New Year Message for Museums Essex

Philip Wise, Chair 

I had hoped to focus in this New Year message on the importance of volunteering for Essex museums but, unfortunately, I cannot avoid mentioning Covid-19 at the start. It is, of course, really bad news for many Essex museums that the whole of the county starts 2021 in Tier 4. Even for those who were not due to open in January, the continuing uncertainty is challenging and plans for the 2021 season remain in doubt. Will we be able to re-open for Easter? What about that major summer exhibition or activity programme? 

On the day I write this the Government has approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the UK with the first doses due to be given at the beginning of January, but it is not clear when we will turn the corner and return to something like normality. As I have said previously, the big lesson of Covid-19 has been the value of working together, through organisations like SHARE Museums East and indeed Museums Essex, to combat its effects on our visitors, activities and income. This will remain the case for many months to come. 

Turning to volunteers, I was fortunate in October to be able to visit the newly-opened, volunteer-run museum in Brightlingsea not far from where I live. It is always exciting to visit a museum for the first time, particularly at present where such opportunities are very few and far between. The displays at Brightlingsea Museum are very rich in detail and at first sight can be overwhelming. However, the design team has done a superb job in varying the displays and my attention was fully engaged as I went around the building. I really enjoyed my visit and can heartily recommend a trip to Brightlingsea Museum when circumstances permit. 

Brightlingsea, and other museums in Essex which I have visited in recent years, prompt me to reflect on the contribution made by volunteers to Essex museums and how things have changed over the years. When I started in museums in the early 1980s, it was the case that there was a distinction often made between those with ‘professional’, in the sense of paid, staff and those run by volunteers. In those days I suspect that there was a feeling amongst at least some paid staff that ‘professional museums’ were better than ‘voluntary museums’ which were seen as trying hard but would never be outstanding. ‘Professional museums’ at that time were comparatively well resourced and had large numbers of staff which engendered a complacent attitude.

Things started to change in the early 1990s as the country began to experience the first of a series of economic crises which culminated in the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Paid staff were made redundant as the cuts began to bite and ‘professional museums’, particularly in the local authority sector, began to suffer. This situation has persisted and only intensified since 2012 culminating, of course, in this year’s annus horribilis.

Today, I think that the time has come to dispense with the distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘voluntary’ museums. At their best voluntary museums are now as good and sometimes better than their counterparts in the professional world. 

There are several reasons for this. One is the introduction of the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1994, now the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which provided a new source of funding that was available to all, even if the process was sometimes bewildering to the uninitiated. With its emphasis on public involvement in heritage, the lottery opened up the museum sector, irrespective of whether staff were paid or not, and enabled museums, such as Brightlingsea, to secure significant amounts of funding for museum projects, thereby raising standards and improving the experience for visitors. 

There is also the fact of the sheer hard work and determination of volunteers in making their museums successful. This commitment should not be under-estimated and is perhaps slightly different to that of the professional member of staff. There is a difference between being paid for a certain number of hours of work per week and an open-ended commitment that a voluntary role can bring. Also it is not the norm for a professional to work in a museum in the community where he or she was born and brought up. As a result local knowledge has to be acquired over time. Indeed, many volunteers, because of their local roots, can bring a real pride in their community and its heritage which incomers have to develop. Others may bring specialist technical knowledge from having worked in a particular industry which is invaluable in understanding museum collections.

The foreseeable future will not be one of plenty for museums with paid staff who will, I fear, continue to struggle to make ends meet and retain their staff. Likewise the challenge for museums with voluntary staff is very significant, particularly for those with limited financial reserves who rely on income from admissions and other activities to keep going. More positively however, there is a real recognition of the importance of museum development at a national level within Arts Council England and our own MDO post is secure until the end of March 2023. 

I would like to conclude by thanking those volunteers who have kept Essex’s museums going during 2020. Your reward will come when we can reopen our doors and allow visitors to explore our collections and their stories. Hopefully, we will not have to wait too long in 2021 for this to happen. 

Philip Wise  Chair, Museums Essex