centre for historic houses india collage

An internship with the Centre for Historic Houses India – houses, heritage, and hard work

Whilst we’re sure that many of us would simply love to read about history all summer, many students are instead caught up in working, volunteering, and other commitments. Here at OHR we’re interested in the opportunities available to students interested in history, and exactly where this interest can take you in the world of work.

We caught up with Jaynil and Hope, who have both just finished an internship with Centre for Historic Houses India, an educational research centre which aims to promote stewardship towards historic buildings and foster respect for local traditions. Here’s what they had to say about their time with CHH India.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities of the internship? How long have you been doing it for? 

Hope: At the start of the five-day placement, the three other interns and I were given a fairly long list of projects and tasks. These included researching and making factsheets on Historic House museums across India and their contact points in view of potential collaborations with them, collating such research into an online exhibition, researching and generating ideas for a grant proposal, researching the heritage sector, including funding and collaborative opportunities, running the Centre’s social media pages and creating a social media calendar, promoting the Centre’s events, judging a writing competition and designing promotional material for the Centre.

Jaynil: The Centre has a lot of plates spinning at any one time and this meant that we were given a long list of projects to get stuck into. These included researching historic house museums, curating an online exhibition, presenting ideas for grant proposals, getting in touch with potential sponsors and donors, generating alternative business models for owners and custodians of historic properties, designing graphics, and managing the Centre’s social media channels. Professor Schmidt always tries to match you with things you’re more experienced in, but the internship programme is also designed to give you a chance to try a range of different tasks and develop new skills in the process.   

What made you interested in the internship? Why did you pick it?

Hope: I’m an avid National Trust and English Heritage properties visitor, and the kind of person whose first stop on holiday is the local museum (or, failing that, a google search of the history of the area). I also have experience working in the heritage/museums sector. And, I love early modern and modern history and wanted to learn more about these periods in India, to redress the Eurocentrism of my knowledge of these periods, particularly resultant from the Eurocentrism of the Oxford History course. CHH’s goal to be like the National Trust in India was admirable to me and I was excited to extend my historical knowledge and help to preserve historical places.

Jaynil: I like architectural history and was initially drawn towards the chance to spend a week researching historic buildings in India with an expert in the field. In the process of applying, I got a sense of the Centre’s story and really liked Professor Schmidt’s entrepreneurial approach and attitude, which made working with the Centre feel like something that would be more than just a research internship. I didn’t have any experience working in the heritage/museums sector but the chance to work on both research and strategy was what probably attracted me most to the opportunity. 

How does it intersect with history? To what extent would you say it complements your studies?

Hope: I could have spent the whole week just immersing myself in the complex and interesting histories of the thousands of historic palaces in India. It’s fascinating how the maharajas system and dynastic lineages continue to play crucial roles in the politics of India, and in the heritage sector in particular. (Although parallel claims can be made about UK hierarchies!) As I mentioned, I haven’t had the opportunity to study any Indian history in my first year course at Oxford, or through any formal teaching so far, which says a lot about the geographical focus of the British education system. I’m hoping to study 18-19th century Indian history this year and I’m excited to find out more.

Jaynil: I think it intersects with history in two main ways. Firstly, in the process of your research you can quickly build up a solid understanding of the history of a particular building, ruling family, and princely state. In this sense the internship is a good entry point for newcomers to Indian history and would intersect well with students of eighteenth or nineteenth India.

On the other hand, speaking and listening to Professor Schmidt has helped me appreciate different ways of looking at architecture and material culture in the context of the Raj. We also spoke to our guest lecturer Prof. Aditya Pratap Deo of St. Stephen’s College who gave us more insight into the conceptual challenges that come with writing a history of princely India, particularly in the political context of ‘New India’.

So far, what do you feel you’ve learnt? Has there been an experience that’s been particularly valuable? Why?

Hope: I learnt a lot on the historical side, but also lots on the practical side of running a heritage organisation. Running a centre which attempts to connect, collaborate with, physically preserve, curate the collections of and develop tourism for thousands of Indian palaces is no mean feat. The necessity to work in a range of areas, from business and financial strategy to collaborations, from research to promotion to education to curation, has made me realise that even the cosy heritage world is challenging and cutthroat, and that, as much as we’d all love to read history books all day, it’s emails, grant applications, social media and cold hard number crunching that take up a lot of time in the real world, especially for small organisations.

Jaynil: The ambitious goals set at the beginning of the internship mean that everyone finishes having either built on existing skills or developed entirely new ones. On the research side I’ve learnt how to find reliable information from a much wider range of online resources than I have otherwise needed before when studying better-documented topics. I also learnt some programming using Google Apps Scripts to help automate some of my more time-consuming tasks, such as generating certificates for our photography competition or composing emails to long lists of potential sponsors or donors. Most importantly, I have learnt from Professor Schmidt the importance of following up on every lead and making quick decisions when opportunities come up, which can make a big difference in any sector. 

What’s been the least enjoyable part of the internship?

Hope: The challenges you face if you’re trying to pull something as bold as CHH’s goal off are considerable. Understandably, due to the Centre’s small number of full time, paid staff and funding constraints, working with CHH was a little chaotic and all things at all times. It was sometimes difficult to identify the key priorities that day from the sea of tasks to-do. And, it was difficult to avoid aspects of the organisation which I disagreed with (collaboration with a certain organisation I do not approve of) because we were all expected to do everything. Call me a classic leftie humanities student, but I’m a little uncomfortable working with big banks (and even hereditary royal families), even if they provide the funding which helps amazing heritage projects happen.

Jaynil: The least enjoyable part was probably the initial phase of trying to get my head around exactly what the Centre did and how I should go about starting on some of the more ambitious projects, such as getting a company car for the Centre. But like most things once you start breaking the projects down into smaller steps you feel more in control and can start getting a lot of work done in a relatively short space of time. The Centre is also in the slightly difficult position of having to work with a range of stakeholders who don’t always get along together, but having Professor Schmidt there is quite reassuring and she is always happy to help you navigate the somewhat complicated heritage landscape in India.  

Courtyard of the Majaraja's Palace in Bangalore, India.
Courtyard of the Majaraja’s Palace in Bangalore, India.

Any final thoughts, comments, or reflections?

Jaynil: The Centre is a really great place to intern as you are given a great degree of responsibility and a wide scope in a short period of time. Working with other Oxford students makes the experience a lot more fun and the daily meetings mean you get to spend a lot of time with Professor Schmidt who has plenty of stories and experiences to learn from. Given the variety of initiatives the Centre is involved in, the internship would be of great value to students of all academic backgrounds and is guaranteed to be an intense, but rewarding way to spend a week of your next vac.  

Hope: I really enjoyed my week at CHH, and it was particularly nice to work with three other interns, so we were bleary eyed at the 8am meetings together. CHH and its charismatic founder, Dr Esther Schmidt, have noble goals and great intentions at heart, and I enjoyed playing a small part in realising them. I’m really grateful to CHH and Esther for taking us on, and although the 8am meetings and sometimes 6pm finishes were a little tough, I really appreciate Esther’s ongoing check ins on us. If you’re passionate about preserving historic places and are up for a challenge and having your fingers in many heritage sector pies, I’d highly recommend working with CHH. And, in classic plug style, if you’re interested, go to their website, or you can follow them on Twitter, Insta, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

We would love to hear more from both history and non-history students who have undertaken placements or volunteering in heritage, preservation, conservation, or any other vaguely history-related field. Please get in touch if you would be interested in sharing your experiences.