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 Caroline Pantling, Heritage Service Manager with the Scout Association. Their Heritage Team have recently won the Woodland Trust’s 2017 Tree of the Year competition.
The Scout Association Heritage Team have used this quirky competition, run by The Woodland Trust, to raise the profile of Gilwell’s historic landscape and Scouting’s fascinating heritage. Having won the public vote to become England’s Tree of the Year the Oak then faced competition from the other home nations and were appointed UK Tree of the Year by a panel of experts and became the UK’s representative for the European Tree of the Year.
The Gilwell Oak has become renowned throughout the world. Scouting’s founder, Robert Baden-Powell used the oak tree as an analogy for the growth of Scouting. He referred to the experimental camp run for 20 boys on Brownsea Island in 1907 as the acorn from which the oak tree of Scouting grew. Today the Gilwell Oak sits at the heart of a Scout Adventure centre which welcomes over 40,000 young people every year.
The Gilwell Oak is located on edge of Gilwell’s Training Ground. The training offered at Gilwell Park was the first of its kind, Scout leaders from around the world attended training at Gilwell. On their return home many set up their own training centres to pass on their learning. In this way the legend of Gilwell spread and the idyllic scene of Scouts taking shelter from the summer sun (or rain) under the branches of the Training Ground’s most iconic tree became well known.
For many Scouts around the world a trip to Gilwell Park is a long held dream, hundreds visit Gilwell each year to pay homage to those who have gone before and to, maybe, collect a leaf and an acorn from its longest standing resident.
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
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.
We bring you today’s blog with a heavy heart. Saddened by the news of the death of Katrina Siliprandi last week, SHARE’s Kathy Moore, a dear friend of Katrina, writes:
Many of you will be aware of Katrina’s pioneering work in Museum Learning as Head of Learning at Norfolk Museums Service for many years. She was hugely important for NMS as an organisation but also for many individuals whom she mentored, inspired, and encouraged. She gave me my first job in museums and had been my touchstone ever since.
Katrina and I at a SHARE event
She was passionate about all museums, large and small, about their collections as a foundation for fantastic learning and life-changing experiences. She was dedicated to improving Access and Inclusion in museums and worked regularly with looked after children, young offenders and many other minority groups.
Katrina with Cathy Terry, Senior Curator at Strangers Hall
After her early retirement from NMS on health grounds a few years ago, she recovered enough and was enthusiastic to deliver SHARE training on Reaching Different Audiences, Learning from Objects and Reflective Learning Practice.
Katrina at her leaving do, Norwich Castle
She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer just over a year ago and initially thought she had only weeks left to live. As you would expect, if you’d known her well, she fought hard to have as long as possible with her family, including young grandchildren. She always had time for her friends too and many kept in touch and visited her during this last year, keeping her up to date with what was happening in the museum world. She wanted to know all the news from NMS, SHARE, GEM etc.
One of Katrina’s favourite projects saw the production of this short film. Just like Katrina, it highlights the values of thought-provoking and interesting learning alongside barrels of fun!
[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SNxvNcyCSo[/youtube]
Her early death is a huge loss to her family, friends and the museum profession as a whole.
Katrina in action at the Scott Polar Research Institute
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.