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
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
Are you looking for new ways to engage with your community? Would you like to offer your volunteers a chance to learn more about curating displays? Are you interested in forming more sustainable relationships with local groups? Or with your current visitors?
As part of our Reaching Audiences strand of work, SHARE Museums East will be launching a new fund to support museums engage with their communities through a small-scale co-production project. Museums across the East of England region are invited to show expressions of interest for introducing (or enhancing) a ‘Community Cabinet’ as part of their permanent displays. In all, up to 10 grants will be made available. If you are interested, please complete the expression of interest form by the 22nd November 2013.
The ‘Community Cabinet’ is an invitation to members of the public and community groups to co-curate a single, dedicated cabinet with objects of their own choice. Objects may come from their own lives and ‘collections’; or participants may wish to explore the museum’s collections to pursue a particular subject of interest. It is a chance for visitors to tell their own story, reveal hidden stories from within the museum or nurture a private passion and, in each case, learn about display and interpretation with the guidance of members of the museum staff.
The fund can be used to cover any aspect of the project, including for example the purchase of a new cabinet, exhibition costs, marketing resources and paid staff time. If you already have a cabinet, you can still apply for a grant if you can show how it will improve or support the current resource. The key criteria for the fund are that the museum can:
- put forward a member of staff – volunteer or paid – to take overall responsibility for the project;
- identify a publicity strategy to ensure a wide range of potential participants from the community can be reached;
- demonstrate how the display will be advertised within the museum;
- show how the cabinet and relationships with participants will be sustained into the future.
As a successful recipient of the grant, you will have considered how the cabinet will benefit your museum, especially in terms of your relationship with the communities you serve. Each museum will have its own ideas. However, whilst putting together your application, you may like to look at how one example has been developed by the Museum of Cambridge.
Anyone interested should complete the expression of interest form below outlining what interests you about the Community Cabinet, what resources or training you foresee being needed to establish a cabinet, and any particular groups, individuals or partnerships you would seek to reach through the programme. Interested museums will be invited to a training day which it will be necessary to attend prior to applying for the grant.
For further information about the grant programme, please contact the SHARE project officer, Joel Chalfen, on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01603 229825.
Joel Chalfen, Project Officer (Audience Development & Community Engagement), SHARE Museums East
Museums Change Lives is the Museums Association’s vision for the increased social impact of museums
The launch on July 1st of the Museum Association’s new vision for the sector, Museums Change Lives, was both a statement of position and a challenge. A statement of position inasmuch as it consolidates, at a specific historic juncture, a lot of debate over the last thirty years about the social role of museums; and a challenge in that, despite thirty years of debate and much good practice to inform it, working with communities and for the social good remains a controversial and difficult area of activity for the heritage sector.
At a time of cross-sector funding cuts and increased pressure on public services to meet the needs of their communities, the MA’s vision is taking an opportune moment to champion the argument that the benefits of cultural work extend to social needs. It attempts to put museums on an equal footing with ‘frontline’ services as far as their social value. Museums Change Lives focuses on three areas of impact: wellbeing; creating better places; and inspiring people and ideas. It captures the museum’s effects on individual health and self-esteem; on environmental change and community living; and on knowledge, ambition and creativity.
The package reiterates formulations of a decade ago. But now, in an era of shrinking resources, looks more like a bid for survival than a rebranding exercise. Perceived as a social service, museums might prove more robust: establishing sustainable partnerships and embedding themselves in the life of their communities.
But where austerity equally applies to the heritage sector as to the social services it is provoking urgent responses from those who want to ensure the sustainability of the sector’s specialist cultural contribution as conserver and curator. The reaction of some to the Museums Change Lives statement is quite simply that social work is nothing to do with museums. Their fight is to secure funding without having to change the terms on which professionalism is acknowledged and respected. This is the rearguard response to any further drive towards social responsibility as a definition of heritage’s work.
That the two positions remain at loggerheads emphasises above all a failure to derive a language in which social benefit and specialist cultural expertise can be talked about together. Much of this is to do with the expectation of measuring social benefit for non-experts to appreciate value as opposed to allowing experts to regulate themselves in terms of quality, knowledge and critical reflection. However, there is at the same time an absolute need for curators and conservators to recognise that talking about social benefit is not to belittle or shift the emphasis in the search for quality in their own work.
Wardown Park Museum
On July 4th, the first meeting was held of a new SHARE Museums East cohort focusing on co-production and working with communities. Bringing, in the first instance, 4 museums and 2 museum services together, the group will be there to support members through their community-based projects, providing a forum for constructive criticism, sharing experiences and a talk-shop for issues and worries. At this first meeting, it was evident that, on whatever scale the project may be running – and there is a range from the wholesale re-design of Wardown Park Museum, Luton to a community cabinet in the Museum of Cambridge – the issues remain the same. Issues of communication, politics, competency, purpose and expectation are constant areas of concern and particularly so when engaging members of the public in the work of museums.
But key to these issues is convincing people on all sides, both potential participants from the community and paid staff and volunteers within the museum, that there should be no pre-judgement about what museums are for. It is to convince everyone that the benefits of engaging with objects and stories of the past are theirs to be discovered in conversation with others. There is the challenge of encouraging members of the public to see the work of museums as a process that can include them and their stories and enhance their lives in terms of shared experiences and personal development. And there is the challenge of asking museum workers to buy into community projects and to share their knowledge in new ways. For those who prejudge that a co-produced exhibition will lack quality, the challenge is for them to get involved and make their professional expertise the insurance against this. Genuine participation does not mean the removal of the curator, it means the sharing of knowledge and authority to present the most informed and nuanced interpretations, learning and openness on all sides.
The plan for the Co-Production Cohort is to grow a collection of case studies that reflect the diversity of community-engaged projects. From this collection, there should be a helpful toolkit which highlights techniques of engagement as well as project outcomes. But also we hope we will help to inform an understanding of the benefits of this kind of work that reflects both the social value argument and the need to sustain and support the traditional expertises in the sector. Capturing the successes and failures of co-produced work will hopefully help to deepen our understanding of how the benefits are shared across all involved – changing lives but also strengthening museums.
For more information on the SHARE Museums East co-production cohort, please contact Joel at Joel.Chalfen@norfolk.gov.uk / 01603 228925
by Kathy Moore, Project Officer (Children & Young People), SHARE Museums East
email@example.com / 01603 493646
The Biodiversity Conference was a great success (full report to follow!)
Molly, our Natural History Trainee, tweeted the progress of the conference throughout the day. A few students tweeted comments and pictures from the workshops, particularly the excellent “Carry on Collecting” session run by Dave Waterhouse (Natural History Curator) and Molly Carter (Natural History Trainee).
In the evaluation at then end of the day, one question referred specifically to Twitter. We found that about half the students said they never used Twitter and of the rest, about half of those were considering following and or tweeting about the conference. So I vote it a partial success and a good introduction for me to see how Twitter can be used. However, I must use it now. A good way to learn would be for me to fill the role that Molly did for this conference (I was far too busy and too much a novice to manage that and running a conference) but I feel I could Tweet about someone else’s event now.
There still remains the question about how to get the students’ attention before the conference, which we feel might lead to more digital participation. When I send the workshop information out to schools, there may be a way to entice them to follow us then with the promise of something extra!