An Interview with Tom O’Leary – Director of Public Engagement Historic Royal Palaces

Siobhan Ralfe

Tom O' Leary

Can you tell us about yourself and your current role? Well, I started with a history degree before doing a PGCE and qualifying as a history teacher. I taught for three and a half years but wanted to try something else. A job then came up in the National Archives, which used my skills as a teacher and consisted of providing resources to schools and teachers. I then worked my way up to Head of Education and Online, which included creating online resources for schools using archive material. Documents inevitably translate very well online, so this became a real growth area for us. I worked at the National Archives for ten years and at the outset I had expected to go back to teaching but ended up carving out a career in cultural heritage. A job then came up in Parliament and I worked as Head of Public Engagement and Learning for seven years, working on a range of projects to improve public understanding of Parliament before moving onto the Science Museum Group as Director of Learning. I led science engagement work across the five national museums of SMG, and I was there for just under three years. The perfect job then came up as Director of Public Engagement here at Historic Royal Palaces and I’ve been here now for four and half years! My first love was history so it is my calling, but I’ve also loved science and politics! Amazing! Well, you’ve touched upon my next question then which was has this always been a field you wanted to go into? In reality I didn’t have a clue that these types of jobs existed, or what public engagement was, when I first started out. But I enjoyed communicating with the public ( students), which of course you do in teaching – albeit a captive public! The sector has evolved, and I’ve been involved with lots of different roles over the last 28 years. For me the consistent strand has been working in institutions and making them accessible to as wide a public as possible. You’ve had quite a few different roles then! Can you narrow down any favourite experiences or exciting opportunities for you? Well, it’ll be hard to narrow it down to just the one! Currently at Hampton Court, my office is in the front of the Palace overlooking the West Front which is surreal! I am also able to kayak to work, using the Thames to travel how the Tudors would have done, though definitely in less splendour. Oh, wow that is quite an experience! Definitely not something everyone can say! I’ve really been fortunate enough to be involved in many different things. At the National Archives, I oversaw one of the last reunions of First World War veterans, including Harry Patch, which was an incredible experience. Prince Charles came in to meet them and they also worked with school children including using video conferencing. It was incredible to comprehend they had been born at the end of the 19th century. When I worked in Parliament, I created the TEDxHousesofParliament events. This was a whole new area - of event production,, but gave me the opportunity to curate events, meet and work with incredible speakers. I also set up Parliament Week, a national awareness week, which included filming BBC Question Time in Westminster Hall for the first time! Then with the Science Museum I ran TEDxLondon, where I got to work with Stephen Hawking and Al Murray on the same bill). I also adored the industrial heritage I got to walk past every day like Stephenson’s Rocket. Now with Historic Royal Palaces, I continue to get to do some great things, In 2018 I led the follow up to the Poppies project. We lit 10,000 flames in the moat for 7 nights to mark the centenary of the end of WW1. Over 350,000 visitors came to see the display which was quite full on! Now we’re working on Superbloom which is a spectacular flower display in the Moat to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee which opens in June. We’ve transformed the Moat landscape and next week we are sowing 20 millions seeds. This has been a labour of love for the past three years, and a project we hung onto during the dark days of the pandemic which hit HRP very hard. We are an independently funded charity reliant on visitor income and we lost around £100m and it will take us many years to recover.
An Interview with Tom O’Leary – Director of Public Engagement Historic Royal Palaces
Tom O'Leary

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An Interview with Tom O’Leary – Director of Public Engagement Historic Royal Palaces
Tom O'Leary

What skills and experiences would you be looking for from those wanting to work in public engagement within the heritage sector

What skills and experiences would you be looking for from those wanting to work in public engagement within the heritage sector? For those looking to change direction into heritage and public engagement, how can they stand out from the crowd? Public engagement is a very broad area and involves a wide range of skills. Working in schools, the media or events for example, the skills and experiences will be really different. It is crucial to understand what your skills are and how you can apply these to the role you’re interest in, regardless of the sector you’ve been in. For example, digital or media and PR work is very transferable and good employers will value that you’ve worked in different types of organisations and environments, Jobs like curatorial roles are focused on researching and communicating history and are more akin to being a historian – your readers may be familiar with Lucy Worsley and Tracy Borman who are our joint chief curators. However, in my senior team, I have people with backgrounds in trading, fashion, press and costumed interpretation. At the end of the day we need people who have all sorts of skills, to help run a modern heritage organisation. What is your favourite period of history and why? I’d say I’m a bit of a history magpie. I can disappear into different parts of history, but it does need to be told well in order for me to enjoy it! I really love the BBC History Extra podcast as there is always something different and you can pick up new bits of history and then go down a rabbit hole! When I was studying my degree, my favourite would have been the Tudors and particularly the counter-reformation period. But like a lot of history enthusiasts, I do enjoy all different areas now. And your favourite heritage site? Well, it would have to be Hampton Court really! There is something about the architecture which is incredibly special. When William III and Mary II took the throne in 1689 they asked Christopher Wren to design a new baroque palace for them. Wren scrapped his original plan to demolish the whole palace and instead created the spectacular Fountain Court, leaving much of the Tudor palace intact So there there is an incredible clash of styles, Baroque and Tudor, which really gives it a relentless charm and beauty. I would also recommend your readers having a look into our upcoming events, particularly the Jubilee Joust during the summer. The five-day joust will happen at Hampton Court and will be an excellent experience! A second choice would definitely be Westminster Hall. It is just an incredible place to spend time in and to imagine all the events that have occurred within its walls. . And finally, have you ever met Katherine Howard’s ghost at Hampton Court?! Ha, well no, there haven’t been any ghostly encounters for me, but it can certainly feel spooky at times! Especially when I’ve been the last one working and I go to leave and find all the lights have been turned off. During Halloween at Hampton Court, we have ghost tours that go through the Haunted Gallery in the pitch dark and that does feel quite chilling. But no, no ghosts exactly!
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An Interview with Tom O’Leary – Director of Public Engagement Historic Royal Palaces

Siobhan Ralfe

Hi I’m Siobhan! I graduated from the University of Essex back in 2018 after doing both my BA & MA in History. My main focus is female power, particularly looking at royal women in the Tudor & Stuart courts – both of my degrees focused on Mary, Queen of Scots! Since graduating, I’ve been lucky enough to travel for a living and love exploring new places and cultures. I’m hoping to return to university in 2023, but in the meantime you can keep up with me on Instagram @wanderingsiobhan.
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