Geeks will be Geeks: The SHARE Volunteer Awards

This month’s blog is written by Jeremy Thackray, Assistant Curator at the Centre for Computing History, reflecting on the SHARE Volunteer Awards – a first for the museum. 

Museum jobs are rarely very glamorous.  Whether we’re knee-deep in the dust of a neglected store, clearing up after school visits or painstakingly packing 5,000 types of hat, ours is rarely a line of work for dressing up.

One of the exceptions came last week at the SHARE Museums East Volunteer Awards, held on a lovely spring evening at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket.  Volunteers have a tendency to get stuck into even more humdrum (but no less vital) tasks than staff.  Rewarding them with a regional awards bash is a great idea.

We at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge were first-time attendees to the event, nominating four of our excellent volunteers for awards.  We didn’t dress up as such, instead donning matching museum T-shirts – that’s as glamorous as a group of techies get.

Glamorous techies!

Upon arrival we were directed to Abbot’s Hall, the fine manor house at the heart of a very fine museum, and served with drinks and canapes.  I found it particularly appropriate that the Museum of East Anglian Life was running an exhibition profiling the people who work there, many of them volunteers.  It was a great example of how people from different backgrounds can contribute in all sorts of ways to a real community museum.

Soon enough we were summoned to a marquee for the ceremony itself.  Live dulcimer music greeted us (we wondered if the musician would play the Super Mario theme if one of our volunteers won – geeks will be geeks).  After a few short speeches, the first award was upon us.

As the gongs were dished out, it was wonderful to hear about the efforts of all the nominees involved.  There was a real effort to include everybody, not just the winners.  The winners took home a glass plaque, but other nominees were given ‘highly commended’ status, and everyone got a certificate.  We were lucky enough to have one outright winner (Sam Doye, Outstanding Young Volunteer) and one highly commended volunteer (Chris Monk, Learning Volunteer) from our nominations.

Sam Doye. Winner of the Outstanding Young Volunteer Award

All that was left was photos on the lawn with all the fantastic volunteers from our region.  After that, we all made our way home to our respective museums, with those dusty stores, messy school visits and 5,000 hats.

Actually, turns out there are 6,000 – but I’m sure a volunteer will help us sort that out.

The Cambridgeshire contingent

The Holy Grail and other Unaccessioned Objects

This week, Ruth Burwood (Museum Development Project Officer for Collections) reflects on the highs and lows of collections review and rationalisation, and shares some top tips…

I once had a dream that I was in a museum store auditing a box of men’s collars.  The brown acid-free box that I opened contained more boxes.  Some were smaller, older, brown boxes, with scratchy biro writing on.  Others were presumably the original round boxes that some of the collars had once been stored in by their owner.  There were also loose collars stacked inside one another, still starched and stiff; some with accession numbers on.  As I started to work my way through the box I read the accession numbers aloud.  “1978.3.2.1”…worried I had mis-read the number, I tried again, ”No wait, 3.3.1”…”No,”…”No, hang on,…”.  I woke in a troubled state, soon made worse by the realisation that the box of collars did not just exist in my dreams, but was an actual nightmare waiting for me at work to resolve.

Shoes! All photographed, catalogued and labelled. The work of one volunteer who reviewed the collection.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE auditing collections.  I have even been known to gleefully sing, “I love to audit, audit” to the tune of the song “I love to move it move it”.  But there was a dark moment that morning when my colleague found me with a sob in my throat, surrounded by 138 men’s collars, some of which had the correct accession number, and most of which were not in the correct corresponding box.  For the first time in a collections management project, I nearly gave up.  No-one had sorted the problem for the previous 30 years, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to just put the lid back on the box and put it back on the shelf.  It was in good condition, the collection fitted nicely into the box, and was causing no harm to anyone.  Except me.  And here is the first lesson: a friend and colleague once said…”Let’s make sure we always leave the box (or record) in a better state than how we found it.”  With this attitude, you can chip away at a review or backlog every day.  It might take longer, but you can be safe in the knowledge that you have saved another curator in the future some time.  So fuelled by some steely determination that there was scope to reduce the number of collars, and ultimately save space in the store, I ate some biscuits and went back to work.

WARNING! Collections review is not always fun. Here, a colleague crouches under a snow-laden tarpaulin, examining old farming equipment.

Because the truth is, reviewing and rationalising collections IS a responsible part of being a curator.  Yes, it’s time consuming and can feel massively overwhelming, but the outcome is actually just what the public think we have achieved already.  Most people are blissfully unaware that once they have donated an object to a museum, there is a complex but important sequence of tasks needed before it is happily united with a unique number and corresponding database record including location. The donor has no idea that they have just added another item to a collection that is trying to catch up with itself.  Indeed, only those that work in collections management really understand what a backlog is and the history of why it happens – no extension numbers added here, a temporary number there, an incorrect label, a missing location.

