Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSca) annual conference 2018

‘The Museum Ecosystem: exploring how different subject specialisms can work more closely together’ 

Does it Fart?, Corals in space, Horse botfly larvae, Mermaid monkeys and the Spiral of doom:- this has got to be one of the strangest conferences that I have been to in quite a while! Held over 2 days in Leeds Museum, the Natsca national conference theme this year was looking at collaboration and cross working with Natural science collections.

As you might have guessed, the talks range widely across all aspects of natural history. My personal favourites included the video of candidates interviewing for the post of ‘Hunter’ the dinosaur at the 2017 Dinosaurs of China exhibition in Wollaton Hall, Nottingham Natural History Museum. Using theatre skills really added to the visitor experience with ‘Hunter’ becoming one the attractions of the exhibition, alongside the incredible once in a lifetime opportunity to see real dinosaur material from China. Dr Adam Smith, gave excellent insight into how they worked with their local university to stage this amazing exhibition.

 Although the exhibition is now over, you can still see the virtual exhibition ‘Dinosaurs of China’ online

Who knew it was the year of the Reef? The Horniman museum has an excellent programme of events based around this, also highlighting their project Coral; a project researching how to spawn corals in captivity to help repair the reefs in the future. I am now wondering how we can use our own tropical shell collection this year….

And in case you were wondering, does it fart? refers to an entertaining talk by Dr Jan Freeman from Plymouth Museum looking at how social media can be used with unexpected outcomes, such as the book ‘Does it Fart?’ which started simplify as people posting questions online as to whether different animals fart. It seems woodlice do! Experts then came together to publish the book.

I am proud that the surprising hero of the conference was from the East of England in the form of the Museum of East Anglian Life’s tweet of the ‘Absolute unit’ ram! Featured in no fewer than three formal presentations, including that by Alistair Brown, policy officer for the Museum Association talking about Collections 2030. This is going to be an important piece of work by the MA, so look out for all the consultation events and opportunity to let them know your views on collections in the future.

Networking at the conference always proves to be a major benefit of going. This year it gave me the opportunity to not only make new contacts, such as Dr. Gardiner the new curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium, but also to meet up and reconnect with people I used to work with over 18 years ago and haven’t seen since! The downside (if any) of the excellent networking opportunities is that I now have a list of projects I would like to do, and places to visit longer than a giraffe’s neck! The potential for collaboration sparked by just talking to colleagues and natural history specialists are very exciting and I can’t wait to apply them to our collections.

Myself and David Waterhouse from Norfolk Museums meeting up with Jack Ashby soon to be Museum Manager at the Zoology Museum, Cambridge. Are these the largest antlers in the UK?

Most surprising outcome of the conference? Was it the book on animals that fart, or the superstar status of the ‘absolute unit’ ram? Well actually, it was bumping into the assistant community curator at Leeds museum in the Leeds Story Gallery, and learning about their incredible changing community exhibition work and contemporary collecting programme! A valuable new contact, as every little helps when you are a natural historian looking after Social History collections!

A big thank you to the SHARE Natural History Network, and the arts council for making it possible for me to attend.

Glenys Wass, Heritage Collections Manager, Peterborough Museum

Fenland Network – 14th March 2018

Fenlands Network Event: Social Media, Joint Marketing, Local networking

Last week I attended my first Share Network meeting for the ‘Fenland Network’.  The day we spent at Mildenhall and District Museum was both useful and enjoyable, containing a great mixture of both training and networking opportunities.  Attendees were encouraged to give short, 5 minute updates on the current events and activities which are taking place at their museums and I’ve already been able to share with some visitors here at Ely Museum about these local events, encouraging them to head out to the Mill weekend at Burwell Museum in May and to enjoy the Grand Fen Fayre weekend at Ramsey Rural Museum!

We enjoyed a useful and practical social media training session by Kristian Downer, who was able to give us both some practical takeaway advice and many other future options we can explore.  He encouraged us to find the right social media channels to reach the audience we want to connect with.  By using services such as LinkedIn which is already well used and established within the local business community, we can make direct and meaningful contact with our local business leaders.  He also showed us how to target our Facebook advertisements to reach the audiences we seek which was something the network all agreed we’d like more training on, and that is really a great benefit of attending these network meetings, we were able to establish a training need on the day, and get the ball rolling on organising this training at future meeting!

We discussed updates to the FensMuseums.org.uk website too and the features we would like to see and find on the website, as well as different ways the network could enhance the website with stories and folklore from our own corners of the Fen.

I’d definitely encourage anyone to attend and get involved with their local Fenland Network, it was a great opportunity to meet with fellow museums, share news and updates and get some useful training that is both practical and relevant for museums of our size and location.  Our thanks must also go to Sally Ackroyd and Steve Watson for organising the event and to the volunteers of Mildenhall and District Museum for their hospitality and enjoyable tour of the museum!

Emily Allen works as a Custodian for Ely Museum. 

Gardener’s Delight – A Volunteers’ Day!

