Collections Trust Seminar at Colchester Castle

Alex Dawson presenting at the Collections Trust Seminar

Alex Dawson presenting at the Collections Trust Seminar

Jennifer Brown, Collections and Interpretation Officer at Braintree District Museum, shares what she learnt at this recent training day:

On Wednesday 18th March 2015 the newly revamped Colchester Castle Museum in Essex hosted a Collections Trust Seminar for the eastern region. The seminar was led by Alex Dawson, programme manager for standards at the Collections Trust, and offered a thought-provoking and varied range of talks and open discussions. Key themes that emerged throughout the day were the importance of placing audiences and communities at the heart of collections management; the importance of making collections the heart of all museum activities (and consequently the importance of all museum departments working closely together to achieve this); and updates on the practical advice, support and frameworks available to help review where we are at, where we would like to be, and what we will need to get there.

Below are some of the key topics and points that emerged during the course of the day:

Update on Arts Council England by Isabel Wilson, Senior Manager Quality & Standards

The sessions started with a useful update on Arts Council England. Two schemes were particularly highlighted:

  • The Designation Scheme celebrates collections of national and international importance not housed in national museum, helping to promote these collections. The scheme is currently being reviewed by ACE and the next round will open in April 2015. More information can be found on their website.
  • The Government Indemnity Scheme is again aimed at helping museums of all sizes. This scheme helps smaller museums to loan items from collections around the country and even the world by arranging government underwriting of loans to avoid high insurance payments.  It is possible to make just one gallery space eligible for the scheme, rather than having to revamp a whole museum. More information including the criteria can be found on-line here.

Audiences and Collections

This was the subject of our first talk by Alex from the Collections Trust but audiences featured in so many other presentations during the day that I have grouped many under this heading.

  • Understanding Audiences – Alex Dawson, Collections Trust

Collections are here for our audience’

There has been a growing realization within the museum sector over the last 10 to 15 years that people are at the heart of our collections, and that our audiences need to drive our collections’ policies. Some key ideas that came out of Alex’s talk were:

  • We need to identify and work with communities to enable the development and care of our collections
  • We need to make sure we are regularly communicating with our communities, exploring the possibility for community curators, and looking for partnership opportunities with local businesses.
  • The collections world needs to take on the ‘language of business’. To be resilient for the future we need to think about strategies and policies, our skills and targets. This will not only help keep our future collecting policies and our collections care focused, but it also makes our work more understandable by those in other sectors. This helps to empower the profession.
  • We need to think about audience segmentation and the different generations that use our museum collections now, and will be using them in the future. What are the character traits of each generation? How will they want to access the collection and what will they want to gain from this?
  • We need to think about the user journey in museums – pre-visit, during visit and post visit. How can we keep them interested in the museum, its collections and its work?

2) Collections Management Competency Framework – Alex Dawson, Collections Trust

This is a framework produced by the Collections Trust to help us look at the skills and behaviours we need to develop, manage and sustain collections. There are four main areas of competencies – technical knowledge and contexts (ethical, legal etc) are those more traditionally associated with collections management. The other two hark back to the importance of audiences and communication – they are ‘customer focus’ and communication skills. More information is available on their website.

  • Museum Accreditation – Alex Dawson, Collections Trust

This session offered some useful tips on working through the accreditation process. In particular, don’t panic if you have a collections backlog. Look at developing a realistic operational plan for dealing with this and for future collections care. However, this should be guided by visitors and which parts of the collection are most likely to be actively used by our audiences. Ask your local police for security advice, they are often happy to help. Local Museum Development Officers are also going to be working more closely with Accreditation advisers in the future and may be able to give you more locally relevant advice.

Learning and Change in Your Museum

‘Good collections management is about change’

This session emphasized the importance of flexibility and managing change, and the importance of integrating learning throughout the museum with the management of collections. Some specific points included:

  • There are 3 models of change in any context – internal bottom up change; internal top-down change and change caused by an external trigger
  • To create a culture change in an organization start small, somewhere progress can be made, and get buy-in from staff at all levels.
  • Strive for managed and purposeful change
  • The importance of the museum’s mission statement, make sure everyone in the museum is aware of that statement and embed it in every aspect of the museum’s work.

