Museums in the Pandemic

Coronavirus and Museum Resilience: Some preliminary observations

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led to virtually all UK museums being closed. The issue at hand is whether these temporary closures may become permanent, and which museums are likely to be the most resilient, both in the short and long term.    

Of all the museums that have existed since 1960 (when our data collection begins), 18% have closed. However, rate of closure varies by museum governance. 34% of privately-owned museums and 21% of local authority museums have closed, whereas closure rates among national and not for profit museums are comparatively low at 9.5% and 8.5% respectively. Small museums are also much more likely to close than medium, large or huge museums.

These closures took place under very different circumstances to those we face today. Never before has the entire UK museum sector shutdown in this way, challenging the basic operating model of attracting visitors to physical sites. Here we consider what light our data might shed on the current situation.

Independent museums: private

Private museums tend to be owned and operated by individuals or volunteer groups, or are run as a business or are attached to one: they can span a museum in a living room, a privately-owned historic house, or a museum of a large company. In each instance they usually operate outside of the frameworks of professional museum support. Historically, closure rates are high. This can be because the owner has retired and sold assets, because there has been little succession planning, or because the business runs into financial difficulty, resulting in the sale of a site or collection. COVID-19 is a (relatively) short-term threat that presents an acute danger to museum owners’ health and their finances. But the threat posed will likely be different for private museums based on their size and scope.

Private museums that open on an ad-hoc basis by individuals or volunteer groups might be well placed to weather a shutdown. While they may have bills to cover, without significant outlays (particularly paid staff) they may have flexibility to suspend operations in a way that other museums might not. By contrast, private museums that are visitor attractions in their own right, or whose future is contingent on the success of a business, are threatened by the global economic recession which appears likely to accompany the pandemic. A significant downturn in tourism and domestic spending may significantly reduce the means of owners and their ability to open and maintain their museums.

Independent museums: not for profit

Not for profit museums comprise the biggest group of museums in the UK. They are constituted as charitable trusts and this formal infrastructure and eligibility for a diverse range of funding contributes to their longevity. Not for profit museums also span a range of venues, from small village museums to some of the largest museums in the country. Again, museums at the margins might be more resilient to the current circumstances. Some smaller museums, often with a focus on local history and operated by volunteer groups, might be more adaptive to enforced closure. Equally, small museums with diverse funding sources (such a project grants) may be somewhat shielded from declining visitor income.

However, museums that depend heavily on visitor revenue (including admissions and events) face uncertain times, particularly as many not for profit museums do not have significant reserves. For example, the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth generates 90% of its revenue from visitors and a prolonged shutdown could see it lose its entire annual income. In the long term this crisis might see a significant reduction in not for profit museums’ operational capacity – the tourist economy will likely take years to fully recover; there may be a decline in donations (given the effect on private finances); and grant-giving bodies are pivoting resources to an emergency footing. The Arts Council is reallocating £160m funding – expending nearly all its reserves – to support cultural organizations and cultural workers during the crisis. This support is likely to last for a significant time following the end of the crisis, and revenue for capital and programme development may be significantly curtailed as a result.

Local Authority museums

Local authority museums are owned and operated by, or on behalf of, local authorities and are largely tied to their economic health. These museums have a closure rate of 21%, and this tends to occur when the authority takes drastic measures to cut expenditure, resulting in the rationalization of museum services. 59 local authority museums closed between 2009 and 2017, following the global financial crisis. Accompanying budgets cuts saw museum roles hollowing out and expertise lost, further undermining institutional resilience. With core operational funding, the threat to local authority museums is not so much in the immediate term but the years ahead as the UK likely faces a more severe recession than 2008. While the government stimulus package (announced 11 March 2020) provides a £500m ‘hardship’ fund for local authorities, the long-term effects of the crisis will likely place a heavy financial burden on local government resources, which will increase the likelihood of further local authority museum closures or asset transfers.

National museums

National museums receive core funding from central government. They have a closure rate of 9.5%, although this is inflated as it includes branch museum closures (e.g. the British Theatre Museum, a branch of the V&A, closed in 2007). Historically, the resilience of national museums is because government grant-in-aid supplied the majority of their operating costs. However, over the past 30 years national museums have been geared towards privatization, significantly increasing self-generated revenue as a proportion of their annual income. This now presents serious implications for national museums. For example, 61% the V&A’s annual income is self-generated and 39% grant-in-aid. The museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, has estimated the museum will lose £1,000,000 per month during closure, while the Museum’s annual report notes its reserves can cover operational costs for between 3 to 6 months. While it is unlikely that national museums will see permanent closures, it is likely that the government will have to bolster their funds and this may be at the cost of jobs, rationalization of core functions, or have implications for capital expansion and exhibition programmes.