Gardener’s Delight – A Volunteers’ Day at Gainsborough’s House and Garden, Sudbury  6th March 2018

This was a most welcome outing after the worst snowstorm in a decade had kept us unwillingly house-bound and absent from our emergent gardens. There were 28 of us, all volunteer gardeners from the region’s museums travelling to Sudbury from our different locations. On arriving at this historic and delightful house, the atmosphere was warm and inviting and worth every mile of the long trek through the cold grey skies of East Anglia.

The view onto the garden below was enticing but our attention was quickly captured by the start of proceedings and anticipation of the unknown. With immaculate time-keeping skills, the invited speakers took us on a journey through the paintings and Iris collections of Cedric Morris, enchantingly secret gardens of East Anglia and the enduring story of our orchards, faded but not lost, due to the painstaking work of Orchards East.

Highlights of the day were the 400 year-old Mulberry Tree, centrepiece of the Museum’s walled garden, the historic beauty of the House and its contents, the enthusiasm, knowledge and dedication of the contributors, the seed swap and the excellent planning and organisation which had gone into making the day such a success; and last but not least the most welcome and enjoyable lunch and refreshments.

Carolyn Flynn, Volunteer Gardener at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Norfolk

Joe Blogs

Today’s blog is brought to you by Joe Hoyle, SHARE’s outgoing Museum Development Assistant. Joe worked in this role for two years; administrating the SHARE training calendar, coordinating large events and overseeing the team’s communications and finance. Prior to this, Joe had worked with the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum collection at Norwich Castle, the National Trust in Cambridgeshire, and spent 2 years with Lancashire Museums Service.

In what is fast becoming SHARE tradition, I am ending my time here with some final thoughts. If you are reading this, I will spare you any holier-than-thou predictions. I am neither qualified nor experienced enough to talk about museum futures or their place in the world. My role has offered many fly-on-the-wall moments though, and I have been privy to a range of discussions, meetings, experiences and challenges that have shaped how I perceive museums in this region. I have also had a great deal of fun, so I’ll start there.

September 2016, Newmarket. My colleagues Ruth and Kathy have joined me in the gent’s toilets at the Jockey Club Rooms. We are gazing in awe at the bathroom’s mellifluous grace and majesty. Kathy is holding the soft white hand towels, Ruth is examining the fine cubicle doors and I’m trying to take a photograph of a sink. Nobody is standing guard but we’re hoping not to be found. Our attention to detail while museum conference planning knows no bounds. The best toilet I’ve ever been in? Undoubtedly.

The team at the Jockey Club Rooms, Newmarket. This wasn’t the toilets…

Fast-forward three months. I have made a grave error. I’m sat in a meeting at Imperial War Museum Duxford with my back to the window that overlooks the runway. Half an hour in and I can hear the unmistakable splutter of a Rolls Royce Merlin engine behind me. A Spitfire is taxiing along the runway and I’m missing it. I can only guess at what is happening from examining the eyes of those across the table. They, in turn, are craning their necks around my despondent face to catch a glimpse of the fierce flying machine. I’m a man in his twenties close to tears.

Like the Jockey Club bathroom, I saw the Spitfire in all its splendour eventually. I then saw a Hawker Hurricane. I went back later and saw a Bristol Blenheim, a Douglas Dakota and a Vought Corsair. I also saw a huge French Tricolour that month, captured in 1800 by Horatio Nelson himself and unfurled for the first time in a generation.  My job has taken me from creaking wooden buildings of rural Suffolk to sleek, modern edifices in Cambridge. From the Broads of Norfolk to inner city Luton. I have met a great many people, from volunteers to senior managers to celebrities of the trade (I’m still processing shaking hands with John Orloff, the American screenwriter who penned some of the HBO Band of Brothers episodes). Everybody I’ve met has a head full of ideas, all equally valid. But what have I learned?

Delivering a session in Norfolk

Here goes… Are this regions museums in a downward spiral, chronically underfunded yet bloated with CVs from bright-eyed professionals? Well, yes and no. Are museums struggling to broaden their audiences? Probably. Is a museums’ place in society being increasingly side-lined by local government? I think so. Is everybody being asked to do more with less? Almost certainly. The future looks grim for many museums out there, but not all… I think.

In all this hullabaloo, “I want to work in museums” is something I’ve heard a thousand times. Admirable indeed, but why? Museum jobs are as varied as a blacksmith is to a DJ. How does the wish to work “in a museum” manifest itself into brushing mould off the back of a wooden door? Surely… Surely those who work in museums have a fundamental appreciation of history, art and heritage at a base-level? Whether it’s teaching children, informing new audiences, writing, designing, conserving, working in the community, improving accessibility or helping the museum to grow financially, this fundamental appreciation surely comes first? This is certainly the reason I’ve worked in heritage for five years.

“I want to work in museums”. Hmmmm.

When I landed my first museum job at the Lancaster City Museum, I couldn’t help but feel a little short-changed when the manager told me she was originally from Stafford, 100 miles down the M6. A foreigner in a local community museum!? I learned very quickly that this was quite normal and I was in fact being preposterously ignorant. She was a great match for the museum because of her passion and skill. She was a curator first and foremost with a love for heritage.

