AfCE Convention, Edinburgh 2017

This weeks’ guest blog comes from Sheridanne Reynolds, Retail and Garden Project Volunteer at the Higgins Museum and Art Gallery.

I volunteer at The Higgins Bedford and in February I was asked if I would be interested in attending the Association for Cultural Enterprises convention in March. I was lucky enough to receive a bursary from SHARE Museums East and off I went with a little trepidation of what was awaiting me and the weight of representing our museum and art gallery.

                                     The Higgins, Bedford

AfCE ” is an association of Members and Associate Members who are passionate about their work in the cultural and heritage sector” whose  “aim is to promote commercial best practice in the cultural and heritage sector by providing training and networking opportunities and facilitating the sharing of information and experience between members.” One of the many events they organise is the annual convention and trade fair which this year was to be held in Edinburgh.

In preparation I read the aims of the convention from the AfCE website, discussed what we as a museum wanted to get out of it and combined these aims after which I poured over the convention timetable to find the most appropriate sessions.

As a museum we are in the process of streamlining our retail products so that we reflect our permanent collections, ongoing exhibitions/projects and local area better and then to build cohesive ranges for each of those areas. This convention would be ideal for honing our ideas by:

  • Learning from those who know by attending sessions about developing product ranges
  • Sourcing products and services by meeting suppliers and seeing a wide variety of product ranges
  • Extending the network of influential contacts by meeting people from throughout the heritage and cultural sector
  • Providing inspiration. Edinburgh is a beautiful city and I arrived early enough to have a couple of hours to walk round and admire it and take some photos. I got back in time to change and make my way to The Fruitmarket Gallery for the drinks reception which was crowded noisy and buzzing with anticipation of an exciting convention ahead. I didn’t get to meet up with anyone I knew from SHARE but I did chat with some very friendly people and was able to raise a glass to Howard Hodgkin with everyone, one of whose pieces is in our current exhibition Picasso and the Masters of Print and which I knew would have really pleased the curator of that exhibition, Victoria. After lunch, sited in the middle of the trade fair, the afternoon was taken up with four more sessions of talks, each which had a choice of three. So many of them sounded interesting, but I kept to my aims of attending those relating to retail and developing product ranges.Wednesday had more time for visiting the trade show to hunt for suitable products and chat to suppliers who were all really helpful and friendly. There were three more sessions of talks to choose from plus a fourth session from the International Speaker, Stuart Hata, director of retail operations, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and president of the MSA, the Museum Stores Association. The Chair’s Summary wrapped up all the themes of the convention and bid everyone farewell until Brighton next year urging us to go out and be brave, provocative, risk-taking and aggressive as that’s what can bring about change for the good.The sessions I attended were
  • The overall feeling of the conference was one of friendliness combined with enthusiasm to get the most out of the two days. Regardless of status everyone was keen to share knowledge and answer questions. I had felt quite nervous about attending being only a volunteer, but everyone was so welcoming and eager to listen as well as to share that I gained one thing from attending this convention that I had not expected and that was confidence in my role.
  • After the sessions it was a rush to get back to the hotel to change and then walk across the city to the National Museum of Scotland where everyone was piped in to the drinks reception on the ground floor. The meal was upstairs under the high glass roof and it was a beautiful place for a dinner. The tables were mixed with people from other areas, but that was no barrier to conversation and everyone enjoyed the evening, which after the Best Product Awards were handed out, ended with music and dancing.
  • On Tuesday morning everyone descended on the Corn Exchange by bus, train or taxi which divided everyone up by their approach to life according to Caroline Brown, Chair of ACE, in her Welcome speech. The morning passed with registration, Fresher’s meeting, Welcome, “The Big Picture”, by Dr Bridget McConnell, chief executive of Glasgow Life, which made me want to visit Glasgow, coffee, a first foray into the trade show, Question time and an excited meeting up with other members from SHARE, including the other recipients of a bursary. Liz and Denise from Gainsborough House and Palace House were amazing, they were generous with their advice, offers of help and introductions and as much time from them as we wanted and their excitement and enjoyment of the whole thing was infectious.
  • Even the train journey up to Edinburgh was exciting and seeing iconic landmarks such as the Kilburn White Horse, Durham Cathedral, The Angel of the North, the Tyne bridge, Sage Gateshead and Holy Island with its scaffold encased castle and Lindisfarne Abbey infused the trip with heritage and culture before even reaching Edinburgh.
  • Exposed! The restored Mary Rose Shop is back , Paul Griffiths, The Mary Rose
  • The Secret Garden – RHS licensing rejuvenated, Cathy Snow, The RHS
  • Developing an artisan & craft range for the National Trust, Genevieve Sioka, The National Trust
  • Originality by design, Adam Throw, The Barbican
  • A Museum Store world, Stuart Hata
  • How to create a practical digital strategy, Simon Hopkins, Turner Hopkins
  • Visual Matters – unlocking the potential of your shop through visual merchandising, Lynda Murray, International Visual

National Museum of Scotland

I feel I gained more than just meeting our aims. The whole experience was motivating, inspiring and thought provoking and maybe I won’t be able to put many of the ideas into practice now, but I have been inspired and the ideas and processes will stay with me, developing and waiting for the time they can be used best.

