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 ruth.burwood@norfolk.gov.uk  

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