A Neurodiverse Experience of Citizen Curators

Citizen Curators is a free work-based training programme in museum awareness and modern curatorial practice aimed at volunteers from our community. The programme is provided by Cornwall Museums Partnership in collaboration with seven museums, with the main goal of providing a new form of meaningful museum participation.

The programme is led by Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Curator and Director of the Curatorial Research Centre. In this guest blog by Joana Varanda, a 2021 Citizen Curator with a placement at Wheal Martyn Clay Works, we hear about her reflections and experience of the programme  from a neurodiverse perspective…

This year, we will say goodbye to Citizen Curators – a programme delivered by Cornwall Museums Partnership and the Curatorial Research Centre for the past four years, which gave people who had little or no experience of working in museums a chance of experiencing this sector.

In my case, all my life I had known that I wanted to work in a museum or a library, but had found myself impeded from fully accomplishing that for multiple reasons such as a working-class background, migration, and disability. Similarly to Katie Sawyer, one of last year’s Trainee Curators, I am diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – also known as ME/CFS, a post-viral long term illness akin to what we know today as Long Covid.

I am also Autistic, which means that despite having equivalent experience in the sector through paid work, volunteer work and internships in both heritage sites and museums (as well as a BA with Honours), I have never gone beyond a large number of failed applications to entry-level roles. In fact, when I eagerly contacted Dr Tehmina Goskar, Programme Leader and Director of the Curatorial Research Centre, thinking Citizen Curators would be the perfect opportunity for me to finally break into the sector, she initially deemed me over-qualified to undertake this programme. I have also been told on occasion I am over-qualified to study for a Master’s degree and there is no reason why I shouldn’t be working in a museum right now.

Except that, according to last year’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) Annual Population Survey, Autistic people have the lowest employment rate from a range of those with various disabilities, as only 21.7% of Autistic people were found to be in any kind of employment. Autistic individuals who are in work are also prone to be under-paid, under-employed, and poorly supported, meaning that this percentage could be significantly different considering the amount of Autistics who might be in some kind of work, yet are too weary of disclosing their diagnosis – as well as those who have struggled through neurotypical life with no idea they were actually Autistic.

A bar char entitled 'Disabled People with Autism were among those disabled people with the lowest employment rate'

I am the latter, as I did not realise I was Autistic until last year, when I started to experience difficulties in adult life such as finding skilled work. I developed application-fatigue due to filling out form after form, and an increased awkwardness at interviews due to social anxiety. When I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, everything finally made sense, and I naively began to disclose my circumstances early on in applications, in order to avoid repeating past traumas such as bullying. And here I was, exactly the same person as I had been before, capable of always landing the first and only job I applied to, waiting, and waiting, and never hearing back from anyone. Becoming aware of my boundaries had suddenly stigmatised me, as some recruiters still believe Autistic people are childish, unprofessional and incompetent.

But thankfully, the Citizen Curators programme had none of that stigma. For one, due to the pandemic, this year’s final instalment of the course was delivered remotely, with sessions taking place online on a work-from-home basis – something which disabled people had been trying to attain for decades. The programme was also delivered completely without pressure of achieving something, except to learn as and when participants felt capable of doing so, as lockdown has been hard on everyone. But most importantly, all of the small adjustments that I asked for in order to accommodate both my ME/CFS and Autism were immediately heard by Dr Tehmina, such as an additional break dividing the two-hour session into three parts instead of two, and being able to keep my camera off for the most part and participate in discussions via chat instead.

A panorama landscape image showing the exterior buildings of Wheal Martyn Clay Works - a large round white visitor centre as well as historic stone remains of the clay works.

Wheal Martyn Clay Works, where Joana is working as a Citizen Curator

Participating in Citizen Curators and being heard and valued despite my need for adjustments brought me a sense of accomplishment I had not felt in a really long time. As Katie Sawyer demonstrated in her blog post, it isn’t that hard to accommodate someone disabled in a workplace, and being neurodiverse is no different. For instance, adjusting noise and light due to sensory sensitivity, providing a place to rest and recuperate from activity, and reducing social interaction (which are overlaps that happen to coincide with both ME/CFS and Autism) have been proven to be easily achievable by Bodmin Keep.

Likewise, Citizen Curators has demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to diversify workforces and change judgements. And although we are saying goodbye to this programme, we are also saying hello to a wealth of new job applicants with various skills and viewpoints that will make museums even more inclusive and accessible to both their visitors and staff. Now that the pandemic has left so many with long-term conditions, it is also the perfect moment to let go of stigmas and stop equating disability with incapability, incompetence or lack of dedication.


