by Miranda Rowlands, SHARED Enterprise
This year’s annual SHARE Conference was held at the National Trust’s stunningly beautiful Ickworth House in Suffolk.
With less than ten days before the publication of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, there was a definite sense of uncertainty about the future, or perhaps more accurately, about just how bad the news would be. But those concerns felt trivial in light of the dreadful events that had happened just three days earlier in Paris. We showed respect for the victims of those attacks with a minute’s silence. Following that moment of reflection, I couldn’t help but wonder, what difference can museums make if, as it seems, we haven’t learnt any lessons from history?
It feels important to share that context, because actually the question of museums’ relevance in society is one we need to ask ourselves, and more importantly our local communities, so that we can understand where we fit in the bigger picture, communicate it clearly to others, and use that knowledge to shape our aspirations for the future.
I’d like to share what were, for me, the top five SHARE Conference 2015 messages:
- Ask the ‘wicked questions’
Sharol Heal – “what use is a museum?”
Director of the Museums Association, Sharon Heal, urged us to ask ourselves the ‘wicked questions’ like, what use is a museum? Go ahead and ask it! Then think about how to answer it. She posed the particularly challenging question, what use is a museum in the refugee crisis? Should museums be doing something about it? Can we be any use at all? What are the limitations of our responsibilities? To begin to answer these questions, Sharon suggests we try ‘upside-down thinking’; that is to say, examining issues from different angles, to help discover new solutions. It’s a concept Sharon heard about from Mark Holmgren, Chief Executive of the Bissell Centre, an organisation that works to end poverty and homelessness. Holmgren suggests museums should be about the future, and helping to solve social problems, rather than focussing on the past. One museum’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis? To act as a collection point for people to bring donations to support the aid effort. There’s an excellent use for a museum in a refugee crisis!
- Talk to your visitors!
We all love museums. Of course we do, or we wouldn’t work in them. So do our visitors, or they wouldn’t come, but do we really know exactly what it is that people love? Katie Childs, Policy and Projects Manager at National Museum Directors’ Conference (NMDC) talked about the national ‘I Love Museums’ campaign, which is asking people to say why they love museums, with some extremely well-articulated views being expressed. Museums are unique, Katie said, in that they serve ‘public past, present and yet to be born’. The message that ‘Museums Matter’ has never been more important. We need to be having those conversations with our visitors, finding out what exactly it is that fuels their love for museums. Get a supply of ‘I Love Museums’ postcards and badges from NMDC to help you introduce the subject with visitors. We should also be telling influential people in our communities, like MPs, what we’re doing that’s so important. Preferably invite them to visit and see for themselves – Katie says the best day to get your local MP’s attention is a Friday – or better still, invite them to visit with their family at the weekend.
- Tell the world!
Go to the press with your ready-to-print story – don’t wait for them to come to you – and be the good news stories, no matter what challenges you might be facing behind the scenes. Tim Williams, Managing Editor for Archant Norfolk, brought practical advice on press releases. All sorts of things make good news stories, but look for the human angle. A new acquisition is very exciting, but what difference is it going to make to your community? Tell stories about special events, new exhibitions, winning awards, and always tell the stories of the people involved. Think about what the press office needs from you – a compelling story that’s NEWS (as in still current, not weeks old), quotes from people involved, good images and contact details of people for further information or extra quotes if needed. From personal experience, I can tell you that if you submit a well-written press release and images of a reasonable quality, you stand a good chance of getting your story published. And the more stories you have printed, the more likely you are to have future stories published too. Local papers love to have a reliable source of good news stories that they can return to, and building a good relationship with your local press is beneficial for both parties.
- Community engagement works both ways
Thomas Gainsborough statue in Sudbury (Mark Bills)
We’re very used to communities engaging with us, whether it’s school groups, local history societies, parent and toddler clubs… it’s what we want, and the more diverse our audience the better. Through various types of outreach provision, we even go to them, which is great, but what other ways are there to engage with local communities? We heard from several museums in our region who are proactively putting themselves at the heart of their communities. I’d like to highlight two of the case studies shared at the conference –Stevenage Museum, and Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury.
