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!
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.
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. “19188.8.131.52”…worried I had mis-read the number, I tried again, ”No wait, 3.3.1”…”No, 184.108.40.206”…”No, hang on, 220.127.116.11.1…”. 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.
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
Todays guest blog comes from Anne Brown, a Teaching Museums trainee with Norfolk Museums Service. Anne shares her thoughts on the SHARE Conference in November and reflects on the things she’s learned along the way.
On the 21st November 2016 I had the great pleasure of attending my first SHARE Conference, in the awe-inspiring Jockey Club Rooms in Newmarket.
Although only my first conference, this was in fact the 6th Annual Conference for SHARE Museums East and it was immediately clear to me what an important event it has become in the eastern area museums calendar. With well over 100 attendees from a diverse range of settings, representation came from the smaller independent museums, such as the Mildenhall and District Museum and The Norfolk Tank Museum (both run entirely by volunteers), through to the larger establishments like IWM, The Fitzwilliam and my very own, Norfolk Museums Service.
The day was a well thought out combination of speakers, workshops and the oh-so- important time to network with colleagues you rarely get the opportunity to see, let alone have enough time to talk to.
For the Norfolk Museum Trainees it was a great opportunity to be introduced to so many people from across the region, hear about fabulous projects and join in the various breakout sessions in the afternoon.
The theme of the conference this year was ‘Better Placed? Museums at the heart of successful communities’. After a welcome and introduction Chris Garibaldi and Jamie Everitt, the thought provoking morning Keynote speech ‘Culture making places- challenges and opportunities’ was given by Paul Bristow, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Arts Council England. This was followed by a series of presentations providing working examples of projects based within the heart of the communities they serve. There were plenty of opportunities for questions and comments from the floor, which provided the opportunity for more in-depth discussion of the projects described, both in the room and later over tea and coffee and a very impressive lunch. Chris Garibaldi then provided an introduction to Palace House and delegates at the conference had the opportunity to take a look around the museum. Despite the weather, many delegates took up the opportunity and the chance to say hello to the horses – who were really very welcoming!
After a long lunch break allowing plenty of time for eating, networking, visiting the museum and the ‘market-place’ (where various organisations and groups- including the Trainees- had set up shop), the afternoon Keynote speech was delivered by Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund for the East of England. Robyn not only provided an interesting and useful insight into how much the HLF values community engagement, but also reflected on the morning’s presentations. The remainder of the afternoon was spent with delegates taking part in a variety of break-out sessions, providing more opportunities for the exchange of information and ideas. This was another great opportunity for myself and the other Museum Trainees to get involved in discussions and workshops with professionals from across the heritage industry in the East. The day was rounded up with thanks and reflections from Steve Miller, Head of Norfolk Museums Service.
My reflections on the day would have to be what a valuable experience it was for me and my fellow trainees. The opportunity to hear about such a range of inspirational projects from passionately committed staff, both paid and voluntary. To meet and have the time to discuss a range of issues, ideas and to hear about the plans, hopes and aspirations of colleagues from across the Eastern region.
A day very well spent. If you have the opportunity I strongly recommend you get yourself booked onto next year’s conference. I know I will.
At the end of July, the longest-standing member of the SHARE team, Simon Floyd, left to pursue his great passion; the theatre. Simon was a mainstay of SHARE from 2009. He played a key role in developing the now well-established SHARE ethos, whereby all contributions are freely offered and equally valued. This has enabled SHARE to nurture a Museum Development programme second-to-none. He was also the inspiration behind the famous owl logo!
Before he left, Simon wrote a short piece on the ethos and achievements of SHARE:
“The SHARE Museum Development Programme has proved that skills-sharing can benefit museums of every size. We work hard to incorporate offers of expertise and resources from museums of all different types. Bishops Stortford museum offered their collections photography expertise, which evolved into a highly successful training course; the National Horse Racing Museum ran a course in business skills; and our networks continue to grow and develop with the goodwill of museum-based coordinators – especially in learning, heritage engineering and costume & textiles. The networks have contributed not only to their own knowledge but to that of the wider museums sector. The deliberate informality of SHARE has been a strength, helping us to deliver successful partnerships involving the biggest museums (including the British Museum) to the smallest volunteer-run organisation.
“SHARE has not only been busy, it’s been cost-effective. By looking for the support we need in our own backyard we have rarely had to pay for trainers, external facilitators or venues. With central coordination and a real willingness from participating museums, SHARE has proved that a lot can be done for not very much.
“Museums across the region now recognise the benefits of offering SHARE support to their own organisations. They see that by sharing time, skills and expertise, staff and volunteers can develop their practice and knowledge. By contributing to the development of others they learn to value both their own contribution and that of their museum.
“We value all contributions equally – experience, knowledge, resources, even attendance at an event. In challenging times it takes a leap of faith to believe this, but the principle survives: it’s good to share, and everybody is stronger for it.
“Here are a few of the things we’ve learned along the way:
- To give is to receive – if there is not a win for the contributor, it’s not SHARE.
- Making and maintaining relationships takes most of the energy, but it is the most important thing.
- Get people with similar interests together and, if you help them with small amounts of money and central support, good things will always happen.
- Trust the instincts of those who do the job, and be ready to take risks.
- Be collaborative and listen – try to meet needs with practical solutions.
- Stay informal, people are much more comfortable talking about their ‘experience’ than their ‘expertise’.
- Find a brand that unites people behind an idea – our owl and strapline (‘a network of know how’) work because they are inclusive, simple and encourage participation.
“One thing is certain – we all have something to give and something to gain. Long may we explore what this wealth of knowledge and experience enables us to do.”