Research Process

Opening a Museum

How many people does it take to set up a museum?

Conventional histories of museum founders usually concentrate on individuals – the collector whose artefacts provide the basis for a new institution, and heroic directors or curators who single-handedly drive forward their vision of a museum. In our experience, establishing a museum is a collaborative process.

Eileen Burgess listed the people she worked with in setting up Nidderdale Museum in 1976. There was Jack, her husband, and their son Mark, then a teenager; Muriel Swires, who taught at the same junior school as Eileen; Geoffrey Townley who was headmaster and who brought his sixteen year old son Richard; Richard Jackson, also sixteen, and Richard Townley’s friend; Joan Knightson, a geography teacher; and Joyce Swires a cousin of Muriel’s. She worked as a cashier in a Harrogate department store and negotiated with the managers for the purchase of secondhand display cases and mannequins that were used in the museum; Heather Swires was distantly related to Muriel. She came from a farming family and they gave the museum a collection of redundant agricultural machinery and tools. Eileen said ‘Heather spent most of her time with her sleeves rolled up, very old clothes … rubbing down rusty old equipment and black leading it.  Whenever I think of black leading, I think of Heather, who went home with her hands and arms absolutely black’. Heather came with her husband Dayne and they brought their two daughters, Deborah and Helen, who were fourteen and twelve. Like the teenagers they were also given jobs to do. Elsy Moss kept the Shaw Mills post office & shop with her husband and was the museums’ costume expert. She was also knowledgeable about the lower dale.  Mary Barley was a housewife with a small part-time job in a local firm distributing books to libraries, and complemented Elsy’s knowledge by specialising in the mid-dale & its industries. Tommy Garth was a labourer who had worked on the construction of Scar Reservoir. He had amassed a huge collection of photographs of the waterworks and the dale in general. Joanna Dawson ‘was a pedigree cattle farmer, at a time when being a woman pedigree farmer was quite rare’ and a Methodist preacher. She gave a collection of Methodist ceramics to the museum and curated its exhibition. I asked Eileen if they all had distinct roles. Not really, she said, everyone just turned their hand to whatever was needed, although we were the only people with an estate car so we did a lot of fetching and carrying.

Founders of Nidderdale Museum in 1999, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the museums' opening. Geoffrey Townley, Muriel Swires, Eileen Burgess, Elsy Moss, Mary Barley
Founders of Nidderdale Museum in 1999, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the museums’ opening. Geoffrey Townley, Muriel Swires, Eileen Burgess, Elsy Moss, Mary Barley.
Two mannequins wearing girl guide and brownie uniforms at Nidderdale Museum. A woolen shawl hangs behind them decorated with various cloth badges.
Guide and Brownie costumes on display at Nidderdale Museum

The idea of establishing a new museum, especially local history museums, often arises within an existing group. The possibility of opening a museum in Nidderdale was first mentioned in the tea break at a meeting of the Nidderdale Local History Society. In other cases, the idea of opening a museum was sparked by an event and in Aldbourne, the catalyst was an archaeological dig at the village football field. The ground was about to be refurbished and so local metal detectorists took the opportunity to explore the area. They found all manner of things including a medieval brooch, a small bell, and objects from the American military base that had been in Aldbourne during the Second World War. Terry Gilligan, Alan Heasman, and John Dymond explained that there had been talk in the village of starting a museum for a number of years but finding the objects prompted them to form a heritage group. Over one hundred and twenty people joined. The local council allowed them to use a stone building that had once been a stable, had been converted into public toilets, converted again for use as a youth club, and had since been left empty. Aldbourne Heritage Centre opened in 2016 and they now welcome fans of Dr Who keen to see where the series ‘The Daemons’ was filmed, Americans interested in finding where the Band of Brothers were stationed, and parties of schoolchildren who come to find out about the Great Fire of Aldbourne.

