Snapping The Stiletto: Re-Examining Essex Collections

 

Image courtesy of Essex Police Museum

Image courtesy of Essex Police Museum

The Essex County Council Museum Development has secured a grant of £95, 445 from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund for a two year project working with museums across the county.

 

2018 is the Centenary of the of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave the first British women the vote, the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928 which gave all women the vote and the 50th anniversary of the Dagenham Ford Worker’s Strike. These important national and local anniversaries are serving as a catalyst to explore, record and celebrate the diverse and inspirational stories of Essex women.

For the purposes of this project, we are working with partners from across “historic Essex” including those areas which are now unitary authorities or part of London, thus enabling us to tell interpret both existing collections and the stories discovered through our research as part of the wider story.

We will research and record how Essex women’s lives have changed during the last century and celebrate the stories of individual and groups of women in the county, for example Suffrage campaigners and Dagenham strikers but also women whose stories aren’t yet well known. This may include but not be limited to women who were involved in World War II, gained qualifications at a time when most women were unable to access further education, who entered male dominated professions including the services, those who moved to Essex from around the world and made a home for themselves by overcoming language and cultural differences and those who have raised families during a time of changing expectations for their gender. By highlighting women’s contributions, we will add another layer of understanding to elements of history that the public are possibly more familiar with, for example WWII, and change their perceptions of what took place. Also, through telling the stories of inspiring Essex women, we hope to weaken the negative “Essex Girl” stereotype.

 

Image courtesy of Southend Museums

Image courtesy of Southend Museums

 

 

The project is part of an overarching strand of work called “Snapping the Stiletto: 100 Years of Change”. We will be shortly be submitting further funding applications for oral history and other work, so there are still plenty of opportunities for heritage organisations and other groups to get involved. We will also be recruiting a large number of volunteers during 2017.

 

For more information, to sign up for project updates or to learn how you can get involved in the project, email amy.cotterill@essex.gov.uk

 

 

 

Our museum partners for “Revisiting Essex Collections” are:

  • Braintree Museums
  • Brightlingsea Museum
  • Chelmsford Museum
  • Colchester and Ipswich Museums
  • The Combined Military Services Museum
  • Epping Forest District Museum
  • Essex Fire Museum
  • Essex Police Museum
  • The Museum of Power
  • Redbridge Museum, Ilford
  • Southend Museums Service

Thought and Notes: Museums Association Conference 2015

MA Conference 2015a

Sharon Heal presents statistics from the Code of Ethics consultation

Earlier this month, I attended my fourth  Museums Association conference. Several things struck me over the course the event. Firstly, the people care about making the sector better and stronger. Secondly, that we don’t have the answers on how to do that yet. Thirdly, more change is coming.

Big themes this year were ethics, diversity and the continuing changes happening in our sector.
The revised Code of Ethics was voted in. If you haven’t read it yet, I advise you to do so. Not only is it a cornerstone of accreditation but it’s a living, breathing document that should influence our everyday practice no matter the size of our museum. The code has been compiled in consultation with museum  staff and volunteers across the country. Given recent controversy over sales from collections, it is not surprising that good practice round disposals continues to be a key element. Reflecting 21st century practice the code also covers sponsorship and recommends that museums seek to work with partners whose priorities match their own.
Museums Change LivesSeveral sessions looked at diversity in the workforce. This is a debate that has been going on for several years and there are no easy answers. Many museums are actively looking for ways to change. Apprenticeships and other work-based training schemes do seem to have had some success, although it is too early to tell if the individuals taking part will continue in museum careers. Some people are concerned that creating additional temporary entry-level jobs when the sector is so competitive is a mistake. I believe that this is a debate that will continue for quite some time, but that it’s good that museums are trying new and different ways to recruit.
With councils being forced to tighten their purse-strings even more, and the Comprehensive Spending Review coming up at the end of the month, it sometimes feels like there’s little time or money for anything creative to happen in museums. However, there were some excellent case-studies which are well worth checking out. For example, Richard Gough from Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust talked about corporate volunteering, which is something our own Museum of Power have good experience with. The Conflict Resolution session included some heart-breaking stories of how museums have the power to knit communities back together, such as the Historical Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina in Sarajevo, National Museums Northern Ireland and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. However, the session that really blew me away was “More Than Reminiscence” by Tunbridge Wells Museum and Canterbury Christ Church University. They’ve been doing some fantastic work with dementia groups and their model is easy and low-cost to follow. Have a look at their tool-kit and see if it’s something that you could use with your own collections.

Lego: An Ingenious Solution to A Display On A Budget

Dominic Petre from Ingatestone Hall shares his top-tip for displaying museum interpretation:

Displays at Ingatestone Hall

Some words of wisdom. Ingatestone Hall is a privately owned Tudor historic house that is still occupied by the family who built it. We are open for private events but also for general visits throughout the summer. When we threw open our doors to the public in 1992 we bought in a series of glass display cases to display all our small items of interest that were “hidden away in drawers”.