Guaranteed to raise a groan…someone has labelled an object with NN, meaning “No Number”.

Others may mock us for obsessing with systems, but it is such a delicate sequence that if things get missed, it quickly becomes a problem for everyone.  And there is nothing funny about being confronted with someone asking to see an object you can’t find.  Falling behind with accessioning new (or rediscovered) objects may have started 10, 20 or 30 years before in your museum, but before I start laying the blame at the feet of our predecessors, here is lesson number 2: you may not have created the backlog, but you can stop adding to it.  Stop! It’s tough, and yes, it might be that you don’t have that particular example and the donor has threatened to burn it if you don’t take it off their hands, but the trick is to stop the offer getting in the building before you see it.  Tell the front desk staff, tell the trustees…just say NO! (but nicely, and add, “thank you for thinking of us”).

Object waiting to be accessioned, or discarded curatorial clothing? No-one knew. The cardigan hung there for years…

I remember when we announced we were going to attempt a particular audit, one colleague laughed, “Good luck with that!” and another made a comment that the idea of knowing what you had and where it was, was a bit like the search for the Holy Grail.  The collections management database contained around 26,000 records.  We knew there was more in the stores than that.  Despite being met with some cynicism, I am pleased to report Reader, that we did it.  I say “we”…it took 8 years and many staff and volunteers, but the collections database now pretty accurately reflects a collection of over 40,000 items, each with an up-to-date location and improved record.  The work has unlocked the collections.  Not only did the disposal and compaction programme create much needed storage space, we re-discovered some real gems.  Staff and volunteers learnt more about the collections, new research projects were identified, and more members of the public were able to access the items in store.

Showing off – a MODES grid in use to track assessment, protocol, and eventual disposal of items. Beautiful.

Now, if these numbers are making you think, “Pah! They clearly had lots of people and experts and time and money”, then compared to some museums, you would be right.  But this is my final lesson: it is possible.  It is possible to know what you have and where it is.  Don’t just take my word for it, there are lots of museums of different sizes that have reviewed, assessed and rationalised parts of their collections.  I have even met one small volunteer-run museum in our region who has cleared their backlog entirely.  It is possible.

But wait, I have one more vital piece of wisdom, let’s call it 3.1…HELP IS AT HAND.  Whether planning an audit or thinking about disposal, your mentor (if you have one), MDO and myself are all here to assist and advise.  There are resources on the SHARE website to guide you through the process of rationalisation, and we will be running more training on the theme in our 2017-18 programmeThe Collections Trust have an excellent range of advice sheets and information on their website, and are going to be focussing on helping museums to clear their backlogs as a priority.  For those of you that are already thinking about getting some expert advice on a collection, or planning a storage move, SHARE Museums East are currently offering Collections Review and Rationalisation grants of up to £2000 to accredited museums in the region.  Visit the page to find out more.

AfCE Convention, Edinburgh 2017

This weeks’ guest blog comes from Sheridanne Reynolds, Retail and Garden Project Volunteer at the Higgins Museum and Art Gallery.

I volunteer at The Higgins Bedford and in February I was asked if I would be interested in attending the Association for Cultural Enterprises convention in March. I was lucky enough to receive a bursary from SHARE Museums East and off I went with a little trepidation of what was awaiting me and the weight of representing our museum and art gallery.

                                     The Higgins, Bedford

AfCE ” is an association of Members and Associate Members who are passionate about their work in the cultural and heritage sector” whose  “aim is to promote commercial best practice in the cultural and heritage sector by providing training and networking opportunities and facilitating the sharing of information and experience between members.” One of the many events they organise is the annual convention and trade fair which this year was to be held in Edinburgh.

In preparation I read the aims of the convention from the AfCE website, discussed what we as a museum wanted to get out of it and combined these aims after which I poured over the convention timetable to find the most appropriate sessions.

As a museum we are in the process of streamlining our retail products so that we reflect our permanent collections, ongoing exhibitions/projects and local area better and then to build cohesive ranges for each of those areas. This convention would be ideal for honing our ideas by:

  • Learning from those who know by attending sessions about developing product ranges
  • Sourcing products and services by meeting suppliers and seeing a wide variety of product ranges
  • Extending the network of influential contacts by meeting people from throughout the heritage and cultural sector
  • Providing inspiration. Edinburgh is a beautiful city and I arrived early enough to have a couple of hours to walk round and admire it and take some photos. I got back in time to change and make my way to The Fruitmarket Gallery for the drinks reception which was crowded noisy and buzzing with anticipation of an exciting convention ahead. I didn’t get to meet up with anyone I knew from SHARE but I did chat with some very friendly people and was able to raise a glass to Howard Hodgkin with everyone, one of whose pieces is in our current exhibition Picasso and the Masters of Print and which I knew would have really pleased the curator of that exhibition, Victoria. After lunch, sited in the middle of the trade fair, the afternoon was taken up with four more sessions of talks, each which had a choice of three. So many of them sounded interesting, but I kept to my aims of attending those relating to retail and developing product ranges.Wednesday had more time for visiting the trade show to hunt for suitable products and chat to suppliers who were all really helpful and friendly. There were three more sessions of talks to choose from plus a fourth session from the International Speaker, Stuart Hata, director of retail operations, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and president of the MSA, the Museum Stores Association. The Chair’s Summary wrapped up all the themes of the convention and bid everyone farewell until Brighton next year urging us to go out and be brave, provocative, risk-taking and aggressive as that’s what can bring about change for the good.The sessions I attended were
  • The overall feeling of the conference was one of friendliness combined with enthusiasm to get the most out of the two days. Regardless of status everyone was keen to share knowledge and answer questions. I had felt quite nervous about attending being only a volunteer, but everyone was so welcoming and eager to listen as well as to share that I gained one thing from attending this convention that I had not expected and that was confidence in my role.
  • After the sessions it was a rush to get back to the hotel to change and then walk across the city to the National Museum of Scotland where everyone was piped in to the drinks reception on the ground floor. The meal was upstairs under the high glass roof and it was a beautiful place for a dinner. The tables were mixed with people from other areas, but that was no barrier to conversation and everyone enjoyed the evening, which after the Best Product Awards were handed out, ended with music and dancing.
  • On Tuesday morning everyone descended on the Corn Exchange by bus, train or taxi which divided everyone up by their approach to life according to Caroline Brown, Chair of ACE, in her Welcome speech. The morning passed with registration, Fresher’s meeting, Welcome, “The Big Picture”, by Dr Bridget McConnell, chief executive of Glasgow Life, which made me want to visit Glasgow, coffee, a first foray into the trade show, Question time and an excited meeting up with other members from SHARE, including the other recipients of a bursary. Liz and Denise from Gainsborough House and Palace House were amazing, they were generous with their advice, offers of help and introductions and as much time from them as we wanted and their excitement and enjoyment of the whole thing was infectious.
  • Even the train journey up to Edinburgh was exciting and seeing iconic landmarks such as the Kilburn White Horse, Durham Cathedral, The Angel of the North, the Tyne bridge, Sage Gateshead and Holy Island with its scaffold encased castle and Lindisfarne Abbey infused the trip with heritage and culture before even reaching Edinburgh.
  • Exposed! The restored Mary Rose Shop is back , Paul Griffiths, The Mary Rose
  • The Secret Garden – RHS licensing rejuvenated, Cathy Snow, The RHS
  • Developing an artisan & craft range for the National Trust, Genevieve Sioka, The National Trust
  • Originality by design, Adam Throw, The Barbican
  • A Museum Store world, Stuart Hata
  • How to create a practical digital strategy, Simon Hopkins, Turner Hopkins
  • Visual Matters – unlocking the potential of your shop through visual merchandising, Lynda Murray, International Visual

National Museum of Scotland

I feel I gained more than just meeting our aims. The whole experience was motivating, inspiring and thought provoking and maybe I won’t be able to put many of the ideas into practice now, but I have been inspired and the ideas and processes will stay with me, developing and waiting for the time they can be used best.

The words and phrases that reverberate from the sessions I attended that I will keep with me are

Relevance, lighting, local connection, authenticity, pop-up shops, storytelling, UK, distinctive, style guide, customisation, social media, museum store Sunday, persona exercises, flow, user journey, title, focal points, colour, sense of place, own brand merchandising, artisan and products that reflect the place.

Thank you SHARE Museums East and The Higgins Bedford for giving me such an inspiring experience.


Museum Mentoring: A Recipe for Success!

Museums are like cakes. Everybody has experienced one, and almost everybody has enjoyed one. Some eat cake all the time, others eat in moderation and some save it for a special treat. Some cakes are too rich, some are too plain; for some, the humble mince pie is just as gratifying as a three-tier iced wedding cake.

My name is Joe and I work for SHARE Museums East, the Arts Council-funded development team helping Accredited museums in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Befordshire through advice, training and financial support. In my role I see museums (and cakes) of all shapes and sizes, and my job is to assist them in improving. Museum development not only offers the perfect opportunity to witness museum growth, change and betterment, but also to speak to hundreds of people to share ideas and skills. Indeed, what makes our SHARE events so brilliant is that everybody benefits from speaking to one another face-to-face, regardless of museum size, governance or budget. This is usually done over coffee and cake…

Museums are like cakes!