Joana Varanda, 2021 Citizen Curator at Wheal Martyn


Further Reading:

MuseuDiverse, A Citizen Curators’ Blog: https://museudiverse.wordpress.com/

Katie Sawyer’s blog post on the CMP blog: https://www.cornwallmuseumspartnership.org.uk/chronically-katie-my-experience-as-a-disabled-trainee-curator/

ONS Annual Population Survey 2020: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/disability/articles/outcomesfordisabledpeopleintheuk/2020#employment

National Autistic Society on the ONS Survey: https://www.autism.org.uk/what-we-do/news/new-data-on-the-autism-employment-gap

Autistica on the ONS Survey: https://www.autistica.org.uk/news/autistic-people-highest-unemployment-rates

BBC on Autistic workers: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20160106-model-employee-are-autistic-individuals-the-best-workers-around

Ann Memmott, Autistic Activist: http://annsautism.blogspot.com/2018/04/autism-mythbusting-employment.html

Autism in Museums: https://www.autisminmuseums.com/

Fair Museum Jobs: https://fairmuseumjobs.org/

Show the Salary: https://showthesalary.com/

Reboot Cornwall Launches as Museums Reopen


A young woman wears a large black virtual reality headset

  • Poll finds region’s museums in optimistic spirits, despite the challenges of lockdown, as they reopen to the general public

  • 89 percent think pandemic has accelerated need to innovate; 79 percent actively exploring technology to enhance visitor experiences

  • Museums feel the role of heritage institutions has undergone a significant shift, with more emphasis on community outreach, tackling loneliness and greater inclusivity

  • Reboot Cornwall initiative launched to support and celebrate region’s rich museum and heritage sector and showcase examples of innovative visitor experiences

The need for museums to innovate and harness the power of technology has been rapidly accelerated by the global pandemic, a survey by the Cornwall Museums Partnership reveals today.

As they reopen to the public, 79 percent of museums and heritage venues in Cornwall claimed they are now actively exploring how technology can help them to futureproof their offering, while 89 percent said the pandemic had dramatically accelerated the need to innovate.

The biggest concerns affecting museums in Cornwall in the lead up to reopening, have been logistical issues such as space, capacity and social distancing (86 percent concerned) and funding issues and economic uncertainty (78 percent concerned). Roughly half of the respondents reported feeling anxious about permanent closure, reduced opening hours and job losses.

A young boy leans over a toy station which is glowing with red and blue lights


But overall, Cornish museums are buoyant and optimistic about the future. Although 82 percent anticipate that the pandemic has changed visitor expectations of museums in some way, 92 percent are reportedly feeling positive about the future prospects of their own venues, and the wider cultural sector in Cornwall,

When asked about their impact in a post-pandemic world, 79 percent of museums said they envisage playing more of an active role within local communities. Many expect a high level of contribution to education and youth development (89 percent) and to tourism and economic recovery (79 percent), while others highlighted the important role cultural venues will play in tackling loneliness (67 percent) and leading the way towards a more inclusive culture (60 percent).

To welcome visitors back, museums across the county are launching a range of new and innovative experiences, incorporating the latest in AI, machine learning and immersive technologies, as part of Cornwall Museums Partnership’s Reboot Cornwall initiative. Supported by the University of Exeter, the initiative is designed to shine a spotlight on some of the most exciting and pioneering visitor experiences being developed by the region’s museums and heritage venues.

Emmie Kell, CEO at Cornwall Museums Partnership, commented: “This study shows that Cornish museums have shown both great adaptability and resilience in the face of tremendous adversity. Attitudes around heritage, new technology and the role of museums as important hubs in their local communities are evolving very rapidly in Cornwall and it’s exciting to see our museums leading the way for both innovation and greater inclusivity. We are really excited to be launching the Reboot Cornwall initiative, to get behind our museum and heritage sector as it gets back on its feet and showcase some of the fantastic experiences being offered to visitors in the coming months.

Julia Twomlow, Creative Director and CEO of PK Porthcurno – Museum of Global Communications, added: “More than ever, we have come to understand and appreciate the vital role of new technology in keeping people connected, safe and working. As a museum in a rural location, we believe we have an important part to play, using our history, expertise, buildings and resources to help revitalise and strengthen our community as we emerge from the pandemic. New technology will be a key part of this new way of working.”