The words and phrases that reverberate from the sessions I attended that I will keep with me are

Relevance, lighting, local connection, authenticity, pop-up shops, storytelling, UK, distinctive, style guide, customisation, social media, museum store Sunday, persona exercises, flow, user journey, title, focal points, colour, sense of place, own brand merchandising, artisan and products that reflect the place.

Thank you SHARE Museums East and The Higgins Bedford for giving me such an inspiring experience.


Museum Mentoring: A Recipe for Success!

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  

A Night to Remember! The SHARE Volunteer Awards

With Volunteer Awards season just round the corner, we’ve been speaking to Niki Hughes, a founding member of the scheme in 2015, and integral part of it’s steering group today.

In the atmospheric surroundings of the Fitzwilliam Museum, the second annual SHARE Volunteer Awards took place on 9th June 2016. This event coincided with National Volunteer Week, and was intended to celebrate the hard work that Volunteers had carried out across the region. 69 nominations were received from all sorts of museums, with staff taking the opportunity to say a big “thank you” to their dedicated teams.

The SHARE team and Awards Steering Committee deliberated hard to ensure that each category reflected the vast array of activities that volunteers had undertook. Every museum was invited to think about both individuals and teams to nominate.

Every nominee was invited to the event. A full range of volunteers heard about activities and  achievements from across the region. It was great to see a mixture of glad rags and overalls sipping drinks and chatting in the opulence of the Impressionist Gallery!

We are hoping that the Awards will continue to grow; this year’s event will take place on Thursday 8 June and will be hosted at the beautiful Museum of East Anglian Life. Nominations will open from 23rd February and everyone is encouraged to think about who they could nominate for these awards. After all, you have to be in it to win it!

Niki Hughes, Opening Doors Project Coordinator, University of Cambridge Museums

Share Front of House Forum: Fresh Beginnings

Hollie, an intern at the Fitzwilliam Museum, shares her experiences from the Front of House Forum’s latest event that took place at Palace House.

Taking part in the Share Front of House Forum held at Palace House in Newmarket was a fantastic opportunity to interact with museum staff from a range of museums across a variety of disciplines, and to share ideas on how to deal with change in the museum context.

As an intern, it was eye-opening for me to hear about how different museums have tackled change; whether it be a change to the museum’s collection; a physical change to the space and the site in which the museum is located, or dealing with a change in how the museum is perceived by the visiting public. It was great to make new connections with other museums at this early stage in my career, and picking up new techniques along the way was all part of the fun.

Never did I think hopping around the room together could be a relevant exercise in museum practice! But, in fact, our taster session on body language with Aimee Clarke from Ickworth House was a really enlightening lesson in how to improve our social interactions with the visiting public.

The overall ethos of the day was one of mucking in together; change is constantly occurring in museums and can sometimes be a very complicated process, but if we all work together to complete even those smallest of tasks, like changing a lightbulb, our museums will become even more successful for it.

Culture 24’s Action Research Projects : Epping Forest District and Lowewood Museum

Thanks to funding from SHARE Museums East, Epping Forest District and Lowewood Museums were able to take part in one of Culture 24’s Action Research Projects. The focus of this project has been to explore how arts and heritage organisations can get better reach and engage young audiences with their digital content. 19 arts and heritage organisations have been working on the project, running a variety of different experiments. The results of these will be put together in a report produced by Culture 24 and accessible to organisations.


Lowewood blue

Francesca Pellegrino, Audience Development Officer at Epping Forest District Museum, tells us more.

Epping Forest District and Lowewood Museum’s experiment.

Each organisation worked with a mentor to develop an experiment suited to their organisation. For us we were keen to work with secondary schools as this is an underrepresented group for our service. Trialling a project that might be able to work for this age group was really important.

So our experiment was:

“To run a one-day digital making workshop with a group of 15 secondary school students, to bring a display object to life, as a pilot for developing an ongoing programme for secondary schools.”

After attending a SHARE training session on digital technology and piloting its use in an exhibition at Lowewood Museum (curated by our Youth Panel), this seemed an obvious way to go.


What happened:

15 pupils from two local secondary schools visited the museum for a one-day workshop, bringing museum objects to life using digital technology. In 4 groups they each came up with ways to make their chosen objects more interactive. These included touchboards, sound, voice recordings and instructions. It became clear that the pupils wanted objects to to speak, rather than just reading information about the object.