Pub sign The Cloven Hoof on the grass outside The Blue Boar pub in Aldbourne.
The Cloven Hoof pub sign, Aldbourne
A display of Dr Who memorabilia at Aldbourne Heritage Centre. A grey demon with horns, the Master in an embrodered red robe, a soldier wearing Khaki and binoculars. Behind them is a copy of Dr Who magazine commemorating the making of the series The Daemons.
Dr Who display at Aldbourne Heritage Centre

Private museums may involve fewer people and are often the work of a couple. The Micromuseum in Ramsgate that exhibits small computing equipment, the Internal Fire: Museum of Power in West Wales, which is a collection of generators, and Cobbaton Combat Museum in Devon were all set up by husband and wife teams, and in the latter case the couple’s siblings, parents, and later children were also co-opted to help. And even those museums that are ostensibly the work of one or two people usually rely on input from others. Partners, neighbours, friends, and family members may variously help build the museum, make financial loans, pay the mortgage while their spouse devotes their time to the museum, donate objects, hold fund-raising events, take tickets at the door, museum-sit, give guided tours, make cakes for a café and so on.

Setting up a museum almost always depends on the contributions of many people. The work of inspiring founders is inevitably underpinned by the labour of others. Their lower key but essential work is occluded if we concentrate on that of individuals. More significantly, the model of the brilliant leader is not always appropriate. In our experience many micromuseums come out of conversations and of other projects; they are the product of shared ideas and collective effort

Fiona Candlin

Research Process

A week in the life

What does the Mapping Museums research assistant do all day? I sometimes wonder where all the time goes. Although the vast majority of the four thousand-odd museums listed in the database were added before I really began work on the project, I’ve added well over a hundred new museums and made corrections to the entries for hundreds more. But how do we find out about museums that were not already in the database, and where do all the amendments come from? Here I offer a peek into a ‘typical’ week.


A friend of the project reports on Twitter a possible new museum she’s spotted while on a bike ride. It turns out that it is not new, but the small private museum has slipped under the Mapping Museums radar, so I add it to the database. Another contact has suggested we check a directory of railway preservation sites to make sure we haven’t missed any railway museums during our searches. I order it from the British Library for my next visit.


I have Google news alerts set up in the hope of spotting museums closing and opening, and I open my email this morning to find an alert for a new museum. All too often these alerts don’t produce anything useful, but on this occasion they have. A new private museum dedicated to the footballer Duncan Edwards has opened above a shop in Dudley, in the West Midlands, so I make a note to add it to the database.

The Mapping Museums database is constantly being updated. When we receive new information for museums currently open, we update our records accordingly. Today I find that a curator has supplied updated details for their museum using the form for editing data, and process the update so that the details are added to the database.


At the British Library for my own PhD research, I also look at the railway preservation directory. At first sight it looks somewhat daunting, as it lists hundreds of railway preservation sites in Britain opened from the 1950s onwards, classified into thirteen types. Each one of these will potentially need to be checked against the database to see whether museums need to be added. I copy the pages I need for processing later.

Looking through copies of Museums Journal I see mention of another museum that I’m not familiar with. It’s in the database, but the news item gives extra information about the museum’s governance that we didn’t have, so I make a note for later.

Sometimes we need to contact museums directly to confirm information, and recently I have been trying to get hold of the administrator of a small military museum in Scotland (the museum came to our attention as part of a list supplied by a liaison officer for regimental museums). The administrator is only on site occasionally, and so far I have missed him each time I’ve called. I miss a call while sitting in the library’s reading room, and when I return it later I have just missed him, but his colleague supplies his email address. By email he confirms the nature of the collection, but does not know when the museum was first opened – he has been in the post for less than two years. One thing I’ve discovered doing this research is that it is quite common for the opening date of museum not to be known by those who run it. A museum’s foundation date is often tacit knowledge, which can easily be lost as staff change. The database currently contains almost five hundred museums for which we do not have a certain opening date, and we record them as date ranges instead based on the best information available.