Senior members and leaders at over half of all Cornish museums took part in the survey, which was carried out by Cornwall Museums Partnership to examine how the pandemic has impacted on the heritage sector in Cornwall and explore how new technology will reshape visitor experiences when tourists can return to the Duchy this spring and summer.

To find out more about the Reboot Cornwall initiative and to discover some of the region’s most innovative visitor experiences in museums, visit https://www.museumsincornwall.org.uk/rebootCornwall/ and follow the #RebootCornwall hashtag on Twitter.

Citizen Curator Research: Eisenhower in Bodmin!

[Original blog on the Bodmin Keep website]

Did you know that General Dwight D. Eisenhower – US Army five-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, spent time in Cornwall and visited Bodmin on multiple occasions during the Second World War? Read on to find out more from Sarah Silbereis – a valued member of the 2021 voluntary Citizen Curator programme at Bodmin Keep.

A black and white image of General Eisenhower talking to a US army troop in camouflage gear and face paint; surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.

For me, the Citizen Curator Programme lit a spark that had lain dormant for some time. I have always enjoyed exploring history and believe that we must strive to understand our past to shape our future wisely. I have a family history of involvement with the RAF so have always been interested in military history. Having married an American, I have had the opportunity to visit some fantastic military museums ‘on the other side of the pond’, which developed my interest further. During lockdown, this programme has enabled me to forge a link with my heritage whilst delving into aspects of it that I never previously knew existed. Carrying out historical research without visiting an actual museum or archive (or even leaving my home) seemed an impossible feat at first. However, the very situation which prevented in-person networking amongst our small team of Citizen Curators has allowed us to access museum artefacts and eyewitness accounts in a variety of new ways. Artefacts are being catalogued by curators and made accessible online which means they can be explored from home. The ways in which we give history its voice are adapting, as are we, to this new world.

Black and white image of General Eisenhower stood on a hill overlooking an army camp in Bodmin, Cornwall.

General Eisenhower and General Patton reviewing US troops at Bodmin, England Credit: Combat History of the 137th Infantry Regiment

I began my research with three photographs of General Dwight D. Eisenhower inspecting troops at Bodmin Barracks on an unknown date in 1944. Little did the people shown in these photographs know that, after the war, he would hold America’s highest office as President of the United States of America. In 1944 – 45 however, Eisenhower was responsible for planning and supervising the successful invasion of Normandy from the Western Front, under the code name ‘Operation Overlord’.

What surprised me during my research was the heavy concentration of D-Day preparations in Cornwall. The 35th Infantry Division alone would have incorporated more than 16 000 men, spread across the South West. When one division was sent off to France, another would sweep in to replace it and the process would start all over again. I cannot imagine what these young men must have felt, leaving New York bound for Liverpool in 1944. The convoy of ships was estimated at around 200 vessels! The men of the 35th Division travelled by train to Exeter before being stationed in several local communities. Major Norman C. Carey of the 320th Infantry Regiment, which is part of the 35th Infantry Division, commented on his arrival in Exeter, “For lack of a single large barracks area, the division was billeted by units in numerous quaint little villages.” A Bodmin local remembered it differently, “they were camped under canvas all over Cornwall”! Bodmin welcomed around 2 000 troops from numerous regiments, including a medical battalion and special units.

Black and white image of General Eisenhower overlooking a parade of troops.

General Eisenhower watching a retreat parade at Penzance. Credit: American Air Museum in Britain

It is heartening that, despite the recent development of new housing estates in Bodmin, some of the key locations at the heart of the town’s wartime role still remain. The most prominent eyewitness accounts of General Eisenhower’s many visits to Bodmin revolve around his arrival or departure at Bodmin Railway Station, which is now Bodmin and Wenford Railway. The requirements of wartime security have meant that more official records are hard to come by, yet these eyewitness accounts describe a man with ‘quiet confidence’, a ‘ready smile’ and an ‘easy-going personal approach’. Michael Lyne, a Bodmin local, crossed paths with Eisenhower but his account didn’t surface until many years later:

“The Station Master, Mr Wenouth came out and said to me “sonny – don’t tell anybody who you have seen today, because if you do we will have the whole German Air Force on top of us”. I went home and naturally told my father who looked at me and said, “don’t be so silly”.

Eisenhower enjoyed the use of a special GWR train during his preparations for the D-Day landings. This special train, code named ALIVE, comprised 11 vehicles including a special sleeping car used personally by Eisenhower. He continued to use this train after the D-Day landings and even had it shipped from Southampton to France, so he could use it in mainland Europe until it was returned to UK control on 30 July 1945. Eisenhower would have spent much time travelling in order to visit troops all over the local area, as far north as Wales and as far south as Mennaye Field in Penzance, where a slate plaque commemorating his visit would be unveiled 71 years later.

