Lab News

Funding success for the Mapping Museums team

We are pleased to announce that the Arts and Humanities Research Council has awarded £1million to the Mapping Museums research team for their project ‘Museum Closure in the UK 2000-2025’.  

The new research will use trans-disciplinary methods to analyse closure and collections dispersal within the UK museums sector. Its aim is to examine the geographic distribution of closure, to better understand types of closure (e.g., whether museums are mothballed or disbanded), and to document the flows of objects and knowledge from museums in the aftermath of closure. We will investigate the afterlife of collections, find out if museum exhibits are scrapped, sold, stored, or re-used, and examine ‘outreach’ and temporary museums. A Knowledge Base will be designed to model and store the collected data, and visualisations and analyses of the data will be developed. Above all, we aim at critically reassessing notions of permanence and loss within the museums sector.  

‘Museum Closure’ is based at Birkbeck, University of London and at King’s College London, and will run for two years, beginning in October 2023. It is led by Fiona Candlin, Professor of Museology, who will be working with co-investigators, Dr Andrea Ballatore (King’s College London), a specialist in cultural data science, Alexandra Poulovassilis, Emeritus Professor in Computer Science, and Peter Wood, Professor in Computer Science. The post-doctoral researcher is Dr Mark Liebenrood (museum history) and we will be recruiting a second post-doctoral researcher in data science.

(Image modified from original, by elston on Flickr)


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.

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

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

Museum Snapshots

Horwich Heritage Centre, Lancashire

Horwich Heritage Centre is a local history centre in Horwich, a town of 20,000 people near Bolton in Lancashire, on the edge of the West Pennine Moors. The town expanded rapidly in the 18th and 19th century as bleach works, cotton mills and a large railway locomotive works came to the town. The museum first opened in 1995 and is now housed in what was a rifle range, part of an early 20th Century territorial army barracks. The displays cover a range of industrial and social history of the town and the surrounding area. Exhibits include an iron toll gate post, a replica of an engine cab, a scale model of the locomotive works, a huge gas lamp from a cottage hospital and a large collection of models, household items, photographs and ephemera organised thematically on various local history including a Victorian kitchen, domestic life 1900 to 1950s, mining, and transport and wartime history. The museum has regularly updated temporary exhibition space, a research area for local study and a small shop.


Entrance to Horwich Heritage Centre
Entrance to Horwich Heritage Centre

The Centre is run by Horwich Heritage, a voluntary organisation established in 1985 following the closure of the locomotive works two years before (the works once employed thousands of people). The aim was to set up a history society that would, in part, help to boost the morale of the town and it soon attracted more than 150 members. A small room was offered by the local council to have exhibitions in a community centre that was used for displays for ten years from 1995 to 2005. The Council then offered them tenancy of the current building and it took three months to set up the displays. A range of activities and new exhibitions bring in around 3,000 people a year (the centre is open two hours a day). Horwich Heritage has also been working to save some of the historic buildings in the works, and are developing a heritage trail around the site, and working with the developers on street naming. It has also been actively restoring and protecting local features and details of this work can be found in the news section of their website.

Text and pictures by Toby Butler.


Museum Snapshots

Aldbourne Heritage Centre

Aldbourne Heritage Centre is concerned with the history and heritage of Aldbourne Village in Wiltshire. It was established by Aldbourne Heritage Group in 2014 and the displays include the Aldbourne Cup, a pottery vessel dating from 1500BC; a collection of bells made in a local bell foundry and various aspects of farming, local industry and the social history of the village. It has a display on the ‘Band of Brothers’ commemorating the history of the nearby Second World War US paratrooper base made famous by an HBO TV series. The Centre also has an extensive archive of 10,000 photographs and hosts regular history talks at the nearby Methodist Church.


Entrance to Aldbourne Heritage Centre.
Entrance to Aldbourne Heritage Centre

Unusually, the Heritage Centre is situated in converted public toilets, near the centre of the village. The building is stone, brick and tile and was converted to an internet café by a youth group before it became a heritage centre. It is a small, one-room museum with a modern, well-lit and carpeted interior and public toilets are still situated at one end of the building. It is immediately adjacent to a pub with a Dalek outside. A well-known series of episodes of Dr Who (The Daemons) was filmed in the village in 1971 starring John Pertwee in which the Doctor visits ‘Devils End’ to investigate a satanic vicar and discover the secret of mysterious burial mound.  A timeline featuring major episodes in village history runs around the top of the room and current displays covered the bell foundry (including bell ringing and a substantial collection of bells); Dr Who and the Daemons; historic houses; enclosure; notable residents of Aldbourne; the inhabitants of Aldbourne in 1809; the Aldbourne Cup, Aldbourne WI and US Airborne in Aldbourne 1943-4. The Centre also has a substantial website including digital records of Rolls of Honour, grave inscriptions and field maps.

Photo and text by Toby Butler.


Museum Snapshots

Blue Town Heritage Centre, Sheerness

The Blue Town Heritage Centre is situated on an atmospheric Victorian high street on the outskirts of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Blue Town was a community built for dock workers and a high dock wall looms opposite the Centre. Unusually, the building combines a museum, cinema and a working music hall theatre.