At that time our interpretation of the items was very simple. Each thing had a small label explaining what the item was – which seemed to work quite well. However, in recent years, we have become a little disenchanted with the way it appeared for several reasons:

  • It was fiddly to change the labels when academic knowledge changed making the information displayed wrong or at least misleading.
  • There was a ground swell of comments that the text size of the labels was too small to be read easily but increasing the size would mean that the cabinets would be more label than exhibit
  • Some of the exhibits were very small but had a lot we wanted to say about them making the label size disproportionate to the exhibit
  • And of course the labels were themselves deteriorating and becoming tatty

We decided to refresh the cases some time ago and decided that a fitting solution would be to number the individual exhibits and have a hand held guide referring to the numbered exhibit this, we felt, would solve a lot of the problems viz

  • The text size could be bigger
  • We could go into as much detail as we wanted
  • We could include transcripts of difficult documents to read
  • The cases them selves would be “sharper” and the labels would not distract from the objects themselves
  • We could even have different guide books (for example – one for adults and one for children, interpreting the items in different ways)

We then hit a minor problem – looking on-line for nice number blocks we discovered a number of museum supply companies that would indeed supply numbered blocks but they were all very expensive and well beyond what we would budget for such an exercise. We considered making our own (out of wood) but the result never struck us as professional enough – and so the project stalled.

Using a Lego brick to support a museum labelThen one day, when clearing up my son’s Lego I had a serendipitous idea. The sloping blocks would be ideal for this purpose. Using the on-line Lego shop, I got the correct sloping pieces in the right colour at a very good price. Using those with adhesive labels has I think produced a very professional and clean solution – I commend it to all.

Contemporary Collecting and Saving the 70s

Saving the 70s

Collecting historic items for our collections comes as second nature, but collecting from within living memory, or even our own life-time, can be difficult. How can we predict what will be of interest to museum visitors of the future? Museum freelancer Isobel Keith shares her experiences of  “Saving the 70s”, a contemporary collecting project that took place across Suffolk and Hertfordshire.

The 70s Saved…

During the course of two years, 11 museums and heritage organisations across Suffolk and Hertfordshire took part in an ambitious project – Saving the 70s. It was the second year, after receiving stage two funding from HLF, that things really got moving.

I joined the project team for stage two, supporting and assisting the museums in Suffolk over the course of a year, working closely with the two volunteer run museums. It was a brilliant experience, meeting and working with a varied bunch of lovely people and I certainly learnt a lot more about the 1970s that I anticipated.

It’s almost a shame that the project didn’t happen a little later, has anyone else spotted that there’s a rather big 70s revival going on in high street fashion at the moment? It would have been much easier to find outfits for events if it had.

Why the 70s?

The project itself was, in part, born out of the realisation that objects and stories from the 1970s were being sought after as reminiscence resources by organisations working with people with dementia. As the population ages, this demand will only increase.

It is also a period under represented in many museums. Very few of the participating organisations could identify any objects from the 1970s within their collections, yet the 70s were a significant period of change. In fact you could say the 70s revolutionised the modern world.

By the end of the 70s nearly every family enjoyed gathering around their own television set. In just over a decade television ownership nearly doubled. Supermarkets popped up and people experimented with fast food and ready meals. New genres of music were born, the first video games came out, women’s roles and rights, the three day week and so the list goes on.

At the core of this project was the need to focus on collecting memories and objects from the 1970s. I think it’s pretty easy to get caught up with ‘old stuff’ and sometimes we forget the need to collect more recent objects. And if you haven’t forgotten, the problem then becomes how do you collect it? How do you collect mass produced, generic objects with little or no local provenance, especially if you’re a local history museum (as many of the organisations involved were)? And how can you encourage people to donate those objects?

Contemporary collecting is a tricky soul. As Simon Knell aptly put it “Contemporary collecting is one of the most difficult of practices because of its overwhelming and multifaceted nature, and because we are collecting things that reflect our own society, which we know to be complex. Collecting historical material only seems easier because there is less of it, we know it less well and because historians have constructed narratives which value one thing above another” (Knell 2004, 34).

Indeed one of the difficulties many of the organisations faced was getting people to donate or loan objects in the first instance.

I believe this problem stems from a lack of understanding about what we do. People associate museums with old stuff because a considerable amount of the time that’s what we have on display. How often have you had someone offer a donation of something you already have five of? People donate objects based on what they know we collect, i.e. what’s on display. They don’t know about our hidden caves and labyrinth of boxes, AKA The Collection Store.

However, the objects did come and in the interim eBay helped us fill in the gaps. Many museums found that objects were donated after exhibitions. It seems that once the magic of a pedestal and glass case had been applied and with the plethora of 70s themed events the public began to understand what we were trying to do, but first we had to break down conceptions.

What to collect?

Saving the 70sEach museum had a different focus for their activity plan, whether it was digitising photographic collections, working with an archive, or recording oral histories. Their focus dictated the objects donated and collected, but in each case it was the associated memories and stories about those objects that made it relevant to their locale and collections development policies.

Haverhill and District Local History Group ran a reminiscence session at their local library and we took along a few objects and pictures with us. The most popular of these was a Green Shield stamp book. Every single person there connected with object printed in its’ glossy pages. Whether it was something their parents owned or something they had bought themselves, it provided a popular talking point for all involved.

