Spotlight on…Brightlingsea Museum

We talk to the Curator of Brightlingsea Museum, Margaret Stone, about their ambitious relocation project, installing displays in lockdown and the new voices and objects they have been able to include.

Image shows the new interior of Brightlingsea Museum, with interpretation panels and a small boat.

For anyone who hasn’t visited Brightlingsea Museum before – what’s it all about?

It’s about the story of Brightlingsea’s heritage – something that has been strongly influenced by its position at the mouth of the River Colne, close to the North Sea but with a sheltered harbour. This probably led to the town becoming a Limb of the Cinque Port of Sandwich, a special and unique association as we are the only member of this ancient organisation north of the Thames.

With easy access to the sea and surrounding creeks these were excellent conditions for centuries of oyster dredging and fishing, especially stowboating – catching sprats in specially adapted nets.

The sheltered harbour was to play its part in the defence of our country, from the times of Henry VIII and again during both World Wars when Brightlingsea was a busy Naval Base – even our mud was to provide ideal conditions to train British and Anzac Engineers for action on the Western Front in the Great War.

Interwoven with all of this activity is a long history of shipbuilding and the heyday of huge sailing and steam yachts in the hundred years leading up to the second World War when Brightlingsea fishermen used their skills to crew some of the fastest yachts of their day – including in the America’s Cup.

You’ve recently undergone a huge transformation project – how did this come about?

The Museum first opened in 1989, renting space in a Victorian building that had been a Reading Room since the late 1890s.  The museum soon became popular, visitor numbers increased and so did the collections of objects and images.  The building was difficult to access – steep steps and stairs.  The construction of the building made it difficult to heat and maintain a suitable environment, and it just was not big enough.

Sadly in 2013 Claude Dove, our founding Chairman died, but to our amazement he left a substantial bequest to the museum.  The local Police Station came on the market in 2015, which we were able to purchase and then make alterations and add an extension.

How has lockdown affected your plans?

When lockdown was ordered we were just starting the process of installing exhibitions ready to have a week of opening events in mid-May.  As lockdown eased, we carefully started working again, but progress has been slow, consequently we are many weeks behind schedule, and do not envisage being ready to open until at least late August. 

All plans of a grand opening are of course out of the question, and we are even having to consider whether the many interactives we had so enthusiastically planned will be suitable in the current ‘Coronavirus climate’.  However, we will be looking at having a celebration event next year.

How is the new space taking shape?

After building and refurbishment of our newly acquired premises was completed, we and our many supporters were so impressed with the amazing space for the exhibitions, a real wow factor!  With some stunning plans for our new exhibition (with thanks to our design team from Maltings Partnership), the carpenter moved in creating structures. ‘Losing’ that great space I thought the wow factor would also be lost, but the reverse was the case.  Now with most of the images and text in place we can see how our visitors will be led on a journey of discovery about Brightlingsea.

Employment of our professional designers, Maltings Partnership, which has resulted in the provision of exciting and informative displays, interactives and audio/visual effects would not have been possible without the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Essex County Council’s Community Initiative Fund and many other organisations.

Is there anything you would do differently if you did this relocation project again?

I did learn early on that we take ideas and suggestions from a wide range of people, but when it comes to decisions we keep this to a small tight group, with a balanced view of the museum’s themes – not with a passionate interest in one particular area.  Although subject enthusiasts are vital for research and checking material.

Our design team have been so good to work with.  However, if I were to do this again when fine-tuning plans, I would want to know more about preparation work that we (all volunteers) would need to do.  Fortunately we have some really skilled volunteers on hand to help with some of the more practical tasks – preparing walls for vinyls, painting and even light engineering, if we had needed to bring in contractors our budgets would have been under pressure.

What have you enjoyed the most about the process?

Enthusiasm! Whether, from those actively involved with the project, visitors on occasional open days, people who stop us in the street wanting to know how it’s going, local fishermen bringing in special treasures or telling us about their experiences, the interest and enthusiasm is almost tangible.

Have you been able to display a particular object or collection that you couldn’t previously?

Where do I start? We have so much on display that has not been seen before – letters, autograph books, tools in such an amazing and imaginative display about shipyard skills.  Voices and projections, and a wonderful isometric drawing of the Waterside in 1892 – we just did not have the space for it in our old premises.

We have a temporary exhibition space, but to make sure there is always something for visitors to see we have an A – Z of Brightlingsea on the walls. This gave us a wonderful opportunity to involve a large number of volunteers as we asked for their suggestions. We were able to include some of the town’s heritage that perhaps does not come under ’maritime’ – some interesting residents from the past, the Live Animal export demonstrations in 1995, some of the birds visiting the creeks and salt marsh and even Joan Collins. Want to know how? Then you will have to visit us!

When we have a temporary exhibition the A – Z is covered so we are looking at another way we can have this available.

Visitors can expect to be fascinated, amused, surprised and even sad.  They will discover, watch, listen, and empathise. They will want to come back!

What are your hopes for Brightlingsea Museum for 2021 and beyond?

It is essential that the museum is seen as a vital part of the community. We will do this by having a range of activities and opportunities, not just for individuals and families, but also other organisations, to encourage a sense of ownership. It is their museum – not ours!

We also see the museum as a quality visitor attraction not just for Brightlingsea, but the wider area, and we will not only be encouraging visitors to the museum but to also explore the town. We have already started working with our Town Council and businesses in the town and are hoping to build an ethos of co-operation between us that will ultimately benefit the town as a whole.

All these ambitions are only possible if we continue to develop our service to the wider community – providing regular temporary exhibitions, resources for study (both formal and informal) and activities for a range of interests and needs for all ages and we are receptive to suggestions. Always keeping our budgets in mind – if we must be financially viable.

You can find out more about Brightlingsea Museum on their website or follow them on Twitter.