Public archaeology, postdocs, and pints: Interview with Gemma Tully

What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge and why?

Archaeology – I know that sounds daft (and obvious) but it was my first ever excavation job that brought me here more than a decade ago. I worked in the commercial sector in the area for a few years. As a result, there are so many streets, towns and villages that I associate with what I found there rather than with modern life! Working as an archaeologist also involved lots of fun nights out with the team. This introduced me to many of Cambridge’s best pubs. My favourite is still the Champion of the Thames on King’s Street where I also worked as a barmaid to subsidise my pitiful income in my early years in the city. Great beer, fantastic landlord (Lawrence), oldy-worldy, a real fire, dog-friendly, nice locals who like a sing-song, cheeseboard on Sundays – what more could you want?

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Can you tell us a little bit about your research interests? How did you first become involved in Museum Studies, and how does that intersect with your archaeological training? You mentioned that you recently taught a Museum Studies course in Bergamo—is your work evenly balanced between each field, or do you spend more time in one discipline?

My post-doc here is just part-time, 50%. This means I have the luxury/stress of combining my research interests in museum studies and public archaeology. It was actually my experience doing public outreach with the archaeology unit in Cambridge, plus the skills I developed working on a community archaeology project in Egypt during my Undergrad and Masters, that got me into museum work. I’ll save the details for the next question but there’s a lot of overlap between the research themes of my post-doc and current trends towards public participation in museums. These two areas of experience create a good balance and it’s brilliant being able to divide teaching and research between different institutions and countries.

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What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge? You’ve held postdocs at both Cambridge and Durham—do you have any advice for scholars looking for UK postdocs (the spectre of Brexit notwithstanding)?

It took me a while to get my first postdoc – around 3 years. I took a job at Saffron Walden Museum as their Learning Officer after finishing my PhD. While I really enjoyed the experience of working in a small museum, as you get to learn and do everything from designing exhibitions to scrubbing toilets, I missed academia and didn’t have enough time for fieldwork or research. My first post-doc was in Berlin, at the Humboldt University, and focused on the socio-political issues surrounding the relocation of thousands of families from the Theban Necropolis in Luxor. There was a strong landscape focus within the project, alongside collaboration with local communities to assess the social impact of their relocation and the ramifications in terms of heritage management. This led onto a landscape management-focused postdoc at Durham, which explored the integration of heritage, wildlife, business and community concerns across 4 case study areas in the UK, France and Spain. After that, I ended up back in Cambridge working on my current project which is looking at heritage management at the archaeological site of Amarna in Egypt.

In terms of advice, I think the key thing is to say ‘yes’ to all vaguely relevant experiences as I’ve found that it’s the tangential elements of my career that have led to the next opportunity.

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You are on the road quite frequently—England, Egypt, Italy—but your home base is in the Correze region of France. How did you come to settle in France, and what is your local community like? Are they curious about your work in archaeology?

I travel a lot and juggle various different projects, which are often short-term contracts. Buying a house in Cambridge was never going to be possible so my partner and I decided on France. We started looking in the north and kept going south until the prices got too expensive. We can’t see another house from our place (only the valley and a ruined castle – I know, it’s tough) but we do have neighbours! They are all very welcoming and think my job sounds fascinating even though I can’t articulate myself in French as well as I’d like. Anyway, things have been somewhat complicated by the spectre of Brexit – ugh!

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What do you do in your spare time? Please include a picture of your dog alongside this description.

If I’m in France, I go for long walks in the valley with my partner and our wonderful dog, work in the potager (veggie garden), play the ukulele (badly) and continue the 10-year long Scrabble tournament my partner and I started when we first met. In the UK, I try to see as many of my friends and family as possible and drink plenty of fine ale!

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