A resounding success for all the organisations involved was the inclusion of an advert reel the History of Advertising Trust created. Full of wonderful (though thoroughly sexist in some cases) adverts from brands such as Hovis and Babycham, the reel proved incredibly popular. Everyone I saw watching it, stayed glued for the full 10 minutes laughing and commenting to each other throughout.

It is these shared experiences and histories that make working with objects and photographs from within living memory so rewarding – they enable visitors to explore their own lives and experiences through the objects.

As a volunteer from Halesworth & District Museum commented “When an exhibition is in someone’s life span… [it] becomes a participatory thing”.

What went well

One of the really positive aspects to come out of Saving the 70s were the connections museums made with their local communities. Each museum had a community partner, from day centres and colleges, to libraries and art shops, these community partners were integral to enriching the project. But they also created links with the wider community.

Halesworth & District Museum were able to hold a pop up shop exhibition Hot Pants in Halesworth in the high street. In one week they had 400 visitors, equivalent to a quarter of their annual footfall. Many local people dropped in whilst doing their shopping with no idea the museum was 5 minutes’ walk away.

Haverhill & District Local History Group were able to run a series of events to raise their profile in the community and forge relationships with their Library and Arts Centre and have continued to work with them.

We also made connections with each other. Working as part of a wider project with multiple organisations, we were able to share resources. From loaning objects to dressing up boxes, the shared comradery and experience between us all provided a supportive platform to work from.

In terms of what we learnt about contemporary collecting – people are interested and they do want to be involved, but unlike the proverbial ‘old stuff’ it can take a bit more effort to break preconceptions about what museums do, and communicate why their orange and avocado green objects and memories are actually really important.

After all it may have been called the Decade That Taste Forgot, but that doesn’t mean we should forget it.

The 11 museums and heritage organisation involved in Saving the 70s were:

  • Museum of East Anglian Life
  • Halesworth & District Museum
  • History of Advertising Trust
  • Moyse’s Hall Museum
  • Haverhill & District Local History Group
  • Mill Green Museum
  • Dacorum Heritage Trust
  • Garden City Collection – Letchworth
  • Hertford Museum
  • St Albans Museum
  • Stevenage Museum.

A Few Facts

  • Between November 2013 – November 2014 the project engaged with 79,387 people through a huge range of exhibitions, community consultations and events.
  • 193 volunteers engaged with the project, logging almost 584 volunteer hours’ worth equating to at least £49,262.50 in man-hours to the project partners
  • The project succeeded in partnering with SHARE Museums East to provide 18 formal training opportunities with 160 attendees. In addition to these the project orchestrated a further 40 informal mentoring and training sessions involving 56 people

Case Study: New Donation Box at Essex Police Museum

Donation box BEFORE the SHARED Enterprise Grant...

Donation box BEFORE the SHARED Enterprise Grant…

SHARED Enterprise is a HLF Catalyst-Funded project supporting museums throughout the East of England to explore new ways of generating income and to make better use of existing financial opportunities. Becky Wash, Curator of Essex Police Museum, talks about her recent experience of working with SHARED Enterprise and a step they’ve taken to increase their income.

The Increasing Individual Giving training session run by SHARED Enterprise allowed those on the course to apply for a grant of up to £500 to improve access to individual giving.

The Essex Police Museum costs £40,000 a year to run and has been self-funded for the last three years. The museum is a registered charity and has successfully found funding from online giving, gift aid and setting up a Payroll Giving Scheme.

The museum’s donations box – a small clear box that sat on a small table near the main entrance is the only donations box in the museum.

Although it did bring in some money we felt it was low down and easily missed by visitors.

The grant allowed us to apply for funding so we could purchase a new and improved box.

We looked at the variety of donations boxes available:

  • Donation Buckets
  • Charity Pots
  • Box with a hole for a coin or folded notes
  • Interactive donations box

Then we looked at the prices – and picked ourselves up from the floor!

We wanted something that looked professional but was affordable and meant something to our museum.

Interactive boxes are fun but they are normally filled with coppers rather than notes.

Someone suggested that we make a box from an old police helmet – but I wanted to make sure that we continued to use a transparent box.  It allows the visitor to see exactly how much is in it before they make their donation. There has been some research into the use of transparent donations boxes and this YouTube video explains a case study in more detail.

We have always and continue to leave a float of £10 in our donations box made up of a £5 note, £2 coin, 2 x £1 coins and 2 x 50p coins. It most certainly discourages any coppers (unlike our non-see through boxes which we leave at Essex Police Reception and the local corner shop). We often see a note or two in our box but the majority of coins that enter the box are gold.

So we went back to our original clear box – how could we improve it?

Essex Police Museum Donation Box

…and the donation box AFTER the grant

Our answer was to improve the box signage and to make the clear box prominent.

I contacted a carpenter friend of mine and explained what I wanted. The finished piece was a traditional looking Police Box measuring 85cm high, almost double the height of the original table.

The box most definitely stands out and we have had many positive comments, but it is early days yet to say whether the box has helped to increased donations to the museum.

The project cost £150 in total which also included the price of a new plastic box (with lock) and new signage (not seen in the photos).