I resume work on a list of museums that another contact has provided us with. They are all in North East England. Not all of them qualify as museums in the way that the project defines them but many do, and for whatever reason some have been overlooked. Small private museums are easily missed, and it would not be possible for the project to have compiled as comprehensive a list as it has without the benefit of local knowledge. One example is the Ferryman’s Hut Museum in Alnmouth, which I add to the database.


The opening date of a museum is proving elusive. My enquiry to the owners remains unanswered, so I resume searching online. Eventually I track it down in the Gloucestershire volumes of the Victoria County History, an incredibly valuable local history resource.

It’s fortunate that that museum was recorded, but what do you do when a museum has long closed and there are no references to be found online, no matter how hard you search? Well, you might descend the rabbit hole. As anyone who has followed references in Wikipedia may have noticed, website links stop working all the time – a phenomenon colloquially known as ‘link rot’. The Wayback Machine preserves websites for posterity, keeping copies of those still online as well as many that have long since vanished. In this case we knew that the museum had closed thanks to an estate agent’s website, but when did it open? The website for the tower in the Scottish Borders had fortunately been captured by the wayback machine, and while there was no definitive information about the museum, there was enough to allow a range of dates for the museum’s opening to be recorded.

It’s the end of another week of data collection and checking. That list of hundreds of railway preservation sites will have to wait until another time …

Mark Liebenrood

Research Process

Being there

I admit it. I did think that it was a bit of a luxury to go and visit all the museums that are being featured in our Mapping Museums book. After all, Toby, one of the researchers on the project had already spent most of a year visiting, taking photographs of the exhibits and conducting detailed interviews with the founders, and I’d read or looked at all the material he’d gathered. In principle, I rely on his research as the basis for the book and in doing so save myself time and the project money. I’m now very glad I made the effort. Not just because it was fun, interesting and a bit of an adventure, but because it changed the way that I understood the museums, and the founders, and what they were doing. I had temporarily forgotten that it matters if a museum is on the side of a hill or the valley floor, is in a pretty village or an empty high street.

In his interviews Toby asked people why they had wanted to open and run museums. Elizabeth Cameron, who was one of the founders of the Laidhay Croft Museum (above) had answered that she liked meeting people. Taken in abstract this comment seemed quite bland (Surely most of us like meeting new people?) and it was certainly repeated elsewhere. For me, her reply only took on weight and meaning when I went to the area, visited the croft, and met her.

Elizabeth Cameron faces the camera, wearing a purple jacket
Elizabeth Cameron

Laidhay is a mile or so north of the village of Dunbeath, which has a population of 129, and is about thirty miles south of Thurso, the most northerly town on mainland Britain. It is remote by any standards. Before setting off I had attempted to book a place in the local campsite. When it turned out to be full, I had asked the owner if there was anywhere else close by. ‘This is Caithness’ she responded, ‘there is nothing close by’. I stayed in a farmer’s field, looking out over the North Sea. At night I could hear the seals singing. Elizabeth grew up in a nearby village and was 30 years old when she and her husband bought the thirty-acre croft at Laidhay. They built a house on the site and Elizabeth worked with a local trust to open the original eighteenth-century longhouse as a museum. She is now 82 and has spent her adult life on the side of the hill, bringing up her sons, looking after sheep and cattle, and managing the museum.

The croft was closed on the day that I visited but other motorists spotted my campervan in the carpark and stopped to see if they could come in. It quickly became clear that Elizabeth is a natural host and tour guide – welcoming, interested, engaging, kind, and very sociable. Within a minute or two she had discovered that one man was a carpenter and so showed him the barn which has arched beams made from ship’s timbers washed up on the beach. A woman visitor was tracing her family who came from the next village. Elizabeth said, ‘you may have cousins there still’, and told her stories about her relatives, the Macbeths. A third group were also welcomed in. Later she said ‘I love meeting people you see, all the strangers. If you’re left at home with two bairns, you’re quite happy to meet people. I liked the company. Making conversation’. Living high on the side of a hill, in a sparsely populated area, it is easy to see how weeks or months could have gone by with no or little social interaction. The museum stopped passing motorists and brought people with different life experiences to Elizabeth’s door.  It was a way of connecting herself to the wider world. There was absolutely nothing bland about it.

