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!
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s blog is written by Phoebe Wingate, a trainee on Norfolk Museums Service ‘Teaching Museum‘ scheme.
My relationship with History as a subject is a rather turbulent story. At Middle School I had a fantastic teacher by the name of Mr Holzer. His lessons were full of story-telling and as a class we always hoped for a chance to use the giant dressing-up basket in the corner of the room. Continuing this inspirational introduction was a Scottish historian and I, at age 14, imagined he spent his spare time roaming the Highlands, fully kilted and blue of face. These early engaging characters were a tough act to follow though and at High School I feel out of love with the subject; lost in dry facts and dates that refused to be anchored to events.
So how on earth did I find myself, over 20 years later, on a traineeship with Norfolk Museums? Public engagement has always been at the core of my work but it had never occurred to me to work in museums due to my scientific background. Several months ago a number of friends and family pointed out the teaching museum programme and encouraged by their support I applied. Now 4 months into the training, I still feel incredibly lucky. It is hard work and full-on but I get to be involved in amazing projects and gain experience with a fantastic team.
One of our recent training days saw us exploring some of the independent museums in the county: first stop, the Museum of the Broads. Here we met with museum curator, Nicola Hems, who talked about the history of the site, as well as the trials and tribulations of being a small independent museum. As we chatted her volunteers were desperately working on the most prized item in their collection; a Victorian steam boat called ‘Falcon’. The BBC were due the following day to film Timothy West and Prunella Scales aboard as part of the series Great Canal journeys – at the time ‘Falcon’ was producing dubious splutters.
Trainees with MoB curator, Nicola, Regional Museums Development Manager, Jamie Everitt and Teaching Museum Manager, Sarah Gore at the Museum of the Broads.
The collections on display in this picturesque museum tell the story of life on the Broads; including Viking marauders, boat builders and holidaymakers. It houses boats of all sorts, from a strict interpretation such as racing yachts to more nutty waterborne inventions. The museum also boasts an engaging display of boat toilets…
Top left; ‘Nutty Slack’, a water bicycle used in recovery of bodies from the river. Top right; Steam boat ‘Falcon’ getting some TLC from the MoB vols.
As we were leaving to the more encouraging sounds of a putt-putting steam boat, we wove our way Northwest to meet Philip Miles, the manager of Sheringham Museum. The building, found nestled in the cliff face, is home to several lifeboats as well as collections that focus on the local fishing industry and townspeople. The temporary exhibition of Gansey patterns installed throughout the museum adds another dimension and has been well received, pulling in audiences from as far as Japan. As Philip took us through the rollercoaster experience of making this museum a success, we all picked up on his passion and his team’s efforts.
The Dutch Gansey exhibition features over 60 different patterns as well as few of Sheringham’s own.
The final visit on our tour was to Fakenham Gas and Local History Museum where we were greeted by the enigmatic Harry. Solely run by volunteers, the museum is housed in the only complete town gasworks in the country, and is a treasure trove for engineer enthusiasts.
Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local Life
These museums are incredibly different; a relic of the industrial revolution; a reflection on past and present holiday industries; a reveal of the fishing heritage and courageous lifeboat men. But they also share a common ground; they all have a team of dedicated, passionate people (a theme that crops up time and time again). The more I come to learn of museums, the more I am reminded of those characters who engaged me all those years ago.
This week, Ruth Burwood (Museum Development Project Officer for Collections) reflects on the highs and lows of collections review and rationalisation, and shares some top tips…
I once had a dream that I was in a museum store auditing a box of men’s collars. The brown acid-free box that I opened contained more boxes. Some were smaller, older, brown boxes, with scratchy biro writing on. Others were presumably the original round boxes that some of the collars had once been stored in by their owner. There were also loose collars stacked inside one another, still starched and stiff; some with accession numbers on. As I started to work my way through the box I read the accession numbers aloud. “19220.127.116.11”…worried I had mis-read the number, I tried again, ”No wait, 3.3.1”…”No, 18.104.22.168”…”No, hang on, 22.214.171.124.1…”. I woke in a troubled state, soon made worse by the realisation that the box of collars did not just exist in my dreams, but was an actual nightmare waiting for me at work to resolve.
