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.
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?
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.
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.