Jenny Hurkett, the founder and manager of the Centre, converted a kitchen showroom she owned with her husband after screening a film on local history that attracted hundreds of visitors. She was motivated by a strong feeling that Sheppey’s history, including the docks and its role in aviation history, was being ignored by regional tourist authorities. Jenny discovered the building was on the site of the Criterion Music Hall (bombed in WW2) and they then rebuilt a theatre which is regularly open for music hall, variety shows, cinema screenings and conferences. Local prisoners were involved in the conversion work. She also established the Eastchurch Aviation Museum and chairs a network of museums in Swale.

The Heritage Centre covers various aspects of local history including the development of the docks at Sheerness; the Blue Town community (named after the blue paint from the dockyard used to protect the wooden houses); a local co-operative movement that predates Rochdale and other aspects of local and domestic history. Upstairs is a purpose-built gallery devoted maritime history full of models, tools, signs, maps and ephemera relating to the docks and the working life of the docker community. It also includes a reconstructed deck scene of the HMS Victory including a captain’s cabin and a gruesome surgeon’s room, complete with sawn-off legs. The centre also provides historic tours of the island and includes a café. It also has a role as community hub and often hosts groups with special needs, alongside their busy theatre and cinema programme.

Photo and text by Robin Newton-Clare and Toby Butler.

Museum Snapshots

The Micro Museum, Ramsgate

The Micro Museum encompasses vintage computers, video gaming and micro-electronics, such as mobile phones, small electronic games and toys. An array of working micro-computers and games consoles are available for visitors to try out, playing games and programming for as long as they wish. The museum also includes displays on the history of computing.

The museum is located in what used to be a stone mason’s workshop and later a plumber’s merchant, next to a large parish church in central Ramsgate. The reception area has a working BBC micro-computer and libraries of games and magazines on shelves. This leads to a large room which contains both the displays and a large array of different consoles and computers, set up to play at seated workstations. Wall posters cover the history of computing and floor to ceiling units display a huge array of computers and gaming consoles through the ages, mostly divided up by decade and in the case of smaller objects, by type (abacus, calculators, Furbies, mobile phones, LCD games, joysticks and so on). A Sinclair C5 is on display with accompanying information on the career of Clive Sinclair.


Interior of the Micro Museum

Carol and Mike Deer are semi-retired co-owners of the Micro-Museum and it is run as a small family business, with the involvement of a few volunteers. Mike used to work as a gallery attendant at the Museum of London. Carol describes the museum as a showcase for their personal collection of computers, games and electronics (‘basically anything that’s got a micro-chip in it that interests us’ from the 1970s to 2000. Mike started collecting in 1981 when he bought a Sinclair ZX81 in his mid-twenties. This led to buying more powerful home computers and electronic games. As consumer electronics developed so quickly computers and games were soon regarded as obsolescent and could be bought cheaply. The collection was amassed over 40 years and the museum opened permanently to the public in 2014.

Photos and text by Dr Toby Butler.

Museum Snapshots

The Flower Makers Museum, Hastings

Flower Makers Museum Door
Flower Makers Museum Door

The Flower Makers Museum is situated in a high street shop in Hastings old town (the building dates back to the 14th c.). At first sight it appears to be a shop selling artificial flowers, but there is a museum in the basement. The museum opened around 1991 and consists of a large part of the inventory stock of the Shirley Leaf and Petal Company: thousands of cutting tools and flower irons; presses for ‘veining’ fabric leaves; and a large array of samples, products and ephemera concerning the business.

The company manufactured silk flowers and leaves for shop displays, bridal dress decoration, confectionary, Christmas crackers and remembrance poppies. It was established in East London in the 19th century and moved to Hastings in 1910, where hundreds of homeworkers used hand tools to cut, press and make the flowers. The present owner, Brenda Wilson, bought the company in 1981 and moved the machinery and stock from an ex Mission hall to the present location. The business is still going and this is a working collection – the tools, samples and bales of fabric are used, and old presses on display have been converted to electrical power. Presently the company makes fireproof, artificial flowers and foliage for film sets, theatres and fashion designers.

Inside there is a shop counter and a room crowded with artificial flowers and decorative items for sale. Behind the counter there is a back room with a desk, work bench and Edwardian iron press, which is not strictly open to the public. Stairs, crowded with displays and stock, lead down to two rooms, one with a large press behind glass and a huge array of thousands of cutting tools on shelves; the other is loosely organised into sections – one area looks like an old factory office c1910, with ledgers and historic health and safety notices. Another is devoted to clothes and things that were decorated with the flowers. No space is wasted – high and low are bales of silk and other fabric, boxes of supplies and the visitor is free to handle whatever they wish that is in reach. The feeling is part stock room, part workshop, part museum.

Visitors are free to browse unaccompanied. Small capitalised typed labels are helpfully attached sporadically to explain an item or raise a question to make people look a little harder ‘how many species of leaves can you identify?’ Small cardboard mounted displays can be leafed through and contain samples, ephemera and correspondence relating to noteworthy jobs for such things as film or theatre sets. Afterwards Brenda is very approachable and invites visitors to rummage through whatever they like. She clearly enjoys answering questions about the collection. Her display approach to getting as much as possible into a small space was nicely summed up in the interview when she said: ‘I’m very good if you’re packing a car’.

Photo and text by Dr Toby Butler.