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.

Museum Resilience: Where do we go from here?

Today’s blog has been written by David Holgate-Carruthers, a Teaching Museum Trainee with Norfolk Museums Service. David has worked on a range of successful community history projects at the Museum of Norwich since April 2017 and attended the SHARE Conference in Bedford this November.

How do we respond to adversity? In the face of change, who do we want to become? And when so much is being cut back, what do we feel is essential to hold on to?

These were the kinds of questions being asked at this year’s annual SHARE conference. It was hosted in Bedford, split across three amazing heritage sites: The John Bunyan Museum and Free Church, The Panacea Museum, and The Higgins Bedford. They sit together in a rough triangle; a huddle of historic buildings rich with culture and story. Delegates had the opportunity to visit all three. They explored the headquarters of a unique religious community, followed in the footsteps of the author of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and lost themselves in the beautiful collections begun by brewer, politician and local mayor Cecil Higgins during the 1800s.

The Bunyan Church, Bedford

The main event, held in the meeting hall of the Bunyan church, saw delegates gathered to hear speakers from across the museum sector addressing a wide range of topics. It was a busy day with a high turnout, where all of those gathered had a lot to discuss.

Norfolk Museum Service’s Teaching Museum trainees were invited to be a part of running the day, giving us the opportunity to see behind the scenes as we helped to set up and deliver the conference. Our traineeships have given us a very wide scope of experience, but I had never before been involved with the delivery of such a large event. There’s an impressive amount of very careful planning and a whole host of logistical questions that I would have never even thought of. Working with the SHARE team has been an invaluable part of this year, providing me with a lot of working knowledge to carry forwards. Thinking about that point at the end of this traineeship, it’s an interesting time to be setting out into the culture and heritage industry.

It’s no great secret that, all across the country, many services are struggling. Museums are no different and the themes of this year’s conference reflected that. The focus was on change, how to navigate it, and how to ensure resilience.

The Panacea Museum, Bedford

The Museum Association 2017 report writes that ‘64 museums in the UK have closed since 2010 [and that] the majority of closures are the result of reduced public funding’ with a ‘31% real-terms cut in local authority funding since 2010’ for museums in England and a similar story for those in devolved nations.

Against this backdrop, amidst cuts and the politics of austerity, you would be forgiven for imagining that the atmosphere of this conference was bleak, bearing grim tidings. There were certainly plenty of stark, striking statistics, but the voices that filled the hall weren’t despondent.

Speakers told of experiences at both a micro and macro level, where stories of individual responses to challenges stood alongside broader questions of strategy and ambition. The first keynote speaker, Julia Kaufmann, raised the issue of how change requires careful balance between internal and external influences, asking to what extent we try to anticipate change and to what extent any adaptation is reactive. With each successive speaker, we heard interesting, varied takes on the same key question: What should the museums of the future look like?

Megan Dennis, Museums Change Lives

For me, Megan Dennis’ focus on the MA campaign Museums Change Lives was particularly inspiring; at a time when the future seems increasingly uncertain, having an awareness of our past is all the more important for people. Engagement can strengthen bonds and ensure that people feel rooted, and we are in a unique position in museums to have a tangible, positive effect on wellbeing within communities.

It would also be unforgiveable not to mention Bernard Donoghue’s closing keynote speech, exploring the shape of excellence in visitor attractions and reminding us all of the importance of sex, death, gin and chocolate. I came away from the day driven, not defeated, full of ideas and ambition, knowing that resilience doesn’t equal inflexibility. It doesn’t mean hunkering down, or weathering out the storm, but is the strength and tenacity to adapt and to constantly question. If you couldn’t make it to this year’s conference, I’d definitely recommend that you get yourself to the next.

The unforgettable Bernard Donoghue

Images from the 2017 SHARE Conference

Below are photographs from the SHARE Conference that took place at Bunyan Meeting Church, Bedford on 6th November 2017. If you wish to use any of these images, please credit SHARE Museums East / Norfolk Museums Service.

If you would like a copy of any of these images in a higher resolution, please contact joseph.hoyle@norfolk.gov.uk.

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