Just a little bit of History repeating

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.

Breaking Out Of The Shell: A Year In The Life of H.E.N.

In our latest guest blog, David Blackburn, Trustee at the Cambridge Museum of Technology, tells the story of the emergence of a new network for SHARE Museums East.

Breaking Out Of The Shell: A Year In The Life of H.E.N.
David Blackburn (Cambridge Museum of Technology)


Cambridge Museum of Technology hosting a HEN meeting

So there I was in a SHARE advisers meeting in Cambridge – MDOs, Regional Conservators – all sorts of professionals – and someone said “How about a SHARE Network for all these places with working engineering collections?”

As a long-time volunteer in such places, now also involved in trying to run a museum with an engineering collection, that really made me prick up my ears.  I just knew that there are all sorts of special issues when you try to operate in a proper museum context with working exhibits.  The sort of things that are big, hot, heavy, dangerous, or any combination of the above.

How important is it to keep this vehicle/engine/machine actually operating?  What happens if we wear it out/break it?  How do we maintain the skills needed to run stuff properly, and keep it running? How do we work safely? What if the key volunteer leaves or moves on? How do we make the best for the museum of all that enthusiasm shown by the specialist member of the team who only really wants to play with the toys? How do I persuade the management that restoring this object really is important?

So I put my hand up and said that I’d try to set up such a network. SHARE Museums East offered money for a trial.  It comforted me to know that I could count on the SHARE community to help me as I tried to see whether this idea could fly. For me, it had to include both sides of the story – museum professionals (like curators) and the volunteers who so often are vital to the success of working museums.  SHARE could give me access to both groups, and I hoped that we could address some of the tensions which arise between them.

My first step was to look for some senior sponsorship for the idea. I was fortunate that a senior member of our community was all in favour – she knew exactly where I was coming from and unhesitatingly lent her name and support as I tried to canvass across the region.  MDOs and their equivalents were next – they really have their ears to the ground in their various patches and weren’t too hard to convince.  They could identify possible target organisations and all offered me lists of names and/or contacts. Then I hit the email and got what I thought was an encouraging set of responses.

HEN Meeting

HEN Meeting

Now we moved on to a “launch event”.  My museum would provide the venue and lunch (paid for by SHARE).  We’d have a couple of presentations from our people, both professional and volunteer, and a tour to show the kind of things we do, some of the issues we face, and how we deal with them.  Then we’d wrap up with an open discussion about what others thought was important and a decision on whether to continue.  Twenty six people turned up, from eleven organisations, and we unanimously decided that we should carry on.  We’d have meetings about once a quarter, moving from museum to museum, and we’d follow the same kind of format – presentations, a tour, lunch and an open discussion.  Presentation topics would initially be drawn from the “hot list” we’d made at the launch.  Most important, a couple of attendees (now members of the new network) offered to host future meetings.  We seemed to be off and running.

Over the next couple of meetings, another important feature of the network emerged.  Rather than have things driven solely by the network co-ordinator (me), members agreed that it would be useful to form a small steering group from among their number.  Four or five people offered to take part, and from my point of view, have been essential in sketching out the development of the network and proposing ideas at meetings.  We’ve also set up an email list (to which all members subscribe for free) to convey notices and reports of meetings and anything else of interest to members.

We’ve so far held five meetings across the SHARE region, with a sixth planned.  Eighteen organisations have been represented, with an average attendance of twenty seven people.  A significant training event is in development for 2014.  Also important for me, we’ve agreed that another museum will take over co-ordination for the next year.

I think we’ve well and truly hatched.

To read notes from past H.E.N. meetings, visit our Network Resources page.

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