The outlook for the museum sector is uncertain because the trajectory of the virus and its impacts are unclear. In China, South Korea and Japan, museums that were instructed to close in January have now begun to reopen to the public, albeit with restrictions. However, these countries mobilized quickly to track the disease and lock down cities in a way that seems unrealizable in the West. The UK government indicates that a shutdown of normal life could last from 3 to 12 months.

The government response and its support for the museum sector has been opaque. It is anticipated that some museums might benefit from small business loans and Business Relief Rates, while calls have been made to utilize the £120m ringfenced for the 2021 post-Brexit ‘Festival of Britain’. However, it is unclear how emergency funds would be deployed and which parts of the sector would most benefit from them. Beyond a blanket bailout, detailed work needs to be done to understand vulnerable museum communities that should be eligible for support.

The magnitude of this crisis will undoubtedly cause museums to close permanently. Already some museums, such as Creswell Crags, have launched their own fundraising appeals to help secure their finances. In the short term, it appears that the most vulnerable will be established independent museums (private and non-profit) that are significantly dependent on visitor revenue and business revenues. By contrast, the repercussions of a massive economic bailout, will likely lead to difficult decisions for local authority support for museums in the coming years.

The Mapping Museums research team will continue to update the database to track museum closure and establish how the museum sector changes as a result of this crisis. The database can be used to find local museums (and prospectively offer support) and can be edited – please inform us if you know of museums that close permanently. Documenting the sector will create valuable data to support decisions taken by government and sector bodies in the challenging times ahead.  

Jamie Larkin

Research Process

Finding museum founders

The museum founders that we tracked down and interviewed covered a huge range people from all walks of life. They included a miner (Blaenavon Community Museum), teachers (Nidderdale Museum, Little Chester Heritage Centre), managing directors (British Commercial Vehicle Museum), artists (National Waterways Museum), a Colonel (Adjutant General Corps Museum), a security guard (Micro Museum), a Scottish Lord (Museum of the Isles) and much to my surprise, and somehow I didn’t figure this out until after the interview, Nigel Farage’s father, a stockbroker (Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Museum).

Guy Farage, co-founder of the Kent and Yeomanry Sharpshooters Museum
Guy Farage, co-founder of the Kent and Yeomanry Sharpshooters Museum (opened 1965)

So how do you find a founder of a museum, sometimes years or even decades after they have left or retired? The starting point for me – and the thing that made the task much easier than expected – was the Mapping Museums project database (this will be freely available to the public online next year). After a bit of experimentation, it soon became easy to view the museum distribution on a map and run off lists of them in a certain area, topic or geo-demographic neighbourhood. These were the main attributes we used to ensure that we spoke to a good range of museums across the UK.

For example, when looking for military museums in Lincolnshire (an easy search on our database, selecting area and topic), there were more than a dozen that looked promising. I downloaded the data into an Excel spreadsheet so I could sort them by attributes – this meant I could try and get a spread of opening dates across the period (1960 to present) and check their size and governance.

This gave me my shortlist; now the time-consuming part began – trying to identify the founder(s), figure out if they were still alive and if they were, attempt to get their contact details.

Calling and emailing the museum was the next step – but surprisingly this was not always fruitful. Smaller museums are often open seasonally on a couple of days a week, so timing the approach was essential. Even then existing staff (or more commonly volunteers) might have started work long the founder had left the scene. At more recently established museums the founder was usually still involved, and colleagues were usually happy to make the introduction. I always offered to share the eventual interview transcript with the interviewee and the museum, so they could have something for their help which might contribute to their institutional archive.

Eileen Burgess, co-founder of Nidderdale Museum, Yorkshire
Eileen Burgess, co-founder of Nidderdale Museum, Yorkshire (opened 1975)

Inevitably many prospective emails and answerphone messages went unanswered. Then the internet was invaluable– searching current (or old, using museum websites; online annual reports, the Charity Commission register, newsletters, local press coverage and even obituaries to help piece things together. Usually I could find a name, personal email address or direct phone number of someone involved, gleaned from an old press release or an old appeal for volunteers.

