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Interview with PhD award winner Dr Justine Reilly

Justine Reilly

Justine Reilly - founder and Director of Sporting Heritage

A PhD can be a powerful tool for professional development, a way to take your career to the next level - and an opportunity to build a business that makes a difference, says Dr Justine Reilly.

“I never wanted my PhD to be something that sat on the shelf – I wanted to do research that I could take out into the world and use to make a difference,” says Justine Reilly, founder and Director of Sporting Heritage, a not-for-profit community interest company working to support the collection, preservation, access, and research of sporting heritage in the UK and wider world.

Dr Reilly had been working for some time in the museums sector as an educationalist before doing her PhD at the University of Central Lancashire.

“A lot of the work I was doing was helping to make sure that museums were as accessible as possible to all audiences, and as I began to work more and more with universities, I became aware that I didn't really have the fundamental theoretical knowledge that I felt I needed to my job professionally,” she says.

“I had reached a stage at which I felt that, if I wanted to move forward, I needed a PhD and needed to get a grip of what it was to develop research.”

Dr Reilly saw a PhD advertised looking at sport museums and cultural policies.

“I thought it sounded perfect for me, both in terms of my professional background and my personal interest in sport,” she says.

From the start Dr Reilly was determined to shape her research in terms of her wider ambition to celebrate sport as a means of engaging communities with their heritage,

“My supervisors were brilliant,” she says. “They saw that I had a real passion for impact development and engaging audiences, and they let me go down that route.

“I was looking at how sport has an impact on different audiences, why we should use sport and where it fits into cultural policy and how it could be better funded.

Her PhD gave Dr Reilly the theoretical underpinning she felt she needed in order to ask of the sector: here we are now, what do we need to do next? It confirmed her belief in sport as an important collection area that museums should be interested in as a way of engaging audiences that don't think 'heritage' is for them. And that when curators don't get sport, its usually because they aren't finding the expert advice they need.

“Too often when museums do tackle sport they do cricket, rugby union and tennis, which are very middle class sports that might appeal to the type of people who typically already go to museums,” says Dr Reilly.

“But we should challenge this and shift the debate. Because this is an issue for communities and how they engage with their museums.”

After finishing her PhD Dr Reilly founded Sporting Heritage as a way of moving the conversation forward in this direction at a strategic level.

“When I started out, people didn't want to talk to me,” she says. “But now they do. Doors are definitely opening.

“Sport is part of our culture and it is something that museums should be interested in. One of the reasons we set up National Sporting Heritage Day was to say 'this is part of museum delivery' and it brings in new audiences.”

Dr Reilly says that she had always intended to take her PhD back into practise and had never intended to go into academia – but that she is determined to bring academia along with her in partnership and use Sporting Heritage as a means of bridging the academic-practitioner divide.

“What my PhD did was give me the knowledge I needed, and the drive to say: 'this is what we should be doing'.

“It has me develop the sector and show why sport is relevant to the wider museum sector.

“Sporting Heritage can go in at the policy level and influence things strategically. We can give the advice and guidance that makes sure that our sporting heritage is looked after, and that museums understand their collections better.”

Although Dr Reilly says it still feels like there's a long way to go, Sporting Heritage are building their capacity all the time. “We have high profile ambassadors, like Dame Kelly Holmes,” she says. “And we are shifting in the narrative within the sport sector as well - when I first started sports organisations wouldn't be able to see how they fitted in, but that's changing.

“Sport should not just be something for sports museums. Sport heritage is held in all kinds of museums, in archives, in libraries and clubs, and because of this there needs to be a lot of partnership work.

“We want to bring it all together and imbed ourselves across sporting heritage. We want to build strong links with universities and make sure they understand where we sit in the research agenda.

“Throughout my PhD I was always asking: how will what I do inform the sector? How will it make a difference? I had those questions in the front of my mind every day - and I still do.”

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