Aldbourne village green. A war memorial on the left, houses to left and right, and the church with a large tower in the centre, at the top of a slight rise.
Aldbourne village green
Blue Town Heritage Centre
Blue Town Heritage Centre

Elsewhere, the founders of local history museums made comments about being proud of the area they lived in and of wanting to inculcate pride in younger residents. The implications of those comments varied depending on where the museum was located. Before visiting Aldbourne Heritage Centre, I had never been to Wiltshire, and I was taken aback by how beautiful and how affluent the county was. Aldbourne itself is exquisite: a twelfth century church sits on a rise above a large village green surrounded by cottages with deep thatched roofs. Ducks paddle across a small pond. When I met the founders of the museum, it was clear that their pride was tied to their pleasure in the village itself, to a sense of its deep past and continuing inhabitation, and to its lively community spirit. Two days later, I visited the Criterion Heritage Centre in Blue town on the Isle of Sheppey. On one side of the high street is a huge Victorian brick wall that circles the docks and cuts off any view of the sea. On the other side of the road are some run-down pubs, a fish and chip shop, and a few houses. Behind them are empty lots where buildings have been demolished and not replaced, empty car parks, and a few light industrial buildings. There are very few people in sight. Having read Toby’s interview with Jenny Hurkett, who opened the heritage centre in 2009, I knew that she had insisted on her pride in the area, and on the importance of understanding its role in maritime, wartime, and industrial history. It was only when I walked along the empty high street that I grasped the extent of her resolve and dedication.

Fiona Candlin

Research Process

The Mapping Museums Campervan tour: a catalogue of mechanical collapse

Having decided that I needed a campervan for my research trip around the UK’s micromuseums, I faced the problem of buying one.  Along with dogs, campervans had become the most wanted purchase of the pandemic and they sold almost as quickly as they were listed. I spent several months watching eBay and prevaricating while the prices rose and higher until finally, I emptied out my bank account and swooped, buying a 1990 VW Holdsworth conversion. It had the doubtful distinction of a rose pink and beige floral interior (think late 1980s Laura Ashley living room) but it was advertised as ‘ready for camping’ and running like ‘a finely tuned watch’. Over the next four weeks the van broke down five times, twice on the way home.

The first time was ten miles up the road when a warning light went off. I rang the seller who drove after me and fixed the problem. It then refused to start. That was fixed too. The second time was an hour later when the petrol gauge swung ominously from half full to zero. I managed get to the edge of the nearest town where the van ground to halt outside a petrol station. I filled it up, only for petrol to start leaking across the forecourt. I tried to move the van but again it refused to start. This time two things had gone wrong. There was a leak in the tank and the petrol in the tank was months old and had coagulated, so when I ran it on empty the sediment had been dragged through the engine. I abandoned the van in the adjacent Morrison’s carpark and the seller picked it up at 5am the following morning. He was embarrassed by the vehicle’s failings and agreed to put them right.

Two weeks later I went to pick up my newly MOT’d campervan, which I drove without a hitch to Manchester, to the Museum of North Craven Life in Settle, and then up to Cumbria, where I have been living for the last year. All went well. A few days later I set off for Glasgow to visit the Women’s Library and Museum. Thirty miles before I reached the city the engine started juddering and lost acceleration. I limped it along the hard shoulder with the hazard lights flashing and into another garage where it subsequently failed to start at all. The owner of the garage repaired the starter motor, but the other problem was harder to identify. Modern vehicles can be plugged into a computer which identifies the fault. Diagnosing faults in vintage vehicles requires the mechanic to work through the possibilities, which takes time and costs money. And, as the owner of the garage pointed out, we’re not used to working on such old vehicles. He thought it might be the fuel distributor which was duly upgraded. Off I went again, the engine purring, heading to the far north where I was due to visit Gairloch Museum and the Laidhay Croft Museum. As I started across the Cairngorms it broke down for the fourth time. The juddering started again, I was losing speed, and the massive artic trucks behind me were getting ominously close. This time the AA came to the rescue and accompanied my limping vehicle to Blair Atholl garage where another mechanic diagnosed an ancient and faulty coil. It was Thursday night. The new piece would arrive on Monday afternoon. I settled down to wait.