Shoes! All photographed, catalogued and labelled. The work of one volunteer who reviewed the collection.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE auditing collections. I have even been known to gleefully sing, “I love to audit, audit” to the tune of the song “I love to move it move it”. But there was a dark moment that morning when my colleague found me with a sob in my throat, surrounded by 138 men’s collars, some of which had the correct accession number, and most of which were not in the correct corresponding box. For the first time in a collections management project, I nearly gave up. No-one had sorted the problem for the previous 30 years, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to just put the lid back on the box and put it back on the shelf. It was in good condition, the collection fitted nicely into the box, and was causing no harm to anyone. Except me. And here is the first lesson: a friend and colleague once said…”Let’s make sure we always leave the box (or record) in a better state than how we found it.” With this attitude, you can chip away at a review or backlog every day. It might take longer, but you can be safe in the knowledge that you have saved another curator in the future some time. So fuelled by some steely determination that there was scope to reduce the number of collars, and ultimately save space in the store, I ate some biscuits and went back to work.
WARNING! Collections review is not always fun. Here, a colleague crouches under a snow-laden tarpaulin, examining old farming equipment.
Because the truth is, reviewing and rationalising collections IS a responsible part of being a curator. Yes, it’s time consuming and can feel massively overwhelming, but the outcome is actually just what the public think we have achieved already. Most people are blissfully unaware that once they have donated an object to a museum, there is a complex but important sequence of tasks needed before it is happily united with a unique number and corresponding database record including location. The donor has no idea that they have just added another item to a collection that is trying to catch up with itself. Indeed, only those that work in collections management really understand what a backlog is and the history of why it happens – no extension numbers added here, a temporary number there, an incorrect label, a missing location.
Guaranteed to raise a groan…someone has labelled an object with NN, meaning “No Number”.
Others may mock us for obsessing with systems, but it is such a delicate sequence that if things get missed, it quickly becomes a problem for everyone. And there is nothing funny about being confronted with someone asking to see an object you can’t find. Falling behind with accessioning new (or rediscovered) objects may have started 10, 20 or 30 years before in your museum, but before I start laying the blame at the feet of our predecessors, here is lesson number 2: you may not have created the backlog, but you can stop adding to it. Stop! It’s tough, and yes, it might be that you don’t have that particular example and the donor has threatened to burn it if you don’t take it off their hands, but the trick is to stop the offer getting in the building before you see it. Tell the front desk staff, tell the trustees…just say NO! (but nicely, and add, “thank you for thinking of us”).
Object waiting to be accessioned, or discarded curatorial clothing? No-one knew. The cardigan hung there for years…
I remember when we announced we were going to attempt a particular audit, one colleague laughed, “Good luck with that!” and another made a comment that the idea of knowing what you had and where it was, was a bit like the search for the Holy Grail. The collections management database contained around 26,000 records. We knew there was more in the stores than that. Despite being met with some cynicism, I am pleased to report Reader, that we did it. I say “we”…it took 8 years and many staff and volunteers, but the collections database now pretty accurately reflects a collection of over 40,000 items, each with an up-to-date location and improved record. The work has unlocked the collections. Not only did the disposal and compaction programme create much needed storage space, we re-discovered some real gems. Staff and volunteers learnt more about the collections, new research projects were identified, and more members of the public were able to access the items in store.
Showing off – a MODES grid in use to track assessment, protocol, and eventual disposal of items. Beautiful.
Now, if these numbers are making you think, “Pah! They clearly had lots of people and experts and time and money”, then compared to some museums, you would be right. But this is my final lesson: it is possible. It is possible to know what you have and where it is. Don’t just take my word for it, there are lots of museums of different sizes that have reviewed, assessed and rationalised parts of their collections. I have even met one small volunteer-run museum in our region who has cleared their backlog entirely. It is possible.
But wait, I have one more vital piece of wisdom, let’s call it 3.1…HELP IS AT HAND. Whether planning an audit or thinking about disposal, your mentor (if you have one), MDO and myself are all here to assist and advise. There are resources on the SHARE website to guide you through the process of rationalisation, and we will be running more training on the theme in our 2017-18 programme. The Collections Trust have an excellent range of advice sheets and information on their website, and are going to be focussing on helping museums to clear their backlogs as a priority. For those of you that are already thinking about getting some expert advice on a collection, or planning a storage move, SHARE Museums East are currently offering Collections Review and Rationalisation grants of up to £2000 to accredited museums in the region. Visit the page to find out more.
