Heritage management impact and graduate success: Bella Gelman

In the first of a series of pieces exploring the careers of graduates from Kent's MA in Heritage Management offered at our Athens Centre, we talk to Bella Gelman to find out about her work at the Tenement Museum in New York City.

What is your current role and what does it involve?

Bella Gelman: I’m a Collections Fellow in the Curatorial Department of the Tenement Museum in New York City, which tells the stories of immigrants who settled in the iconic neighbourhood of the Lower East Side. The two famous tenement buildings feature restored apartments of families who lived there in the 19th and 20th centuries.

My role consists of several different tasks: I accession and catalogue our collections, and I’m currently assisting with a major conservation project to stabilize the kitchen and parlour ceilings of two of the most well-known apartments in the museum.

This includes taking inventory of, removing, and reinstalling the objects in the apartments. The buildings are our most important collection items, so to enrich the visitor experience, we try to keep the museum as close to its original state as possible, but at the same time we have to make sure the buildings do not fall apart and that’s difficult when you’re dealing with tenements from the late 1800s and thousands of visitors every day.

In addition to conservation work, I also work in the photo archives, taking inventory, evaluating photograph holdings, and updating database records as necessary.

What is your favourite aspect of the job?

It’s such a positive work environment, filled with creative, like-minded people. I love how hands-on my job is, and the opportunity to move around the tenements and to see and touch and interact with all the artefacts is a privilege.

And since I myself am an immigrant, the mission of the museum resonates closely with me and makes me feel that I’m in the right place.

Why did you choose the Heritage Management MA offered by Kent and AUEB?

Some call it luck, I call it serendipity! After receiving my BA in Classics, I took a gap year during which I gained valuable work experience but realized I wanted to go to grad school. When I saw that the Heritage Management program would bring me back to Greece, my favourite travel destination, and allow me to further my study of cultural anthropology and archaeology, I applied on a whim and was accepted.

What skills did you learn and how did this help in your career? How would you say you manage heritage in a different way because of your training?

The beauty of this MA program is that it’s a combination of business and the humanities. I already had the humanities part down, but the business aspect terrified me. The courses offered introduced me to the world of finance and strategy, which is always a necessary skill to have. I also took the “Museum Management” elective which inspired me to pursue my interest in collections and to intern at the Jewish Museum of Greece before applying for my current fellowship.

As far as heritage management goes, heritage is a broad term and aside from the professional use of it, managing heritage is something everyone does daily whether or not they think about it. My training during the MA program allowed me to get more in touch with my Eastern European heritage and my experiences both as an immigrant in America and living abroad in Athens.

Through my experience during and after the program, I got further in touch with my roots; all my training made me “manage” my own personal heritage by understanding, appreciating, and learning more about my Soviet Moldavian-Romanian Jewish background. Similarly, working at the Tenement Museum, I get to relate to people from all over the world and connect my story to those of families who came to New York in the 19th century. It’s lovely.

What would you say to anyone considering the course?

I would say, just as an overall message, that no matter what you do, everything is what you make of it. I loved the program and made the most of it, so I have absolutely no regrets. Everything I took away from the program pushed me further in life.

I learned a lot through the various courses and teaching styles provided, met so many incredible people, and had an overall amazing experience, both academically and socially. So definitely consider the course and go for it!

What do you think the impact of the Heritage Management Organization (formerly known as the Initiative for Heritage conservation) is on heritage and possibly for your work?

The Heritage Management Organization does a lot of good. It really opens up people’s eyes to the positives and negatives surrounding tangible and intangible heritage.

The workshops and classes offered by the organisation create a space for individuals to give their opinions, voice their concerns, present their research, etc. on heritage all over the world, and I think that’s wonderful. It also did a great deal to prepare me professionally for the world outside academia.