In our latest guest blog, David Blackburn, Trustee at the Cambridge Museum of Technology, tells the story of the emergence of a new network for SHARE Museums East.
Breaking Out Of The Shell: A Year In The Life of H.E.N.
David Blackburn (Cambridge Museum of Technology)
So there I was in a SHARE advisers meeting in Cambridge – MDOs, Regional Conservators – all sorts of professionals – and someone said “How about a SHARE Network for all these places with working engineering collections?”
As a long-time volunteer in such places, now also involved in trying to run a museum with an engineering collection, that really made me prick up my ears. I just knew that there are all sorts of special issues when you try to operate in a proper museum context with working exhibits. The sort of things that are big, hot, heavy, dangerous, or any combination of the above.
How important is it to keep this vehicle/engine/machine actually operating? What happens if we wear it out/break it? How do we maintain the skills needed to run stuff properly, and keep it running? How do we work safely? What if the key volunteer leaves or moves on? How do we make the best for the museum of all that enthusiasm shown by the specialist member of the team who only really wants to play with the toys? How do I persuade the management that restoring this object really is important?
So I put my hand up and said that I’d try to set up such a network. SHARE Museums East offered money for a trial. It comforted me to know that I could count on the SHARE community to help me as I tried to see whether this idea could fly. For me, it had to include both sides of the story – museum professionals (like curators) and the volunteers who so often are vital to the success of working museums. SHARE could give me access to both groups, and I hoped that we could address some of the tensions which arise between them.
My first step was to look for some senior sponsorship for the idea. I was fortunate that a senior member of our community was all in favour – she knew exactly where I was coming from and unhesitatingly lent her name and support as I tried to canvass across the region. MDOs and their equivalents were next – they really have their ears to the ground in their various patches and weren’t too hard to convince. They could identify possible target organisations and all offered me lists of names and/or contacts. Then I hit the email and got what I thought was an encouraging set of responses.
Now we moved on to a “launch event”. My museum would provide the venue and lunch (paid for by SHARE). We’d have a couple of presentations from our people, both professional and volunteer, and a tour to show the kind of things we do, some of the issues we face, and how we deal with them. Then we’d wrap up with an open discussion about what others thought was important and a decision on whether to continue. Twenty six people turned up, from eleven organisations, and we unanimously decided that we should carry on. We’d have meetings about once a quarter, moving from museum to museum, and we’d follow the same kind of format – presentations, a tour, lunch and an open discussion. Presentation topics would initially be drawn from the “hot list” we’d made at the launch. Most important, a couple of attendees (now members of the new network) offered to host future meetings. We seemed to be off and running.
Over the next couple of meetings, another important feature of the network emerged. Rather than have things driven solely by the network co-ordinator (me), members agreed that it would be useful to form a small steering group from among their number. Four or five people offered to take part, and from my point of view, have been essential in sketching out the development of the network and proposing ideas at meetings. We’ve also set up an email list (to which all members subscribe for free) to convey notices and reports of meetings and anything else of interest to members.
We’ve so far held five meetings across the SHARE region, with a sixth planned. Eighteen organisations have been represented, with an average attendance of twenty seven people. A significant training event is in development for 2014. Also important for me, we’ve agreed that another museum will take over co-ordination for the next year.
I think we’ve well and truly hatched.