Four days later I was off again and just south of Inverness the same thing happened. This time the AA put me in a taxi headed for Glasgow. I spent a night in the Premier Inn and then drove a hire car home with the van following on a trailer. By this point I was feeling pretty low. After months of being inside I’d been looking forward to travelling and seeing some new places. I was keen to get on with my work and excited to meet the people who had founded museums. And I’d spent all my savings on the van. I had a bad-tempered conversation with the seller.

Macs VW in Manchester - view of signs on a brick wall

Then social media came to the rescue with a recommendation for Mac VW in Manchester. The garage was down a warren of back streets and industrial buildings, and it was stuffed with vintage VWs in various states of disrepair. My 1990 vehicle was the most recent model they worked on, and Steff, the owner, quickly diagnosed the fault: the fuel filter had been fitted back to front and it was so tightly clamped that the flow was doubly restricted. ‘How much did you pay for repairs?’ he asked and flinched at the response. ‘It’s embarrassing’ he said, ‘a new filter costs £1.25 and it took ten minutes: it’s the problem with going to see general mechanics’. Still anxious, I did two laps of the M60 which orbits Greater Manchester before driving home to Cumbria. I’d only been in the house a few minutes when Steff called. ‘Was it OK?’ he asked, ‘Yes’ I said. ‘I knew it’d be fine’, he replied. ‘You’re all right to set off for Scotland now’.  

Fiona Candlin

Research Process

Visiting micromuseums in a pandemic

Everyone’s plans have been disrupted by the pandemic and mine are no exception. I’d just started writing a book on why thousands of people set up their own museums and part of the research involved meeting the founders. I was going to visit around forty museums, the furthest north being the Laidhay Croft Museum in Caithness, and the most southerly Perranzabuloe Museum in Cornwall. I’d also planned on visiting museums at pretty much every point in between as well as having a trip to Northern Ireland.

In March, when all the museums closed and my plans were stymied, I stayed indoors and wrote as much as I could using my colleague Toby’s interview research (See my last blog). He’d spent a year interviewing museum founders as part of the Mapping Museums research project, there was plenty of material for me to work with, and we’d always planned that I’d use his research for the book. Nonetheless, it got to the point where I simply needed to see the museums for myself and to ask my own questions. I also wanted to visit some extra museums that would provide different perspectives on the subjects raised in the first round of interviews.

Over the summer, some museums re-opened but many small museums postponed opening until spring 2021, and so I wondered about delaying my research. I would only be able to visit some of the museums on my list, the founders are usually elderly and may be justifiably anxious about meeting me, and I felt uneasy about making dozens of train journeys and staying in multiple hotels. I would get on with my other research in the interim. Then, during the summer, I was talking over the situation with a close friend who is the director of an independent museum and she advised the opposite. Small museums were struggling, she said, and it was likely that some of them may never re-open. If I could get to see them now, then I should take that opportunity. It might be important to document them while they were still there.

I started telephoning the staff at the museums I wanted to visit and almost everybody said, ‘yes, come’. Some people were routinely checking the museum one day a week and suggested that I accompany them, or they were happy to open up the museum for a special visit so long as I socially distanced and wore a mask. Several of the founders suggested I visit them at home so that we could sit in the garden. The research was back on.