Mark Bills, Director of Gainsborough’s House, talked about the importance of Thomas Gainsborough to the local area, and not only Gainsborough himself, but the Suffolk landscapes he made famous in his paintings. Mark has been particularly proactive in engaging with businesses in the local community, and with the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), who are working in partnership to develop and market Sudbury as a cultural tourism destination. It’s in everyone’s interests to attract more visitors to the town, and Mark is making a significant contribution in helping to achieve this. It’s not just about increased visitor numbers and how much money they spend in the town. By working in partnership with the business community, Mark has raised the profile of Gainsborough’s House and gained business partners who will help support the museum, whether acting as advocates or by other means. Gainsborough’s House has an excellent relationship with their neighbours, Vanners Silk Weavers, for example, and I’m delighted that SHARED Enterprise has been able to support Gainsborough’s House in exploring ways to develop this mutually beneficial relationship.
The clean up operation at Stevenage Museum (Jo Ward)
I was also particularly inspired by Stevenage Museum’s story. In July 2015, disaster struck. Torrential rain caused flooding, forcing the museum to close its doors. With visitors already booked to take part in summer events, they had two choices, Curator Jo Ward explained; they could turn people away, or they could invite them in to help. So that’s exactly what they did. Once the site was made safe and the extent of the damage had been assessed, people were invited to attend workshops where they were given training and then allowed to clean and repack objects in new boxes, supplied by neighbouring museums. Although not completely back to normal, the museum has reopened and plans to hold a party to thank their army of helpers. What impressed me most about this is that it’s such a resoundingly positive response to the situation. You could argue that there’s an element of risk in inviting members of the public to help with collections like this. Of course doing so would be inappropriate for objects requiring specialist care, and you’d probably think twice about rare or high-value objects, but apart from in those instances, why not? From the public point-of view, they could feel good about helping, and they had a unique opportunity to get hands on with the collections. From the museum’s point of view, the clean-up operation was finished far quicker than if they hadn’t had any help, and they were able to keep in touch with their audience whilst it was happening.
- Austerity is a time for creative responses
A Curated Life (Ruth Battersby Tooke)
My final point comes from Ruth Battersby Tooke, Curator of Costume and Textiles at Norfolk Museums Service. Certainly austerity was a catalyst in inspiring ‘Pin Money’, a project developed by Ruth through the MA Transformers programme (and also partly supported by SHARED Enterprise). Tasked with becoming ‘more entrepreneurial’ and looking for a different angle on product development, Ruth came up with the idea of working with designers and makers to produce a bespoke, high-end range of desirable products based on the collections. Using collections as inspiration for students, Ruth has developed the idea further, in partnership with Norwich University of the Arts. In an age when everything, from shopping to salad to social media is curated, Ruth asks, what role do curators have? That sounds like a ‘wicked question’ to me, and Ruth has certainly been doing lots of ‘upside-down’ thinking to find her creative response.
These are challenging times, and without doubt there are many more challenges to come for museums of all types and sizes. There are no magic solutions, but there are ways we can help ourselves. Ask yourselves the questions. Examine them from a different angle. Think about ways of working in partnership within your communities, and ways to raise your profile. Raising the profile of museums in our communities is something we can all do, and we must. It can be as simple as talking to our visitors or telling your good news to the press. It can be about asking your community to help you. Best of all, it can be doing something to help your community.
Need help getting started with a collections review or rationalisation project? Grants of up to £1000 to support this work are available from SHARE Museums East.
We are pleased to announce the launch of our annual grants scheme for project delivery between mid November 2015 and March 2016. Applications are welcomed from Accredited museums, and those working towards Accreditation in the East of England.
Visit our Funding & Grants page to find out more.
As part of our 2015-18 activity plan we are working closely with the county Museum Development Officers to support museums with their forward planning process. This support comes in two forms:
- Two forward planning seminars (Saffron Walden Museum on 28th October and Stevenage Museum on 5th November)
- Small grants of up to £1000 (deadline for applications 5pm on Friday 20th November)
The seminars, delivered by experienced museum consultant Sam Hunt, will offer advice and guidance on making the most of the forward planning process, practical help with involving your staff, volunteers and stakeholders, advice on Accreditation requirements and further sources of support. Click the links below for further information and booking:
We will also be offering guidance on applying for an Effective Forward Planning grant. Visit the Grants & Funding page for further information and to download the grants guidance document and an application form.
Governance case study: dealing with complex board structures
The Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History
Jamie Everitt and Harry Yates
The Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History in Norfolk opened in 1987 and is the only surviving town gas works in England and Wales. The volunteer-run museum demonstrates the complete process of making town gas, and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
After early negotiations to place the organisation in the care of the Science Museum failed, Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust (NHBT) was asked to take on the museum. It entered into a 125-year lease with the landlord British Gas (now National Grid) in 1986, but did not feel able to run the museum itself.