The sixty-year period we were dealing with on the Mapping Museum project also meant that many founders had died. This made it much more difficult to find interviewees that set up museums in the 1960s and 70s; mining industrial museums could also be tricky, perhaps due to the diseases relating to the industry concerned. In these situations co-founders, colleagues or curators that had been involved in the early years could sometimes be found instead.

One thing that surprised me was that few museums had a personal written account, or interview recording with the founder(s). Occasionally an article, booklet or press interview would cover something of the founding story, and some museums have excellent organisational histories on their websites. But detailed founding accounts of small museums are rare and recorded interviews with museum founders even rarer.

Once a founder has died, we are left with minutes of early meetings, press cuttings and whatever can be gleaned from the memories of those that experienced the earliest years, if they can be found. I hope this project will encourage staff and founders of independent museums to spend an afternoon recording (or writing) an account of how the museum came about, covering some of the key decisions and turning points in its development. Records like this can really help new staff and volunteers appreciate what they have inherited and help explain the context of the museum to the public.

Toby Butler


Small museums in a global context

In June 2019, the Mapping Museums team ran a half-day symposium, where specialists on Brazilian, British, Canadian, and Tibetan museums talked about museums of taxidermied gophers, the importance of place, alternative histories, and the factors underpinning the expansion of the museum sector, among other topics. If you missed the event you can now watch those lectures online (click the links under each title to view the video).

From Gophers to Fear and Wonder: Studying the Small Town and Rural Museums in Alberta

Lianne McTavish

Community museums of the 21st century in Brazil: local experiences for a global reflection

Bruno Brulon Soares


Lianne McTavish

In 2013, I received funding to visit and analyze the small town and rural museums in Alberta, a province in western Canada. My research assistant (Misa Nikolic) and I first strove to find and map every museum in the province, a difficult task that eventually revealed 315 organizations. We then visited, photographed, and documented over 71% of those museums, highlighting the small and officially “unrecognized” museums in remote locations. My talk describes the challenges we faced, the adventures we had, and the lessons we learned during this process, highlighting such themes as automobility, resource extraction, and Indigenous cultures.

Bruno Brulon Soares

Community museums have transformed contemporary museum practice. In management their own museums, members of communities who are not experts or museum professionals have been able to represent themselves, and to work together to transform their social environment and lived realities. This presentation takes the Museum of Removals in Rio de Janeiro and the Museum of Sexual Diversity in São Paulo as examples of small community museums that have been actively used as political devices.

Museum Snapshots

The Museum of Rail Travel, Keighley

The Museum of Rail Travel is devoted to railway carriages through the ages. It is run by the Vintage Carriages Trust, formed in 1965 by a group of volunteers interested in the preservation of wooden-bodied carriages, and now has nine historic railway carriages, three small steam locomotives, a railbus and a large collection of railway signs, posters and magazines. Visitors can enter the carriages and numerous films have been shot using the carriages as a film set, including the Railway Children.

Interior of Museum of Rail Travel, Keighley, showing the side of a rail carriage

The Museum is on the outskirts of Keighley in West Yorkshire, adjacent to Ingrow West railway station and Ingrow Loco Museum. The station is part of Keighley and Worth Valley Railway (KWVR), a five-mile long heritage railway that runs to Oxenhope reopened by the KWVR Preservation Society in 1968, the first privatisation of any part of British Railways. The Museum of Rail Travel is in a purpose-built carriage works/museum with sets of rails connecting it to the adjacent railway. The building is divided into two main sections – a museum space containing a series of historic carriages, signs and displays and a large workshop area devoted to carriage repair and restoration. The building also contains a well-stocked shop selling new and second-hand railway enthusiast books and a substantial collection of railway magazines and journals (13,000), which are for sale and are an important income stream for the Trust.

Visitors can sit in many of the carriage compartments and stickers on windows of the carriages detail films the carriage has featured in, listing the title, year made, stars and location of the carriage for filming. Somewhat surprisingly many of the mannequins featured in displays are, on close examination, incognito members of the royal family. A young queen is off to Brighton and Princess Margaret sits on a station bench in a scarf and enormous sunglasses.

