Tuesday, 24 May 2011

raising aspirations

Had an interesting discussion with Bridget about raising aspirations. We have a fantastic collection from the Stark company of Great Ryburgh who started off as grocers and drapers. The family grew sweet peas as a hobby and for fun. As they began to win more and more awards (all the certificates in our collection!) they decided to sell their seed - begin a second career and "grow their aspirations".

A second example is a couple of gardening employment applications administered by the Daniels Bros company from Norwich. My understanding was once an under gardener always an undergardener until the Head Gardener popped his clogs but here is clear evidence for workforce mobility and a wish to improve their situation - under gardeners hoping for better opportunities, and applying for posts at other large estates through Daniels as middlemen.

A key issue for rural life museums is retaining relevance - how do we make our collections more than just nostalgia? By looking at examples like those above we can see that here is the inspiration for others to make the break, raise their goalposts and "aim high". For many, particularly in more rural communities, there are "blinkers" which prevent people from seeing opportunities. By showing how it was done in the past hopefully we can encourage it in the future. In doing so, demonstrating the modern relevance of the collection and proving our worth in an ever changing environment.

a collection in which we have got lost...

I seem to be getting lost in our gardening collections. Having established the different types of item we are going to include - we have decided to concetrate for our first session on the printed ephemera. Thinking this would be a relatively easy topic - just a few seed catalogues I have become a bit overwhelmed by the huge variety of items - seed pockets, accounts, catalogues, certificates, adverts, letters, mail order forms, magazines, pamphlets - even job applications. There is so much scope in these collections there is a danger in "getting lost" in them. Tempting though this might be I think we always need to keep our different audiences in mind - both within the museum (the audiences we will be presenting the material to in our first collections session) and also our visitors. That is why I think it is so important to include a range of staff and volunteers in this process - in many cases they know our visitors far better than I do. Despite many attempts to not become the curator in my ivory tower it cannot be denied that I do not spend any considerable amount of time "on the shop floor" except with our rather more specialist research enquiries. So how does a curator start to begin to know visitors - well by working closely with those who work with them directly every day - front of house. It is going to be great for me to learn from our other staff how we can use the collections more effectively. Enticing though it might be it is important to not get so lost in our collections that we lose sight of our visitors. As with so much in the museum world it is about balance.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Collections in context

One of the key skills I want to learn as part of this fellowship is how to understand a collection in context. Many curators come to their posts with little or no prior knowledge of the collections thye are expected to care and in some cases (as mine_ from an entirely differnt discipline. In these busy times how can curators find the time to research and get to know the collections they care for? I hope to develop the skills that enable me to increase my collections knowledge over the next few months. By breaking a collection into manageable chunks and integrating collections research into projects that are already ongoing (for example temporary exhibitions) I hope to grow in knowledge and perhaps more importantly confidence in my collections research skills which will enable me to continue learning more.

We are currently embarking on defining quite closely exactly which collections we will examine and what types of object, documents and photographs they contain. Simply looking at the objects as we investigate store rooms, the library and printed ephemera files stimulates conversation and enthusiasm. Working to describe and summarise these collections helps me to get a handle on what it is you are looking after, and why it is important. I have found that just getting objects out of storage whets the appetite for finding out more. It must be the archaeologist in me that wants to tell the story stored within the objects. I hope those attending our first collections session will feel the same.


Welcome to the Gressenhall Monument Fellow blog.

This blog records a knowledge and skills transfer project, funded by the Museums Association, as part of their Monument Fellowship programme. It is written by Megan Dennis, curator of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse and is a personal record of the project.

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse has welcomed back former curator Bridget Yates who will be working with the current curator, Megan Dennis, and other staff and volunteers.

The project aims to transfer and record knowledge of the collections and the skills required to look after and present them to the public using a variety of different techniques including this blog.

We have decided to concentrate on one aspect of the collections - the gardening collection at Gressenhall. We aim to improve knowledge, use and display of this collection at the museum. We also hope to project will provide a template method for examining other under appreciated parts of the collection.

This blog is intended to be a record of the process of knowledge transfer and an aid to ourselves and our future successors. We also hope to receive input from the wider museums community about what we are doing.

Currently we have spent some time acquainting (and for Bridget re-acquainting) ourselves with the gardening collection and planning our first collections session with museum staff and volunteers. I am really excited to be working with such a wide variety of staff and volunteers - learning, front of house, collections, gardeners and the farm. I think it is only by raising awareness of the importance of our collections to the entire museum can they retain their position at the heart of the institution.

Oh and I am also excited about finding out more about the caterpillar crusher!