In the same year, Fakenham Town Gas Works Museum Trust was set up as a charitable company limited by guarantee to run the site under a management agreement with NHBT.
The museum trust’s governance arrangements are unusually complex. Its trustees are all representatives of other corporate bodies, including NHBT and National Grid. If these two organisations are not represented at meetings, then these are considered inquorate regardless of the number of other attendees.
When the museum was awarded its Accreditation by Arts Council England in 2012 it was asked to review its governance structures. However, the ill health of the chairman and the reluctance of key trustees to commit to meaningful discussion meant the review process stalled.
Two years later it became apparent that substantial funds were needed to repair and conserve serious deterioration to the building and production equipment.
An exploratory meeting was held with the Heritage Lottery Fund, which indicated that the museum’s governance was considered high risk, and would need restructuring to give a reasonable chance of funding success.
At this point Jamie Everitt, the museums development officer (MDO) for Norfolk, offered support and £1,200 funding from the SHARE Museums East development programme. The museum’s trustees agreed and appointed consultant Julie Cole to carry out a governance review, make recommendations for change and create a draft governance arrangement.
With support from Everitt, Cole worked with a small sub-group of two trustees and the museum’s manager, Harry Yates. She recommended that the museum trust should transfer to charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) status, terminate the management arrangements with NHBT, and take on the lease of the site directly with National Grid.
These were presented to a full directors’ meeting and approved earlier this year.
Cole also put together a draft CIO constitution. Fine tuning of this has taken a further four months but was been signed off by the trust in July. It will need to be formally approved by NHBT before it can be submitted to the Charity Commission.
Once this has been achieved, detailed work to transfer the lease directly with National Grid can begin.
Funding for the governance review was limited and paid for three days of consultancy time, but a great deal has been achieved. The project has proved that this work does not have to be expensive provided the right conditions are in place.
The keys to success were:
- Museum Accreditation, which was a vital tool for identifying areas for improvement and driving change.
- The trustees recognition that the museum’s sustainability was at stake unless governance arrangements changed, and their willingness to engage with the project.
- Identifying a core group of directors and volunteers who had the knowledge to inform the consultant effectively.
- A briefing with the consultant and guidance from the MDO before the review took place.
- Having a key member of the museum team take on responsibility of editing the new constitution and coordinating responses from the directors.
- Appointing a consultant who had detailed knowledge of charitable governance and could work quickly, but and also had the personal skills to engage effectively with trustees.
The main challenge has been having to approve recommendations at quarterly board meetings, which has limited the speed of progress. Email discussions are useful but cannot take the place of face-to-face debate, and not everyone likes to comment or engage by email.
There is much work still to do but solid progress has been made in the course of just over six months. The restructuring of the trust is moving forward; the trust will meet with the National Grid this month and the draft constitution will be submitted to the NHBT at its AGM in September.
Happily, the project has coincided with National Grid starting to take greater interest in its historic property and encouraging initial discussions have already been held.
Jamie Everitt is the MDO for Norfolk and Harry Yates is the director of Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History.
This article was originally published in Museum Practice on 17th August 2015 and is available to members and subscribers HERE.
The SHARE Museums East 2015-16 training calendar is now live and open for bookings. We’re excited to be offering over 80 events this year, including our ever popular training courses and workshops as well as conferences and seminars.
Costume & Textile Network training session, 2014
As always, this year’s calendar has been made possible by the generous donations of time, venues and expertise from museum colleagues around the region. As well as tapping into the wealth of knowledge we have here in the East, we are excited to welcome national figures, including Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association, William Brown, National Security Adviser for Arts Council England, and Vernon Rapley, Security Director at the V&A.
Our main event, the 5th Annual SHARE Conference, will take place on 16th November 2015, and we are delighted to announce that the National Trust will be hosting us this year at the beautiful Ickworth House in Bury St Edmunds.
SHARE Conference 2014
On the strength of the success of its first year, the Heritage Lottery Fund has agreed to extend the life of SHARED Enterprise to finish in January 2017 instead of June 2016. This means we are able to offer additional SHARED Enterprise training activities during 2015-16, including a free one-day conference at the Museum of London with Hampshire Cultural Trust sharing key learning from both HLF Catalyst Projects.