Interior of Museum of Rail Travel, Keighley, with a seated Princess Margaret mannequin

Text and photographs by Toby Butler

Museum Snapshots

King Edward Mine, Cornwall

King Edward Mine Museum interprets the history of Cornish mining on the site of a tin mine used by the Camborne School of Mines for training from 1897. The School moved to Poole in the 1970s leaving many of the buildings redundant. The King Edward Mine Preservation Group was set up in 1987 to preserve the buildings and collect, restore and display industrial machinery used by the Cornish mining industry by a group of volunteers (initially mostly staff from the Camborne School of Mines). The project has received major European and Lottery funding and is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2006). 

A private road leads to the mine complex, which is remarkably complete and includes an array of workshops and historic industrial buildings, several of which are now listed, and a popular café. Several buildings on the site have been converted for small business use. It includes an Edwardian lecture room, complete with rock samples and books, although this is not currently part of the public exhibition. 

Interior of King Edward Mine museum with displays

The museum first opened in 2005 and now has displays over several buildings. A stone-built Boiler House (1906) contains contextual displays on the people and land surrounding the mine, and covers social history, archaeology, geology and the history of tin mining, mostly with the use of illustrated display boards addressing questions about mining (e.g. “was it dangerous or unhealthy for children to work at the mines?”) with some related objects, mostly in cases and video/audio displays (one speaker is memorably installed in a Cornish pasty which can be lifted to the ear). The winder and compressor house contain displays on winding machinery and drilling, along with explanations of the various processes carried out to extract tin at the mine in the Edwardian period. The displays range from large machinery with detailed and illustrated explanation on information panels, to objects and models in cases, often making use of extensive archive photographs of the site and the machinery. A large corrugated iron clad mill building contains an array of working machinery, much of which has been restored to working condition and visitors can see it in action, including enormous stamping machines used to crush rock.

The founder of the museum Tony Brooks has published an illustrated history of the mine, including a section on the early preservation work King Edward Mine: An Illustrated Account of Underground and Surface Operations 1897-2001 (Cornish Hillside Publications, 2002).

Text and pictures by Toby Butler

Copyright: Mapping Museums

Research Process

Subjects that Matter

Devising a new subject classification system

One of the aims of the Mapping Museums research is to examine trends in subject matter. We wanted to know if the rates of opening and closure varied according the subject of the museum, whether each country or region favoured museums devoted to different subjects, and if there were differences as to when particular subjects emerged as being popular choices for new museums. Above all, we wanted to understand whether subject matter could be understood as a social barometer: were trends in subject matter indicative of wider or popular concerns? To accomplish this work, we needed to classify all the museums in our database according to their over-arching subject matter, so we looked to see what systems were available. 

The Problem with DOMUS

The most recent taxonomy for museum subject matter was developed for the DOMUS survey, which was conducted between 1994 and 1999. The classification system remains in use, most notably by the Museum Association’s Find-A-Museum service (although it is now used to classify collections rather than museums in their entirety and the categories of ‘Mixed’ and ‘Arms and armour’ have been dropped).

The DOMUS system divided museums into twenty-two categories:

  • Agriculture
  • Archaeology
  • Archives
  • Arms and Armour
  • Biology/Natural history
  • Costume /Textiles
  • Decorative / Applied arts
  • Ethnography
  • Fine art
  • Geology
  • Maritime
  • Medicine
  • Military
  • Mixed
  • Music
  • Numismatics
  • Oral history
  • Personalia
  • Photography
  • Science / Industry
  • Social history

While DOMUS provided a longer list of categories than previous museum surveys, it was not sufficiently detailed for our research purposes. For instance, we suspected that the majority of railway museums opened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, shortly after steam locomotives were phased out and following the second Beeching Report of 1965, which resulted in over half of all stations and some 33% of track being closed. These closed lines provided space for enthusiasts to run their engines, and the redundant stations functioned as exhibition space. This history is not shared with buses, or cars, or helicopters, which would also be classed as Transport. If we wanted to tease out the various histories of Transport then we needed to be able to distinguish between them.

Similarly, we wanted to examine the patterns of emergence of manufacturing museums. Did museums devoted to pottery open at the same time as those of mining? Was there a correlation between the demise of certain industries and the foundation of museums on those subjects? Did all industries have their museums? Clearly, then, we could not have a single capacious category of Science and industry, as was the case in the DOMUS system; we needed a taxonomy that allowed for a greater degree of discrimination.