What did the young people say:

“I like creating workshops like this and creating new devices as well as looking round the museum”

“Experimenting with new things and creative technology”


What else they would like to do?

“More days like this as technology attracts this age range”

“More electronics, devices and making”


Overall they all really enjoyed the workshop and all successfully produced an interactive around an object. The teachers also found it a really useful and interesting workshop, and were keen to develop this further.

Going forward we hope to access more funding in order to trial a few more of these workshops before rolling out a programme for local secondary schools.


Accreditation: Millstone or Milestone?

Following on from his recent presentation to the Association for Suffolk Museums AGM, SHARE Museums East has invited Philip Wise, Heritage Manager at Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, to share some reflections on museum Accreditation. This blog represents his personal opinion.

Recently I was delighted to be asked to present Accreditation certificates to several Suffolk museums at the AGM of the Association for Suffolk Museums.  This was held at Brockford Station, the home of the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway.  The ‘Middy’ as it is affectionately known is a peach of a museum.  I must confess here to being an enthusiast for heritage railways; it’s in the blood I suppose as two of my ancestors were railwaymen.  More significantly however the ‘Middy’ is also an Accredited museum.

2015-06-25 AGM accreditation

• Celebrating Accreditation achievements at the Association for Suffolk Museums AGM, Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, on 25 June 2015. Photograph by Chris Morris.


Accreditation provokes a range of reactions out there in the museum world.  Some feel that Accreditation is not for them, regarding it as being a very bureaucratic process with no tangible benefits.  Others recognise the importance of Accreditation as a means of raising standards and promoting the value of museums in society.

It will come as no surprise I’m sure to learn that I am firmly in the latter camp and am a passionate supporter of Accreditation.  In this I can claim some knowledge as I engage with Accreditation in three ways: as a member of the Accreditation Committee which makes award decisions on applications (or returns) from museums across the UK, as a senior manager in a large local authority museum service who is responsible for ensuring that his museums remain within the Accreditation Scheme and as a Museum Mentor who encourages and supports a self-funding independent museum in achieving Accreditation.

So why Accreditation is important? Using the Arts Council’s six headings I would suggest the following:

Performance: All who manage or work in museums have a responsibility to achieve the highest possible standards that their resources of money and people will allow.  There should be no exceptions and excuses.

Profile: Accreditation provides an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of your museum, boost its reputation and encourage visitors to come and see what you have to offer.

People: We should remember that museums are about people, and that those who visit or use our services are as important as those who work in museums.

Partnerships: Even at a local level and on a small scale museums can and do cooperate.  In the present financial climate we can’t afford to ignore this aspect of our work.

Planning: Writing a forward plan can be a demanding activity which some will be reluctant to do and yet as with performance this should be an accepted part of running a museum.

Patronage: A funding application will always be strengthened if it comes from a museum that is Accredited.

Some have criticised the scheme for the ‘mountains of paperwork’. It is true that Accreditation does require a number of policies, plans and procedural manuals to be in place and up to date.  However, it is important to remember that Arts Council has a very different level of expectation regarding a return from a national museum as compared to that from a local museum.  With Accreditation size does matter!

Others have criticised what they regard as the dilatoriness of the Arts Council.  The published assessment target is five months from point of application or return to the confirmation of a decision.  Where it is known that this target will not be met Arts Council ensures that it maintains a dialogue with the museum concerned.  Typical reasons for not meeting the target include where Assessors face particularly challenging cases or where an applicant does not provide the necessary information to complete an assessment.

Fundamentally I think that there is a real difference in the nature of an Accredited as compared with a non-Accredited museum.  A non-Accredited museum may be characterised as being like a private collection where the focus is solely on the present moment and access is allowed to the public as a secondary consideration.  Such museums, particularly if they contain community history items, do not fully appreciate that they have a real responsibility to present and future generations to preserve knowledge as represented by real objects.  To use an old fashioned term what I am talking about here is ‘Stewardship’, which may be defined as the acceptance or assignment of responsibility to shepherd and safeguard the valuables of others. By contrast an Accredited museum fully lives up to its responsibilities to society, has a long term view and recognizes the importance of the visitor experience.

I am pleased to be able to write that Accreditation is thriving in the East of England. The latest statistics, which cover the period between November 2013 and November 2014, show that we have 161 museums in the Accreditation Scheme which represents a slight increase over the previous twelve months. Nationally we have 12.2% of Accredited museums and are in third place behind the South East (17.7%) and the South West (14.7%). With your help we could do even better in 2015 and perhaps challenge for second place.

Finally let’s return to millstones. What does a millstone do? It takes a raw ingredient, grain, and makes it into something that we can use, flour. In the same way Accreditation exists as a framework that you, and all other museum workers paid or volunteer, can use to take a collection of stuff and convert into something which benefits society. So Accreditation is a mark of success; not a millstone but a milestone.

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