That left me with the problem of travel and hotels. In 2012 I had hired a campervan to explore small museums for my last book Micromuseology: An analysis of small independent museums. Since then, the price of hiring a campervan has risen steeply and as we are now at the end of the Mapping Museums project there wasn’t enough money left in the budget to cover the costs. However, for several years I have thought about buying a campervan and have day-dreamed of epic journeys across Europe. Those daydreams became considerably more vivid under lockdown and I decided to go ahead. I could use a van for the Mapping Museums research trip, travel safely in a relatively controlled environment, I would reduce the risk to myself and to the people I was visiting, and next year I’d set off for Spain, or Romania, or Italy. All I needed was the van. That proved to be a saga in its own right and in the next blog I’ll detail some of my campervan-related trials.

Fiona Candlin

Research Process

Why did so many ordinary people set up their own museums?

Over the last few years the Mapping Museums team has collected information on all the UK museums that had been opened since 1960. You can read a detailed analysis of the data in the linked report or see the key findings on the website, but there are five points that we found particularly interesting. These are:

  • Over 3,000 new museums have opened since 1960.
  • The museum sector grew continuously from 1960 until 2015, although growth was concentrated in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Most of the museums were small, which is to say they attracted less than 10,000 visitors a year.
  • Most of the new museums were independent and were established by special interest or community groups.

In short, there was a massive boom in the number of small independent museums, or micromuseums, and this growth was largely propelled by the work of ordinary people, and not by the foundation of local authority museums.

Another point that also arrested our interest was that:

  • Among small independent museums the most popular subject matter was local history, war and conflict, and transport.

For the research team, then, the questions were why did so many people decide to establish their own museums, why did they do so during the late-twentieth century, and why the focus on these subject areas?

Dr Toby Butler, one of the post-doctoral researchers on the project, set out to find some answers by conducting a series of interviews with people who had founded micromuseums (See blogs: ‘On the road with the Mapping Museums project’ and ‘Finding museum founders’). The transcripts of those monographs are on the project website. At the same, time, Dr Jake Watts investigated some of the wider socio-economic factors that underpinned the foundation of particular types of museums. The three of us then read through that material, discussed their findings, and planned a co-authored monograph, which I am now writing. We did discuss the possibility of us all writing individual sections but decided that it would be a better read if it has a consistent style and presented a synthesis of our research.

Toby’s interview transcripts run to some 250,000 words of rich material about the early histories of thirty-eight micromuseums, and Jake generated extensive material on changes to the railways, car ownership, the structure of the British army, local history societies and many other topics that all informed our investigation. Together, they provided me with enough material for several books, not just one. We can’t decide whether to call it The Micromuseums Boom or Why thousands of ordinary people decided to open their own museums, or if it should have a different title entirely. Perhaps you can let us know what you think.

Fiona Candlin

Research Process

Types of museum closure

The rapid spread of coronavirus has forced museums in the UK to close. Although those closures are temporary, some museums face financial difficulties as a result, and have raised the prospect that they might close permanently. But not all museums close in the same way. My own research into museum closure in the UK over the last sixty years shows that there are different types of museum closure, and some have more impact: they are more final than others. In this blog I outline two types of closure.

Hard closures have the greatest impact. They could be defined as one in which the museum has closed for good, with no plan for reinstatement, and the collections have been disposed of. An example of this kind of closure is the Christchurch Tricycle Museum in Dorset, a small private museum which closed in 1995, apparently due to financial problems, and whose collection was sold at auction a year later.

The sale of collections at the end of a museum’s life is perhaps the hardest form of closure, but there is arguably less impact in the case of closures where collections are transferred to other museums. The Barnes Museum of Cinematography in St Ives, Cornwall closed in 1986, but parts of the collection are still available to the public in two other museums: Hove Museum, run by the local authority, and the Italian National Museum of Cinema in Turin. This partial transfer of collections to other museums can be seen as less severe than a sale of the whole collection, but dispersal to museums in two different countries makes access more difficult, and it is not clear what happened to the remainder of the objects in the Barnes collection.