Perhaps the most exciting discovery of my research came when I found a video depicting scenes matching one of the original photos that began my journey down this rabbit warren of historical research. This video prompted more questions than it provided answers, yet it was fascinating to watch Eisenhower engaging in banter with the troops and seeing their best efforts to impress him along with his team. Eisenhower was accompanied in this footage by his son John, General George Patton and Commanding General Paul Baade, who was 35th Infantry Division Commander from January 1943 to December 1945. Thankfully, the video footage includes a clear date, 26 June 1944.

Knowing that Eisenhower made many visits to Bodmin during the first half of 1944 makes me wonder why this particular one was so well documented. The footage shows General Eisenhower at a mine field as he watched a mine locating drill. Soldiers can be seen prodding the field with bayonets during the drill, demonstrating their training. On the field is a sign, ‘BN. A.P. MINE FIELD’ which is possibly an abbreviation for ‘Bodmin Anti-personnel Mine Field’. One of the battalions stationed at Bodmin was the 110th Medical Battalion, quartered at the Poor Law Institute from 27 May – 3 July 1944. This unit would have served the medical needs of the entire 35th Infantry Division. Training was on physical fitness with special courses on mines and booby traps with concealment and cover. Whilst medics would not have been expected to clear a minefield, they would probably have been trained on how to get safely out of one! The medics would also undoubtedly have been trained in how to deal with the injuries that these nasty devices could inflict. Later in the footage, soldiers of the 137th Infantry Regiment can be seen lined up for inspection on the Cold Harbour sports field at Bodmin Barracks as General Eisenhower reviewed the troops.

The most poignant aspect of my research was the bravery of these young men, thousands of miles away from home, waiting eagerly to go to war so they could make a difference. Spirits were undoubtedly high in the footage I have seen, despite the horror of what lay ahead of them in France. 2 373 members of the 35th Infantry Division would later be killed in action and a further 11 382 would be wounded. Still, to this day, we owe these brave men so much.


– Written by Sarah Silbereis, Citizen Curator at Bodmin Keep

Spotlight on: Sian Powell, Engagement Officer at Wheal Martyn

We catch up with Sian Powell, one of the 2020 Trainee Curators supported by Cornwall Museums Partnership’s NPO programme, to talk about her journey from Trainee Curator to Engagement Officer at Wheal Martyn Clay Works.

A young woman (Sian) stood next to an exhibition board full of landscape photographs celebrating Cornish clay country

#CelebrateClayCountry Photography Exhibition

I joined Wheal Martyn as a Trainee Curator in January and it didn’t take long for me to quickly fall in love with the museum and the wonderful heritage that it shares. I’m from St Austell and working in Wheal Martyn has given me the historic context for my childhood playgrounds of the clay trails and surrounding areas.

I found that the team at Wheal Martyn were incredibly supportive and welcoming and I instantly felt liked a valued member of staff which was greatly appreciated in the precarious position of being an intern and at the very beginning of my museum career.

Five young women stood inside a museum wearing hard hats.

The 2020 Trainee Curators at PK Porthcurno

My internship was interesting to say the least…2020 was such a strange year for everybody and I feel as though despite the setbacks of the pandemic and lockdown, it actually gave me new opportunities in some areas and helped me to widen my perspective on what a museum is and how it should serve its community.

The role also gave me an instant peer network of other Trainees in the exact boat as me and I found that so valuable, throughout the challenges of the year we were able to support and encourage each other. There was always a sense of collaboration rather than competition.

A man and a woman wearing face masks clean a historic train engine.historc

Sian assists a volunteer cleaning Lee Moor during her traineeship at Wheal Martyn last year.

I love Wheal Martyn; the historic buildings, the nature trail, the niche and often overlooked significant history. For many local people, the china clay industry has been a historic source of employment and any number of our relatives might have once worked for English China Clays. So working here, I often found myself personally invested in the industry which employed my great grandfather for his whole working life as well as many other local people.

I was delighted to have been appointed as Engagement Officer for Wheal Martyn in November and I look forward to being able to serve my local community and engage with the town and area of mid-Cornwall where I grew up and previously felt I had to leave in order to get any kind of career in museums!


– Sian Powell, Engagement Officer at Wheal Martyn Clay Works