Pippa Shirley (1983)

Rather than being limited, like most of us, to visiting National Trust properties at the weekends or bank holidays, Pippa Shirley works at one. Specifically, she’s Director of Collections, Gardens and Historic Landscapes at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, which is owned by the National Trust and managed by the Rothschild Foundation.

Pippa’s route to Waddesdon began with a BA in Modern History at Merton. Coming up in 1983, she threw herself into college life, getting involved in drama and rowing and, in her second year, being Social Secretary on the JCR committee. She was also on the organising committee of the Winter and Summer Balls.

After leaving Oxford, Pippa did an MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and then worked in publishing, on The Grove Dictionary of Art. She taught Art History briefly and then worked as a curator at the British Museum in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities. Following her time at the British Museum, she spent eight years at the Victoria & Albert Museum in charge of European silver in the Metalwork, Silver and Jewellery Department.

In 2000 came her appointment to Waddesdon, where Pippa has been ever since. As one might expect, she is passionate about the works of art and objects in the collection – the musical elephant automaton, made in 1774, is a particular favourite, as indeed it was for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. With about 15,000 objects in the collection, as well as delights in the gardens, there’s never a shortage of subject matter for Pippa’s Twitter page, such as Gustave Moreau’s Fables watercolours, on display after a century of being behind closed doors, and Common spotted-orchids in the garden.

Pippa has also been involved in the Trusted Source project – a two-year partnership between the National Trust and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). The result is a growing collection of short articles about history, culture and the natural environment, aimed at giving people more background about what they see on their visit. Waddesdon is also a lead partner in a major AHRC-funded research project with Oxford, Cardiff and Durham Universities looking at ‘Jewish’ country houses, now in its second year. She is also very proud of setting up an annual internship with the Art History Department for Oxford students to come and work alongside the curatorial team at Waddesdon – now in its 18th year.

Off the premises, Pippa sits on the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, advising the government on the export of cultural property. She has lectured and published widely, promoting the wonders of Waddesdon on both TV and other media.

Pippa retains strong links with Merton – perhaps doubly so, as her husband Giles Clifford (1982) was also at the College. Most tangibly, she has shared her expertise with us by contributing a section on the college silver for the 750th Anniversary book Treasures of Merton College.

Merton & Me

Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as a student, what was your first impression?

Disbelief that I was actually there, the sense of beauty and history, and huge excitement and nervousness (like many students then, I did the entrance exam after A-levels, so was sure I had forgotten any history I ever knew). And missing my cat.

Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?

Too many to mention, but rowing was pretty extraordinary – I had never done anything remotely like it, and remember the freezing walk down to the river in the early mornings in the winter, the wonderful feeling when for short periods it actually all came together, and being coached occasionally by none other than Jesse Norman (1981), now MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.

I have a secret life as an 18th-century musical mechanical elephant (on Twitter, at least).

What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?

Have confidence in yourself, build your working relationships with kindness and honesty, be curious, be a good listener, and never turn down an opportunity – I nearly missed out on my curatorial career by wondering whether I should accept the offer of a job at the British Museum.

Describe Merton in three words.

Liberating, eye-opening (in every sense), life-long friendships