To be blunt, that’s why I’ve enjoyed my time in the sector. Who else could be so excited by a piece of old cloth or bit of metal in a damp store? I read last week that a novelty lighter from the Mexico 1986 Football World Cup had just washed ashore on a beach in Scotland – my first thought was “get it accessioned somewhere!” My favourite museums, like my favourite people, are always those that are rough around the edges. Those museums where subject matter is the absolute priority (sometimes at the expense of other amenities), put together by staff and volunteers who care. Their collections, lovingly embraced, speak to people.

Life for me beyond SHARE is unknown. Though my compass is pointed north west, I’ve yet to figure out what I’ll be doing. I’m a realist though – it may never be in the sector again. I’ll end on this – If the Goddess of Museums visited me in my sleep tonight and granted me one wish for Her dominion, it would probably be;

“No matter what challenges our institutions face (and there are many), may we never lose sight of how subject matter binds us together with a lust for learning, sharing and caring. May this passion influence what we do, who we employ and how we work.”

Passion and natural enthusiasm trump all other facets, and I really hope it remains so in every museum. Whatever the weather. It may be the only thing some museums have left.

Please be passionate for the subject!

Lowewood Museum: Retail refurb & new coffee pop-up!

Located in a beautiful Georgian building in the town of Hoddesdon, Lowewood Museum showcases the history of the Borough of Broxbourne and is managed by the Museums, Heritage and Culture team at Epping Forest District Council. The museum recently opened a newly refurbished shop and coffee pop-up.

The old museum shop area had been a multi-function space that was dated, confused and too crowded. Catering had never been offered at the museum. Although it had been considered in the past, the risk of placing an unknown commercial proposition over gallery space was too great a leap. Over time, the provision of a café offer was identified as a priority. It would increase visitor numbers and dwell times, coupled with the creation of a revised hire space to give the museum a new commercial footing.

Last year Epping Forest District, Broxbourne Borough and Chelmsford City museums were successful in setting up a ‘No Borders Partnership‘ that received Arts Council resilience funding to develop a more sustainable footing –  a keystone of which was improved commerciality.  The Museum’s aspiration to refurbish the Lowewood commercial offer was now achievable and planning for a range of activites began.

Following the appointment of a new Commercial Manager, Shane Bartley, the first identified priority was the Lowewood refurbishment project.  It soon became clear that delivery of an improved commercial offer with added venue hire opportunities meant a new divisible multi-use space. This would feature a café-style seating area to complement the new coffee pop up . The new retail offering was also developed in conjunction with the Museum’s Commercial Activities Officer, Francesca Pellegrino, who worked closely with the Council’s Youth Panel to identify new ways to refresh the shop area completely.

The project was delivered within the tight budget constraints of the resilience project grant. There were surprises along the way including the discovery of a floor that was not a floor, and the unearthing of a time capsule (that was returned for future explorers). Surprises aside, the deadline for delivery was achieved and the official opening received support from Councillors and Senior Officers from both local authorities in attendance, as well as representatives from the newly formed Culture Without Borders Development Trust, and the Museum’s Society of Friends.

Initial feedback has been very positive. One review in the Hoddesdon Society Newsletter stated “A new facility at Lowewood, quite apart from the wealth of documents, artefacts and pictures available for inspection, is an attractive snack room welcoming visitors to enjoy tea and coffee”.

For more information contact:  Shane Bartley – Sbartley@eppingforestdc.gov.uk

The Gilwell Oak : Scouting rediscovers its roots

Today’s blog has been written by Caroline Pantling, Heritage Service Manager with the Scout Association. Their Heritage Team have recently won the Woodland Trust’s 2017 Tree of the Year competition. 

The Scout Association Heritage Team have used this quirky competition, run by The Woodland Trust, to raise the profile of Gilwell’s historic landscape and Scouting’s fascinating heritage. Having won the public vote to become England’s Tree of the Year the Oak then faced competition from the other home nations and were appointed UK Tree of the Year by a panel of experts and became the UK’s representative for the European Tree of the Year.


The Gilwell Oak has become renowned throughout the world. Scouting’s founder, Robert Baden-Powell used the oak tree as an analogy for the growth of Scouting. He referred to the experimental camp run for 20 boys on Brownsea Island in 1907 as the acorn from which the oak tree of Scouting grew. Today the Gilwell Oak sits at the heart of a Scout Adventure centre which welcomes over 40,000 young people every year.


The Gilwell Oak is located on edge of Gilwell’s Training Ground. The training offered at Gilwell Park was the first of its kind, Scout leaders from around the world attended training at Gilwell. On their return home many set up their own training centres to pass on their learning. In this way the legend of Gilwell spread and the idyllic scene of Scouts taking shelter from the summer sun (or rain) under the branches of the Training Ground’s most iconic tree became well known.


For many Scouts around the world a trip to Gilwell Park is a long held dream, hundreds visit Gilwell each year to pay homage to those who have gone before and to, maybe, collect a leaf and an acorn from its longest standing resident.

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