One particular case study of successful change came from the Imperial War Museum, where they moved from a risk adverse to a risk aware strategy to copyright and making their collections available online. This resulted in a massive increase in interest in and use of their digital collections. Carolyn Royston from the IWM discusses this in a video available on YouTube

Practical Help and Useful Documents

A number of sessions looked at the advice and frameworks provided. These included:

  • PAS 917 and the framework produced by the Collections Trust. Helpful summary factsheets on each area are provided. Refer to these before going to PAS 917
  • Investors in collection – This is a new service that is being reviewed by the Collections Trust but not launched yet. This would involve the Trust providing a collections consultancy service for museums to help us review our current strengths, identify areas for development and improve our resilience. More information is available here.
  • Collections Trust Standards Toolkit to aid with policy and planning
  • Presentation on the new digital interpretations at Colchester Castle Museum by Tom Hodgson. It was interesting to hear about the new digital strategies used, and the talk reminded us of the scale of historical and archaeological research involved, the amount of material you will need to provide digital companies with to produce reconstructions, games etc.
  • Discussion of the importance of digital being a method to achieve a learning aim, not the aim in itself
  • Presentation on the work of Museum Development Officers with a particular spotlight on Essex from Amy Cotterill. Local schemes included: training and networks provided by SHARE, the forthcoming Heritage Watch scheme and digital learning resources available to hire 

Developing a Digital Strategy

This session introduced the concept of COPE – create once, publish everywhere. We looked at ways to increase access to the research and content we create with minimum labour.

  • How can it be easily pushed out to a range of different digital and web-based platforms?
  • What format/location will we need to store the original in to make sure this process is simple and not time-consuming?
  • Think about the budgets to maintain all these digital mediums in the future, whether gallery interactives or other systems.
  • Seek advice from those with special needs

Overall the day was very helpful, providing a wealth of information and also offering the chance to take a step back and think reflectively on where we are going with collections management, what we want to achieve and how we can get there. Colchester Castle Museum was a great venue, and it was lovely to get the opportunity to look round all the new displays and interactives.

~ Jennifer Brown, Braintree District Museum

If you’ve recently attended a training day or delivered a project that you’d like to write about, please send me an email at amy.cotterill@essex.gov.uk 

Dinosaur vs Whale: What Can We Learn from the Natural History Museum?

"Dippy" the Diplodocus

“Dippy” on display at the Natural History Museum (Image by CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The Natural History Museum caused a media storm last week when they announced that “Dippy” the diplodocus would be leaving his current spot in the entrance gallery and be replaced by the skeleton of a blue whale.

While some people are upset that Dippy is leaving, the truth is that the diplodocus had only been in that spot for 35 years, not all that long in the museum’s 134 year history. George the Elephant stood there from 1907 to 1979 – a far more impressive run! It should also be noted that Dippy’s not a “real fossil”, but a plaster cast. Changing the display is part of NHM drive to highlight issues of environmental conservation, which is a significant part of their vision, and the museum will continue to have dinosaurs on display.

The story has given the museum a lot of publicity. It’s been featured by all of the major news outlets and the public have taken to the internet, the radio and television debates to express their allegiance to either #TeamDippy or #TeamWhale. I confidently predict that their visitor figures will go up over the next few months, not just because people want to “say goodbye” to Dippy but because all of this media coverage has reminded them that the museum is there and it’s free. Then, when the whale takes up residence in 2017, the new display and second round of publicity will bring visitors back again.

So what can smaller museums learn from this example?

Small museums are unlikely to get the scale of press coverage that NHM had, but refreshing displays does encourage people to make return visits. It also means that items that would otherwise be sitting in store are seen. Fragile items that can’t be on permanent display due to lighting levels can be made available to the public for short periods of time. The scale of this “refreshing” can range from simply changing the contents of a case in your permanent display, to a temporary exhibition telling a particular story or even a full redisplay of your museum.

If you are making a significant change this can cause controversy amongst local audiences. However, with clear communication (or even better, consultation) we can bring people over to our side (or at least explain why we’re making a change).

Augmented reality at Colchester Castle

A visitor exploring the new displays at Colchester Castle

Tom Hodgson, Colchester Museum Manager, oversaw the recent HLF-funded redisplay of Colchester Caste:

“The redevelopment of Colchester Castle has had a huge and immediate impact and our visitors are clearly delighted by the mix of object rich displays, lively interactives and audio visuals. They are also pleased by the balance we have struck between displaying the collections and showcasing the Castle itself. A few of our visitors are not yet sold on the more modern innovations, but the vast majority have appreciated the use of new technologies such as virtual reality and digital tablets to add further layers and depth to our interpretation. In the nine months since we re-opened on 2 May last year we have received over 88,000 visitors to the Castle – the same figure that we achieved in 2011/12 our last full year of opening. We are expecting to welcome over 100,000 visitors by the end of March”.

If you anticipate that the public are going to complain about changes, particularly on social media, it’s important to maintain a level head in your responses. This “Storify” by the NHM of responses to the news about Dippy is a master-class in good social media management: https://storify.com/NHM_London/blue-whale-to-take-centre-stage

~Amy Cotterill, Museum Development Officer