story of the history of The Championships and of lawn tennis. We have all sorts of items on display such as kit from famous players, equipment, art, photography and of course the trophies!
As Collections Officer, I am responsible for helping to manage and care for the objects we have on display as well as those we have in store. The main aim of my work is to increase access to the collection for both our guests to the museum but also those who visit our digital platforms.
I began my time at the organisation as a Collections Assistant where I worked with others on museum and photography projects. I also worked as Acting Assistant Curator where I developed displays on themes such as the careers of Roger Federer and Serena Williams, the recent Championships as well as displays relating to the history of the game.
What do you do in your current role?
My current role is pretty varied and changes depending on whether it is year-round or during The Championships.
Year-round I care for and manage our museum collection. If we have any new items that come into the collection, I am responsible for documenting them and ensuring they are cared for properly. Throughout the year we will get donations, or purchase items from auction. These items vary massively for example this year we have had items such as rackets, line markers as well fine art and trophies come into the collection. I also assist writing our collecting strategies which is a document that outlines what gaps we have in the collection and how we should focus on collecting these objects to fill them.
During The Championships my role is focused on collecting items from players, fans and the wider organisation that capture the tournament that year. This is a really fun part of the job as you get involved with the events of the Fortnight. We collect items from the winners of the events, and also from players who might be up and coming or have significant stories. We also collect items from our fans as they often come dressed in some great outfits or have made signs for their favourite players. Our fans interactions with the sport is something we love to capture in the museum. Another important aspect of my role during The Championships is to help care for The Championships trophies. These are some of the most iconic sporting trophies out there so to be able to be involved in their care is a real privilege.
“Normal” isn’t a thing in sport so what does an “average” week look like for you?
At the moment, an average week is me spending time looking at our storage facilities for all our objects (about 60,000 of them!) and seeing how we can make better use of the space. A lot of this work is looking at how we can improve how we care for the objects and ensuring the information we hold on them is as detailed and up to date as possible.
I’ve also been processing new items that have come into the collection. This has been items such as rackets and kit from notable players but also more personal items to fans such as their tickets from when they visited The Championships.
How did you end up where you are right now? When did you know you wanted to work in sport?
I think from an early stage I knew I wanted to work in the arts sector but sport as a career came a little later so bear with me.
My journey started off quite academic. I initially studied History of Art at the University of York and that’s where I was introduced to the world of museums. In order to work in museums at the time I needed a postgrad qualification so I went on to study an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Manchester. During this time I volunteered with local galleries and took up opportunities to participate in curating exhibitions and assisting with archive collections to develop my practical skills.
My first job post University was working with Historic Environment Scotland in their archives. They’re an organisation that cares for and preserves Scotland’s built environment. I spent a lot of time assisting with the documentation of their photographs and historic plans.
Meanwhile in the background, I’ve always enjoyed sport on a recreational level. I played netball and softball throughout University and joined a social team for netball up in Edinburgh. I also enjoyed watching sport so made sure to go see league games at Murrayfield when I could and even took a trip down to Wimbledon back in the day!
I then started to think about the next steps in my career and I was looking to develop my skills and responsibilities in the museum sector. I saw a role advertised at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum for a Collections Assistant. When the role came up it was almost like a lightbulb moment as my passion for museums and love for sport came together in one job. I applied without hesitation and here I am!
What is your number one focus when it comes to your work?
My number one focus is making sure that all objects, whether they are The Championships trophies or a pair of socks, are looked after to the same high standard. I am there to ensure these objects can be enjoyed by visitors and generations to come so their care and management is my priority.
The museum is there to preserve the game and the history of the sport so we have to make sure the information we hold on the objects is as detailed as possible and that the objects are looked after to the highest possible standard.
Can you tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from it?
I know it is an obvious one, but I think the failures like not getting that job or opportunity are the ones we can learn from the most. Applications take a lot of time and emotional energy so when you get a no it can sometimes be really hard to take, especially when you’re really invested in the opportunity or have been working really hard to get to that next step in your career.
In these situations I let myself feel sad, frustrated or even angry and then take a step back and think right, what areas do I need to strengthen to make myself a more rounded candidate for next time? Where can I find other opportunities to develop and improve? These setbacks while hard at the time, make us come back stronger and a little bit wiser.
What are you excited about in your industry at the moment?
I think for me at the moment it is the commitment to increasing representation in the sport which is then reflected in what we collect. For example, Wheelchair and Quad tennis is growing each year which is fantastic and we have been able to collect items to represent this. For example, we have the kits from some of the top Wheelchair players such as Gordon Reid, Alfie Hewitt and Diede de Groot. This year we accepted a donation of Jordan Whiley’s wheelchair which she used to win her three Grand Slam doubles titles and bronze medal for doubles at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
At this year’s Championships we also had changes to the “all white” rule which allowed menstruating players to wear coloured shorts underneath their dresses to alleviate anxiety. This was a big change for women in sport, so we collected an example of the forest green Nike shorts which were worn by players as a representation of this change. As a museum that represents a current tournament it is exciting to collect items that reflect the changes to the game.
If you could change one thing about your Industry, what would you change?
I think when it comes to sporting heritage it isn’t as widely publicised as I would like it to be or tapped into as much as it could be. Sport has got so many links to other aspects in society such as diversity and inclusion, climate justice, as well social and cultural changes. Sports museums are amazing spaces for people of all ages and backgrounds to come in and get engaged with these topics and celebrate the part sport has played in people’s day to day lives.
Sport is a hectic industry, what do you do to switch off?
I actually go and play sport! Controversially it isn’t tennis (pretty useless at that to be honest), instead I play Netball with Putney Netball Club. As well as playing, I am also part of our committee. I have previously been our Umpires Secretary but I’ve taken up a new role as Club Captain and Welfare Officer, ensuring that all our players are having a positive experience while playing netball in the club. As someone who has gained so much from the club it is a really rewarding experience to put time back into it. I find participating in sports is an amazing way to meet new people, improve your mental and physical health as well as giving you an outlet from work. Aside from sport, I love anything to do with museums and art. Being in London, I try make the most of going to see recent exhibitions where I can.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to work in the sports industry?
I think the first bit of advice is that there isn’t a typical route to get into the sports industry. Take all the opportunities that come your way, even if you don’t think they’re relevant at the time. I have found that all the experiences I’ve had over the years have been beneficial to me in some shape or form. Always ask questions and speak up. Questioning things is the best way to learn and also to challenge the way we do things in a positive way. Look to learn from the people around you rather than compete with them. People have so many experiences and skills in the industry so make the most of that.
How to connect with Eleanor Thomas…
Museum Instagram: @wimbledonlawnmuseum
Also, cheeky shout out to Putney Netball Club on Insta @putneynetballclub