Click here to visit the full calendar.
You can also download a PDF version of the course list to print and share with colleagues.
We look forward to seeing you at one of our events soon.
Following on from his recent presentation to the Association for Suffolk Museums AGM, SHARE Museums East has invited Philip Wise, Heritage Manager at Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, to share some reflections on museum Accreditation. This blog represents his personal opinion.
Recently I was delighted to be asked to present Accreditation certificates to several Suffolk museums at the AGM of the Association for Suffolk Museums. This was held at Brockford Station, the home of the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway. The ‘Middy’ as it is affectionately known is a peach of a museum. I must confess here to being an enthusiast for heritage railways; it’s in the blood I suppose as two of my ancestors were railwaymen. More significantly however the ‘Middy’ is also an Accredited museum.
• Celebrating Accreditation achievements at the Association for Suffolk Museums AGM, Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, on 25 June 2015. Photograph by Chris Morris.
Accreditation provokes a range of reactions out there in the museum world. Some feel that Accreditation is not for them, regarding it as being a very bureaucratic process with no tangible benefits. Others recognise the importance of Accreditation as a means of raising standards and promoting the value of museums in society.
It will come as no surprise I’m sure to learn that I am firmly in the latter camp and am a passionate supporter of Accreditation. In this I can claim some knowledge as I engage with Accreditation in three ways: as a member of the Accreditation Committee which makes award decisions on applications (or returns) from museums across the UK, as a senior manager in a large local authority museum service who is responsible for ensuring that his museums remain within the Accreditation Scheme and as a Museum Mentor who encourages and supports a self-funding independent museum in achieving Accreditation.
So why Accreditation is important? Using the Arts Council’s six headings I would suggest the following:
Performance: All who manage or work in museums have a responsibility to achieve the highest possible standards that their resources of money and people will allow. There should be no exceptions and excuses.
Profile: Accreditation provides an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of your museum, boost its reputation and encourage visitors to come and see what you have to offer.
People: We should remember that museums are about people, and that those who visit or use our services are as important as those who work in museums.
Partnerships: Even at a local level and on a small scale museums can and do cooperate. In the present financial climate we can’t afford to ignore this aspect of our work.
Planning: Writing a forward plan can be a demanding activity which some will be reluctant to do and yet as with performance this should be an accepted part of running a museum.
Patronage: A funding application will always be strengthened if it comes from a museum that is Accredited.
Some have criticised the scheme for the ‘mountains of paperwork’. It is true that Accreditation does require a number of policies, plans and procedural manuals to be in place and up to date. However, it is important to remember that Arts Council has a very different level of expectation regarding a return from a national museum as compared to that from a local museum. With Accreditation size does matter!
Others have criticised what they regard as the dilatoriness of the Arts Council. The published assessment target is five months from point of application or return to the confirmation of a decision. Where it is known that this target will not be met Arts Council ensures that it maintains a dialogue with the museum concerned. Typical reasons for not meeting the target include where Assessors face particularly challenging cases or where an applicant does not provide the necessary information to complete an assessment.
Fundamentally I think that there is a real difference in the nature of an Accredited as compared with a non-Accredited museum. A non-Accredited museum may be characterised as being like a private collection where the focus is solely on the present moment and access is allowed to the public as a secondary consideration. Such museums, particularly if they contain community history items, do not fully appreciate that they have a real responsibility to present and future generations to preserve knowledge as represented by real objects. To use an old fashioned term what I am talking about here is ‘Stewardship’, which may be defined as the acceptance or assignment of responsibility to shepherd and safeguard the valuables of others. By contrast an Accredited museum fully lives up to its responsibilities to society, has a long term view and recognizes the importance of the visitor experience.
I am pleased to be able to write that Accreditation is thriving in the East of England. The latest statistics, which cover the period between November 2013 and November 2014, show that we have 161 museums in the Accreditation Scheme which represents a slight increase over the previous twelve months. Nationally we have 12.2% of Accredited museums and are in third place behind the South East (17.7%) and the South West (14.7%). With your help we could do even better in 2015 and perhaps challenge for second place.
Finally let’s return to millstones. What does a millstone do? It takes a raw ingredient, grain, and makes it into something that we can use, flour. In the same way Accreditation exists as a framework that you, and all other museum workers paid or volunteer, can use to take a collection of stuff and convert into something which benefits society. So Accreditation is a mark of success; not a millstone but a milestone.