Meet the founders and archive launch

Why would you open a museum? How would you do it? Enjoy an evening of interviews with the founders of small independent museums, hosted by the Bishopsgate Institute. Interviewees will include: Steve Allsop (Ingrow Loco Museum and Workshop), Geoff Burton (RAF Ingham Heritage Centre), and Anne Read (Museum of North Craven Life).

This online event also marks the launch of the Micromuseums Archive. The Mapping Museums project has conducted extensive interview-based research to find out how and why people set up their own museums. The recordings, transcripts, and other materials are all available from the Archives at the Bishopsgate Institute, and the evening will include a glimpse into this archive.

The event is free and will take place on Zoom. Book here:

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

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