Working in the eastern region is also a huge advantage. The differences between museum audiences in Watford, Sudbury and Sheringham for example, are massive, and they pose profound questions about museum visitors, a museums’ overall purpose, their stories and how they can be told. Their sheer range in size and scale is also something that fascinates me. The Imperial War Museum Duxford – a National museum that employs over a hundred staff – is one of my favourite museums in the region, a veritable four-tier Victoria sponge. In stiff competition with this, however, is the Little Hall in Lavenham, an entirely volunteer-led site and real gem in Suffolk; a perfectly crafted bakewell tart? The SHARE office, hosted by Norfolk Museums Service, falls somewhere in the middle.  We count our lucky stars to be based within a local authority setting in Norwich, and are acutely aware of the pros and cons of large, small and medium organisations.  Museum development, in short, is a great way to understand how museums operate across the sector. But this is not the only way…

Four months ago, I tentatively enquired about museum mentoring. Although I’ve never considered myself a professional expert, I certainly felt I could lend a helping hand to a smaller museum (if only through my SHARE connections). Mentoring is an Arts Council England scheme for museum professionals wishing to share their expertise with museums in the region. Mentors apply online and are assigned a museum, agreeing to attend meetings, offer guidance, compile reports and share ideas.

To my complete and utter delight, I am now co-mentoring the volunteer-run 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk. Based at the site of the control tower of the ‘Bloody Hundredth’ during the Second World War, it is quite possibly the most interesting museum in the region. I have met their dedicated trustees and many of their wonderful volunteers, all of whom are welcoming and willing to share ideas. I have written my first mentor report and I am eager to hear their thoughts for the future.

100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum, Thorpe Abbotts

I would recommend mentoring to any museum staff member who meets the criteria, particularly those from local authority museums who may not be used to organisations on a different scale. I have already learned things about museums that I would never have done otherwise, and have been inspired to think differently about sites like this. In truth, I have learned just as much from the trustees at Thorpe Abbots as they have from me.

Although working in museum development is not everybody’s cup of tea, with museum mentoring, you can have your cake and eat it!

For more information about museum mentoring in the region, email  

A Night to Remember! The SHARE Volunteer Awards

With Volunteer Awards season just round the corner, we’ve been speaking to Niki Hughes, a founding member of the scheme in 2015, and integral part of it’s steering group today.

In the atmospheric surroundings of the Fitzwilliam Museum, the second annual SHARE Volunteer Awards took place on 9th June 2016. This event coincided with National Volunteer Week, and was intended to celebrate the hard work that Volunteers had carried out across the region. 69 nominations were received from all sorts of museums, with staff taking the opportunity to say a big “thank you” to their dedicated teams.

The SHARE team and Awards Steering Committee deliberated hard to ensure that each category reflected the vast array of activities that volunteers had undertook. Every museum was invited to think about both individuals and teams to nominate.

Every nominee was invited to the event. A full range of volunteers heard about activities and  achievements from across the region. It was great to see a mixture of glad rags and overalls sipping drinks and chatting in the opulence of the Impressionist Gallery!

We are hoping that the Awards will continue to grow; this year’s event will take place on Thursday 8 June and will be hosted at the beautiful Museum of East Anglian Life. Nominations will open from 23rd February and everyone is encouraged to think about who they could nominate for these awards. After all, you have to be in it to win it!

Niki Hughes, Opening Doors Project Coordinator, University of Cambridge Museums

Accredited Training Opportunity in Volunteer Management

SHARE are pleased to be able to offer this great opportunity for anyone who wants to improve the way they work with their volunteers. It is widely recognised that managing volunteers can be quite different to managing paid staff and this course will help you to improve your skills in this area as well as sharing experience and learning with others in similar roles in the region.

The course will help you to gain a solid foundation in the specific skill set needed to supervise, support, organise and motivate a team of volunteers, and a qualification with the Institute of Leadership and Management (Level 3 Award in Management of Volunteers).

The trainer, Christine Laverock, regularly works with the voluntary and community sector and previous participants on her courses have given us excellent feedback about her style of course delivery, her responsiveness to individual needs, her communication and in-depth understanding of the subject

As well as traditional volunteer management ideas the course will also look at the new challenges for volunteer managers – such as how to work with more diverse volunteer teams; an area of increasing development for many of our museums.

The four session courses start next month and are located in Bedford or Stowmarket. The course requires a commitment of £100 from each participant (but contact Sally Ackroyd in the SHARE team ( if this is prohibitive for your museum).

Please read the further details and apply by 22nd February if you are interested.

For more information, please download the application form below:

[prettyfilelink size=”” src=”” type=”doc”]Application Information[/prettyfilelink]

[prettyfilelink size=”” src=”” type=”doc”]Application Form[/prettyfilelink]


Sign Up to SHARE e-News