One way of managing the lack of detail within the DOMUS system was to introduce sub-categories. However, we had several other reservations about its usability. One issue was that some of the categories blur subject matter with methodology. Social history and oral history are ways of pursuing history, while an archive refers to a specific type of collection, and they are not subjects in themselves. It is entirely possible to have a social history of aristocratic women’s lives in the eighteenth century or a social history of Welsh mining in the late twentieth century; an oral history of performance art or of hop picking in Essex; and an archive of political ephemera or matchbox labels. This elision had practical consequences for the efficacy of the classification system. In DOMUS, social history was used as a synonym for open-air or living history museums, or as a means of describing museums that used dioramas or other media to present a contextual display. As a result, museums were divided across subject matter categories depending on the form of their exhibition: museums of rural life were misleadingly split across Agriculture and Social history, and museums of industry were similarly split across Science and Industry and Social History.

There were also noticeable gaps in the DOMUS system, which stayed close to conventional academic disciplines, and to the categories common to nineteenth and early twentieth century museums. While there were three different categories for visual arts: Decorative / Applied art; Fine art; and Photography there was no category for local history or for museums devoted to particular buildings. (Although some historic buildings act as little more than containers to museums, and their subject matter is quite distinct from their accommodation, on other occasions, the building is the artefact and the point of the museum). Likewise, there was no category for museums devoted to different denominations and faiths, to the fire, police, prison, and rescue services, or for museums that address popular or everyday subjects such as fairgrounds or radios.

And finally, the categorisation system reinforced normative conventions. For example, Military focuses attention on the armed forces, state sponsored conflict, and recent conflict, and it marginalises historic and unsanctioned modes of struggle and the everyday experience of war.

Given all these problems, we decided to develop a new classificatory system for the Mapping Museums project.

The Mapping Museums taxonomy

Devising a list of categories is a practical and logistical task. It needs to cover a wide variety of museums but not be so long a list as to be unworkable, and terms cannot include each other or overlap to any great extent. We began devising our system by deleting, rejigging, and adding to the existing DOMUS categories to create headline categories. This process went through numerous iterations, and at each stage we tested our taxonomy against our list of museums. After six months of editing, only the categories of Archaeology and Transport remained.  

In creating our new taxonomy, we dropped Social history, Oral history and Archives as categories for the reasons discussed above. There were no museums solely devoted to coins so we cut Numismatics, and after much discussion, we removed Ethnography since this focuses on objects’ country of origin, rather than on their subject matter as such. For example, clothing from the Solomon Islands would be categorised under ‘Ethnography’ rather than with clothing or fabric arts from elsewhere in the world.

We replaced Personalia, which emphases collections of objects, with Personality, which is centred on the individual in question. Science and industry have been decoupled and we have linked Industry and manufacture, which encompasses both the processes and the products of manufacture. Costume and textiles, Decorative/applied arts, Fine art, Music, and Photography were collected together as ‘Arts’.

We renamed and implicitly re-shaped some categories to make them more inclusive. ‘Agriculture’ has been replaced with ‘Rural industry’. Late twentieth century surveys have used the two categories relatively interchangeably and we have chosen the wider, more encompassing term. We added health to Medicine, so as to encompass other varieties of healing and wellbeing more generally; Geology and Biology/Natural History were subsumed under the wider title of Natural World; and Maritime became ‘Sea and Seafaring’, so that it would cover subjects such as fishing as well as sea-borne trade and naval matters. We followed the Museums Association in taking Arms and armour to be part of Military, although we have renamed it War and conflict, a term is intended to include wider aspects of conflict.

We also introduced the new categories of Buildings; Belief and identity; Communications; Food and drink; Leisure and sport; Local history; Services; and Utilities. Other was added for museums that do not easily fit anywhere. This work produced the following list:

  • Archaeology
  • Arts
  • Belief and Identity
  • Buildings
  • Communications
  • Food and drink
  • Industry and Manufacture
  • Leisure and Sport
  • Local history
  • Medicine and Health
  • Mixed
  • Natural World
  • Personality
  • Rural industry
  • Science and technology
  • Sea and seafaring
  • Services
  • Transport
  • Utilities
  • War and Conflict
  • Other

We continued the process with respect to sub-categories. For example, Transport is divided as follows:

  • Aviation
  • Bicycles
  • Bus and Trams
  • Canals
  • Cars and motorbikes
  • Mixed
  • Trains and railways
  • Other

Where possible, we introduced sub-categories when a single group was large and unwieldy. Large categories such as Transport have several sub-categories, while the relatively small category Food and drink has none. Again, the sub-categories went through numerous iterations, not least when we took our data to be checked by external experts (see the previous blog: Picking the Brains of the Museum Development Network).

