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.
The second phase of Snapping the Stiletto: Campaigning for Equality begins this month, led by Essex County Council. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the project aims to seek equality and challenge stereotypes by sharing and celebrating the stories of Essex women.
Project Manager Kayleigh Boyle commented, ‘We want to find and tell the stories of women of all ethnicities, LGBTQ+ individuals, working women, and women with disabilities. We will re-examine the Essex Girl identity, and see what it is like to be a woman living in Essex today. We are looking for local groups and communities to work with and develop collaborative projects that provide people with space to have their say.’
Working with regional museum partners, the project will collect the histories of underrepresented communities in the county and the objects that tell these stories. By collecting stories and encouraging local communities to donate relevant items, the project hopes to preserve women’s experiences and celebrate women in Essex.
This month, Colchester + Ipswich Museums launch Collections Online, sharing 40,000 searchable objects and the new phase of Snapping the Stiletto begins – plus the usual round up of training opportunities, events and resources!
This month we look at new funding options, including a business development opportunity from NLHF and Cause4, upcoming conferences including Decolonisation and Democratisation from Colchester + Ipswich Museums plus job opportunities and more. Also included is a feature on the brilliant Rayleigh Town Museum!
For people who haven’t visited Rayleigh Town Museum what’s it all about?
The Rayleigh Town Museum is operated entirely by our 55 volunteers. The Museum, part of which dates to 1350, is the oldest secular building in town, is located in the middle of the Rayleigh Town Centre Conservation area in a grade 2 listed building, one of 32 within Rayleigh.
The Museum showcases the rich and varied history of Rayleigh, with evidence dating back to the Stone age. We display a diverse range of artefacts and ephemera, all with a direct provenance to Rayleigh.
We opened in 2016 (Wednesdays, Fridays. Saturdays and Sundays) all year with free entry to all. In addition, we welcome school, youth, and adult groups on private visits outside of these times. We also offer heritage walks around town for groups and individuals We have a commercial hire arm as part of our diversification programme. We have welcomed over 30,000 visitors not only from Rayleigh but from within Essex and further afield.
We have a number of specialists displays and exhibitions throughout the year to include Rayleigh Speedway, The Cinema, the arrival of the railway, various wars, local schools, carnivals and much more. We hold a vast archive, to include 600 postcards, books, town guides, programmes, carnival ephemera, far more than can be on display at any one time.
Since closure we have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to become fully Covid compliant for when we are able to reopen.
What makes Rayleigh Town Museum so special?
The building itself with its most impressive open beams throughout gives first time visitors that WOW factor from the start. It is an exhibit in itself. In addition to our rental grant we receive sponsorship, donations and support from many local retailers and businesses who sponsor exhibitions, rooms and exhibits as well as many local private benefactors, who each pay £250 for inclusion on our benefactors’ board.
We are a community Museum run by the community and for the community and we take part in many local events during the year, such as Christmas lights, annual Trinity fair, school fetes, fun runs, indeed as many as we can to help promote the Museum.
Admission to the Museum is free and this is possible not only due to the financial contribution from our major sponsors and benefactors but also to the 625 members of our Friends group. This one fact evidences the depth of our community involvement; indeed, we have members from all corners of the world.
We are members of a number trade bodies, such as AIM, and we can calculate the economic value of the Museum to our town by way of their economic toolkit. This indicates that we add in the region of £100,000 a year to the town, from visitors who extend their visit to Rayleigh to shop and eat.
I’ve seen a great volunteer hours counter on your website! How many volunteers do you have and what is everyone working on at the moment?
Every month we log the number of hours our volunteers contribute to the operation of the Museum. Pre Covid this was in the region of 1,000 hours EVERY month, although during Covid this has reduced to 600. On Covid closure we set up a working party to investigate when we could reopen, and in addition building maintenance, security, research, PR, and social media have all continued.
How have things changed since Covid-19?
Uppermost in our thoughts at all times is the safety and wellbeing of both our volunteers and visitors. Although we could have opened the Museum from the 4th July we waited until all our procedures have been thought through, fully Covid “good to go “and approved by our Trustees.
