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

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

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