Having worked out a usable system, we had to classify all 4,000 museums according to subject matter. This was no small endeavour, but we are now able to analyse historic trends and geographical patterns in subject matter in close detail. That research has produced some surprising results, which will be discussed in future blogs.

Fiona Candlin


Mapping Museums Website Evaluation 2019

Can you help us to evaluate the Mapping Museums website?

Mapping Museums is a large-scale research project that is based at Birkbeck, University of London, which aims at documenting at analysing the development of the museum sector from 1960 until 2020. We have now designed a database that enables users to browse, search, and visualise information on 4,000 museums and have developed a website that contains information on our initial findings, definitions, our research process, and the interview based research (including images and transcripts).

The evaluation session is an important means for us to gain feedback about the usefulness of the website. With your input we can further improve the system before it is made publicly available.

We’d like a wide variety of people to participate in the evaluation trial especially those who work in the museum sector or in academia.

The trial session will be based on three activities:

  • A hands-on introduction to the web application.
  • Using the application to undertake a small number of information searches. This will allow us to gauge how easy the system is to use.
  • Group discussion about your experience of using the system and the ways that it could be improved and extended.

The session will take no more than two and a half hours.

There is more information about the project available at

Locations and dates

2 – 4.30pm Thursday 26th September, Room 407, Birkbeck Main Building, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX (the entrance is on Torrington Square)

2 – 4.30pm Friday 27th September, Room 407, Birkbeck Main Building, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX (the entrance is on Torrington Square)

We would be very grateful for your assistance. If you would like to participate, please email the project director at 

Researchers involved in the trial session

Researchers and contact details:

  1. Professor Fiona Candlin (
  2. Professor Alex Poulovassilis (
  3. Dr Val Katerinchuk (

How the data will be handled in the study

Information obtained from you through the session will be used to inform the research work of the project and subsequent research publications. All personal data collected from this study including your name and contact details will be kept confidential. No reference will be made in oral or written form that could link any participant to information they have provided to us as part of this the study.

Your participation in this study is voluntary, and you may withdraw from the study at any time.

Research Process Museum Snapshots

On the road with the Mapping Museums Project

(Header photo: Toby’s car parked on the single track road on the way to Gairloch)

I have driven the length and breadth of Britain for Mapping Museums to complete one of the most rewarding tasks on the project – interviewing people who have set up independent museums. I have now recorded more than 60 museum founders and in the process I have driven 5,870 miles to meet them and it’s time to reflect on the trials and tribulations of life on the road as an academic field researcher.

First there is the driving. We felt it was important to get as wider geographical demographic spread as possible, and as many museums were in remote locations the car was the only practical option. I visited and photographed 40 museums, which in itself was a joy, but along the way I also got to see some stunning parts of Britain  that were new to me – redundant mills in Lancashire; the snow swept Yorkshire Dales in December; the ruins of World War II airfields in Lincolnshire. I kicked myself for not exploring these areas before, all just a few hours’ drive away from my own home in Kent.

The luxury of a car also meant I could take as much equipment and luggage as I liked. For each trip I would carefully go through my packing list: laptop and digital recording equipment for interviews, notepad and paperwork, SLR camera for photographing museums inside and out, battery chargers, folding bicycle (for exercise and to give me a break from the car), a thermos flask for in-transit tea, wellies and two coats along with the usual clothes and toiletries. I also had room for a couple of bulky luxuries to make life on the road easier; firstly a four gang extension lead, with various chargers attached, perfect for charging all my equipment in rooms with few plug sockets. And finally my own feather pillow, which pretty much guaranteed me a good night’s sleep.

Between interviews life on the road was solitary, apart from the odd hitchhiker and a few days when my path crossed with Jake, my project colleague who was researching some of the underlying causes of museum development in Cornwall. In the car the radio and downloaded BBC Sounds programmes were my main companion – along with the scenery. This was most spectacular in the Highlands of Scotland, which I criss-crossed to make meetings with founders of croft and clan museums. Many of the small museums in the Highlands (such as Laidhay Croft Museum and Gairloch Heritage Museum) hug the coast road, often single track, with passing places to allow other vehicles to get by. and astonishing views of lochs, mountains, cliffs and ancient peat bogs. The bright gorse flowers were made even brighter by sunshine in an unseasonal heatwave (‘Auch, it’s always like this in Scotland’, I was told several times).