In October we reopened but only to member so our Friends group, both as a thank you to them for retaining their membership whilst we were closed, but also to test our “new normal” Covid arrangements.
We have always been aware of the value of social media and Covid has accelerated this greatly. We now have an “object of the week “on our website and will soon have a virtual tour of the Museum ready for viewing. We will then start work on a virtual heritage walk of the High Street, and we are also hoping to complete a new 30-minute DVD on the history of Rayleigh by spring 2021.
We are also considering holding talks in the Museum via Zoom, possibly live on Social media with financial donations as an income stream
What are your plans for 2021 and beyond?
Much of course depends on Covid but current plans include, a medieval Christmas display, a Rochford area 2020/Beagle tapestry exhibition. Rayleigh remembers (Nov each year as part of the town’s war commemoration), the annual Trinity fair, and notable town anniversaries. We also hope to have a new and significant display on the history of Rayleigh castle (the only Essex castle mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086) in 2021 a major addition to our archives.
We are also working actively behind the scenes to become an Accredited Museum. We see this as fundamental to our ongoing sustainability.
The Museum is now firmly established as the heritage hub of the area. We work closely with other Museums and heritage sites (Rayleigh Windmill/ Dutch Cottage/Rayleigh Mount). One of our future plans is a project “Spend a day in Rayleigh” to visit all the heritage sites, and to shop and eat in town. We are in discussion with a number of local retailers for vouchers schemes to boost interest.
Are you interested in finding out more about best practice trustee recruitment? If you’re thinking about undertaking a governance review, having a shake-up of your Board, or adding in a more diverse skill set, this session will provide some useful information.
We will hear from Frank Hargrave, Museums Manager at Colchester + Ipswich Museums, and driving force behind the newly created Colchester Museums Development Foundation. Frank will cover his work in setting up the new Foundation, and how he and his team handled building a new Trustee Board from scratch, considering skills and diversity and different recruitment approaches.
There will be an opportunity for discussion and Q+A – please feel free to email me (Beth) your questions in advance.
Museums Essex is pleased to launch Small Grants Round 8.
Six grants of up to £500 will be awarded. Four of these will be available to museums which are either Accredited or are working towards Accreditation as the funding comes from SHARE Museums East. The remaining two grants will be open to all museums in Essex irrespective of whether they are Accredited or not. Applicants must be members of Museums Essex.
This round will accept applications for activities and equipment to enable museums to recover from the impact of COVID-19, including re-opening in 2021. Areas covered include:
Marketing materials and specialist advice
Business and financial planning
Adaptations to a museum venue to make it COVID-19 secure, including signage
Website development, including virtual exhibitions.
Other areas may be considered by the Trustees if in their view they contribute to the ability of a museum to recover from the impact of COVID-19.
Guidance and application documents
Download the application form (with full guidance) and the assessment criteria, so you can see how applications will be assessed by the Museums Essex Trustees.
Join us this November and December for a series of free live-streams over on our YouTube channel. Heritage and arts organisations from across the country will be exploring how they are engaging and sharing ownership with communities. Contributors include:
SHARE Museums East have just launched a new Acquisitions Grant, which is open until 22 March 2021 as a rolling programme.
If you are thinking about applying, please let me know – I’m very happy to support with developing and reviewing/proofing applications.
Details from SHARE:
As part of our 2018-2022 regional Museum Development activity plan, funded by Arts Council England, SHARE Museums East is supporting museums to develop their collections. We want to help museums to improve the representation and diversity of the stories that present, through the collections they have and interpret. We want museums to be able to provide a more accurate, balanced and inclusive interpretation of the past, therefore becoming more relevant and sustainable as a result.
Museums can apply for a grant of up to £2000 towards obtaining a new acquisition. The grant application form and full guidance is available from the SHARE Museums East website.
Examples of activities for which the grant can be used, include:
Purchase of object/objects to develop permanent collections
Commissioning of work/works from an artist
Costs towards working with a community advisory panel to inform new acquisition/s
Valuation costs, framing and display, the conservation and restoration of works, transport and storage costs to