Private museums such as Christchurch and the Barnes are not subject to the same ethical and legal constraints on disposal as accredited museums and those run by local authorities or trusts. When such museums close, they are obliged to dispose of their collections in a way that maintains public access. When the local authority museum in Burton on Trent, Staffordshire closed in 1981 the collections were dispersed, although attempts were made to keep the items as local to Burton as possible. Plans were made for most of the objects and archives to be sent to six different institutions, many of them in or close to Burton, and local schools. One of the receivers was the privately-owned Bass Museum in Burton, predominantly a museum of brewing, which charged for admission (often a factor in reducing access). Another was Shugborough Hall, a historic house leased by Staffordshire County Council from the National Trust, which was twenty miles away from Burton. Although the dispersals were relatively local, they would still have made it more difficult to view the collections, formerly gathered together in one place.

By contrast, soft closures have much less impact. They include the replacement of one museum by another, which can happen when museums amalgamate or expand. The Timothy Hackworth Museum, for instance, a railway museum in Shildon, County Durham, was absorbed into a new larger museum, Locomotion, that has the same site and subject matter. So although the original museum closed, all of its collections remain available and it could be said to have closed in name only. Something similar could be said of the Museum of Liverpool Life, which was so popular that it could not accommodate all those who wished to visit. It was closed in 2006 to allow building works to begin for its replacement, the much larger Museum of Liverpool, which opened five years later. In these cases the closures were planned, and intended to be temporary.

The closure of museum branches, although these are relatively rare, can be also be considered as having a softer impact. The Theatre Museum in London was a branch of the V&A in Covent Garden, a few miles from the main museum in South Kensington. When the Theatre Museum closed in 2007 the collections were reintegrated into the V&A. The Museum of Mankind, which was a branch of the British Museum until it closed in 1997, is a comparable example. The collections remain available at the British Museum, although by one account the return was not without problems, including an initial lack of display space and fundamental differences in curatorial approach, which emerged in the process of redisplaying the African ethnographic collections. Although these museums have closed, they were branches of larger museums that remain open in the same cities and retain the collections that were on show. Far less has been lost than when a museum closes and sells its collections or disperses them widely.

From these examples, it is possible to identify some dimensions of museum closure. One is time: closures may be final or they may be part of a longer-term plan for replacement with larger facilities, as in the cases of the Museum of Liverpool Life or the Timothy Hackworth museum. The dimension of time also applies to the dispersal of collections, which can happen in stages as they pass through different institutions. Most of the collection at the Hunday museum of farming in Northumberland was sold first of all to the museum at Stapehill Abbey in Dorset. What began as a dispersal to a single site then became more dispersed when, seven years later, the Abbey’s collection was sold at private auction.

The way in which the Hunday museum’s collections were gradually dispersed draws attention to another dimension of closure: the destinations of the closed museum’s collections. They may be dispersed quite locally, as with Burton Museum, or much more widely, as were the Barnes Museum collections. This is not only a question of geographical distribution, but also of the type of destination. At one extreme, the collections of a museum could end up in the hands of many different private owners, which may prevent future public access. One example is the sale of Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, a collection of whimsical taxidermy formerly in Bramber, Sussex, which was sold in 1984 and moved to Jamaica Inn, Cornwall, before being sold at auction in 2003 and dispersed. But objects from a closed museum may also remain entirely within other museums – in the simplest cases just one museum, as when the Museum of Mankind was closed.

For the majority of the public, the main impact of harder closures is to reduce access to museums for those used to being able to visit them. As the Museums Association stated in their 2017 report ‘Museums Facing Closure’: “Closing a museum denies the public access to their heritage and significantly undermines the human right to culture”. Although the impact can vary from one museum closure to another, it usually reduces access to collections. When collections are sold and dispersed to private collectors, access may be denied to the public completely. But not all museums close in this way, and softer closures usually result in collections remaining available, albeit sometimes widely dispersed.

Mark Liebenrood

Original photo by Masaaki Komori

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

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

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)