Roadside sign for Laidhay Croft Museum
Fair weather driving in the Highlands

Cars wait on a road on Skye while Sheep are being moved
Temporary road closure: crofters at work on Skye

Much of this work fell over the winter months, when many smaller museums have shut their doors and the people who run them have more time to talk. The week before Christmas I experienced the childish excitement of a snow flurry in Pateley Bridge, a picturesque little town in the Yorkshire Moors. I was there to interview Eileen Burgess, the 89-year old retired school teacher and co-founder of Nidderdale Museum (a huge local history museum in what was once the town workhouse). I stayed above a pub and after work went for a snowy walk in the upper dale. That evening I joined the town’s Christmas fair wandering from shop to shop to be offered mulled wine and Christmas nibbles – so warmly welcomed that for an evening I felt like an honorary Yorkshireman.

The hardest weather was at Land’s End. I needed to get to the Isles of Scilly and there had been a long period of gale force winds and even supply boats hadn’t got through to the islands for a week. A morning flight from a Cornish airfield was my only option. I stayed at the Land’s End Hotel the night before; the hotel is on the cliffs next to the famous landmark. Before I went to bed I ventured out and could see huge waves crashing on the shore below. The wind howled all night. The next day I discovered that a crew of French fisherman had been rescued from a fishing boat caught up on the rocks below.

The next morning the wind was still gusty, but the direction was favourable for flying and I was relieved to get a call from the airport to say the flight was possible. But they warned that the unpredictable forecast meant they couldn’t guarantee the return journey and I would have to risk getting stranded on the Isles of Scilly. I had a tight interview schedule and I had driven so far; I decided to risk it.

View downwards from a small plane as it crosses the Cornish coast.
The view from the plane, Cornish coast

After a frankly terrifying flight on the sort of small plane that has a passenger sat next to the pilot, I had a few hours to interview Richard Larne, author, wreck diver and founder of the Charlestown Shipwreck Centre. After a fascinating interview in a café in St Mary’s, I got an urgent call from the airport recommending I get the next flight before the weather turned. Richard kindly agreed to rush me to the airport in his car for an even bumpier flight back to the mainland (as it turned out, this was indeed the last flight for some days). When we landed with a thump I gave a cheer, along with the five other passengers. Now all was well and we were both very relieved; Richard had narrowly escaped an uninvited house guest for who knows how long, and I could make my next interview on time. And so the extraordinary journey continued – next up would be Tony Brooks, ex-head of mining at Camborne School of Mines and the founder of the King Edward Mine Museum. I’ll discuss the wonderful array of project interviewees in my next post.

By Toby Butler (Research Fellow, Mapping Museums Project)

Museum Snapshots

Nidderdale Museum, Yorkshire

The Nidderdale Museum is located in the market town of Pateley Bridge in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Nidderdale, one of the larger Yorkshire Dales. It was established in 1975 by members of a WEA adult education local history class who had published a landmark local history book, A History of Nidderdale in 1967. The museum has an extensive collection concerned with life in the Nidderdale valley and includes a variety of interiors featuring objects donated or rescued from local buildings including a kitchen, pub ‘snug’, school, Victorian parlour, dairy, shoe makers, magistrates court and even a walk-through reconstruction of a mineral mine shaft. It won the National Heritage Museum of the Year Award in 1990 for the ‘museum which does the most with the least’.

The museum is run by the Nidderdale Museum Society and housed in an old workhouse, built in 1863. This became the Rural District Council offices until local government reorganisation in 1974, when the district council was amalgamated into Harrogate Borough Council and the building became available (the latter owns and maintains the building). The museum has 11 themed exhibition rooms situated on one upper floor, a large research/library room and store rooms, workshops and meeting rooms on the ground floor. Apart from entire rescued interiors like the town court room, striking objects include a wooden haberdashery box marked ‘BLIND’ belonging to a local blind hawker in the 1920s; an astonishing early electric hair curler from a hairdressers featuring more than a dozen wired curlers dangling from the ceiling and a large collection of Methodist related ceramics and other items from local chapels. Highlights of the collection and an account of the history of the museum feature in a book, Traces of Nidderdale in 40 Years and 40 Objects: Stories of the Museum by Joanna Moody (2014).

Display at Nidderdale Museum including a mannequin with an early electric hair curler
The electric hair curler on display

Text and pictures by Toby Butler

Copyright: Mapping Museums