On 21st January 2015, around 80 delegates gathered at Hughes Hall, Cambridge, for the first ever SHARE and UCM Collections Care Conference. Ellie Ohara Anderson, UCM Intern, gives us her thoughts on the day.
Hello. My name is Ellie Ohara Anderson. I am in my final year of the MSc degree ‘Conservation for Archaeology and Museums’ at University College London. Since September 2014 I have been with the University of Cambridge Museums for my 10-month conservation internship.
I am expected to experience a wide range of conservation activities during the internship and attending conferences is one of them. So, I was grateful for the opportunity to go to the first SHARE & University of Cambridge Museums Conference on Collections Care in Cambridge on 21 January 2015.
The conference opened with a warm welcome by Simon Floyd (SHARE) and Julie Dawson (Fitzwilliam Museum). Both Simon and Julie thanked Deborah Walton (University of Cambridge Museums Regional Conservation Officer) for thinking up and organising the unusual conference programme. As the title Getting in the Cornerssuggests, the day lifted the lid on collections’ issues that tend to be shelved away somewhere in the corner of museums – but which everyone knows need to be tackled!
The first speaker was Quinton Carroll (Cambridgeshire County Council Historic Environment Team). He talked about solving the problem of storing a huge quantity of archaeological material by outsourcing to a commercial storage company. While outsourcing sounds a bit radical for traditional museums, the Council’s solution is not so different from many museums’ off-site storage spaces. The key is, as Quinton said, to have a very good catalogue so that you can pinpoint and retrieve individual items without opening boxes.
Sandra Freshney (Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences) told us how to approach piles of accumulated paper-based documents. She provided resource contacts for professional advice, funding, training, and record management. Her practical tips included ways to minimize physical damage to documents as well as a list of packaging materials for document storage.
Presentations shifted from archives to dealing with the museum building when it is an historical object in its own right. Jenny Mathiasson (University of Cambridge Museums) and Clare Hunt (Southend Museums Service) presented their personal experiences of how historic buildings work as display spaces. They showed how, through careful visual arrangement and sensitive placement of information, it is possible to engage visitors whilst preserving the identity and fabric of the building.
Chris Knapp (Imperial War Museum Duxford) touched on the ethical issues of conservation and curation of huge working objects, such as aeroplanes. There is no simple answer to decide what stage of an object’s history should be restored, and just how much restoration will be needed or acceptable.
The afternoon session was all about how to deal with museum objects that contain hazardous materials – from poisons to explosives!
Laura Ratcliffe (freelance conservator) gave the wise advice ‘Don’t Panic’! A hazards survey is a useful tool for getting to know your collections and planning further steps. As all the afternoon speakers emphasized, the ultimate concern has to be museum workers’ and visitors’ health and safety.
Larry Carr (Science Museums Group) discussed how to maintain a collection of hazardous chemicals that have historical significance. His talk included an impressive video of the controlled burn of a dangerous chemical by experts, whilst museum staff filmed from a safe distance!
Derek Brain presented case studies showing how arsenic and asbestos, two of the most common hazardous chemicals in museum collections, are managed by Birmingham Museums Trust. Martin Adlem (independent health and safety adviser) summarized some of the legal and operational requirements for dealing with hazardous collections and the importance of proper risk assessment.
The conference closed with a Q&A session with the panel of hazards experts – an opportunity to discuss common concerns and seek advice and reassurance. The conference provided not just an occasion to learn new things, but also lots of networking among the museums.
I appreciated all the speakers who shared their knowledge and expertise through their personal experiences. I particularly enjoyed the drop-in workshop sessions held by the morning speakers where I could ask questions in a relaxed atmosphere and get some practice by taking Sandra’s ’15 Minute Archive Repacking Challenge!’.
It was clear to me that every attendee aspired to raise the quality of collections care with their colleagues within each museum and through the resources provided by the SHARE network and University of Cambridge Museums. I found it very inspiring, and I look forward to the 2nd Collections Care conference next year!
Ellie Ohara Anderson, Conservation Intern of Antiquities, University of Cambridge Museums