Thursday, 30 June 2011

tools are more tricky

We have been trying to plan our second collections session and it is depressing! Where is everything? Like many museums we have a computerised database that is meant to make it easy to locate objects in store - the only trouble is that too many of our locations are "Gressenhall" or "Unknown". I knew that the objects would be more difficult - but hadn't realised how disheartening it would be. I suppose the silver lining is that this process illustrates how important our Store Audit really is. We have a fantastic team of volunteers working through boxes, photographing objects, carrying out necessary conservation work and then creating contents lists and updating the database. Occasionally tedious, but essential work. Just how essential I am beginning to find out.

The other depressing thing is a lack of storage and working space. Despite being on a 60 acre site we never have enough room. We are always trying to balance the competing demands of modern farm machinery, collections, learning equipment and display space. Sometimes it feels like collections storage comes last in the list. For example we have "Gressenhall" locations for three wheelbarrows that we would like to use in our next monument session - but actually lcoating them has proved impossible. The most likely location is practically inaccessible because it is extremely crowded. So whilst the barrows may be safe in the barn we are not able to get into it to find them or much less get them out for people to look at in the time or with the equipment we have available.

Ho hum - there are lots of fantastic things about this project - it isn't all bad! I am loving working on researching the collections but perhaps even more passing that information on to my colleagues and thinking how we could use it across the museum. I was working today on our informal project newsletter - Collections Corner. The idea is that this will continue to be circulated after the end of the Fellowship so that we can all continue to learn more about the collections that are the unique selling point of the organisation. It covers a particular theme in the collection, tells some of the stories recorded in the collections and then suggests some ways in which these objects and stories could be used across the museum. Working on this just reminds me why I am a curator - an enthusiasm for objects and the things they tell us about life - and a love of passing on this enthusiasm. I just hope that our first edition of Collections Corner - due out before mid July - receives a positive reception!

Monday, 20 June 2011

monument in multimedia

as promised just a quick post to put up a few bits and pieces - first of all the thought shower Bridget and I completed - thinking about all the different ways we could use the gardening collections:

A very busy piece of paper. Bridget and I got a little carried away - but there really is so much that these collections can be used for. Although the Monument project is being carried out in a limited time period I really think that one of the best results we can get from the process is to think about collections differently - to think of them as a catalyst for everything that goes on in the museum - whether that is galleries, learning sessions or holiday activities right down to what we stock in our shop.

Following on from our review session last week I happened to be passing one of our museum comments books and caught a glimpse of a visitor's note that made my day:

I think we tend to underestimate our visitor (dare I say a Norfolk trait?) - we tend to assume that they will not be able to appreciate the collections and that they come for the safe attractive landscapes, farm animals and adventure playground. Collections often get downgraded to "mind-boggling paraphenalia" when in fact they are so much more. We need to not only advertise our collections better, but we need to value and respect our audience and not always assume that they won't be interested.

Thirdly we can hear some of the Monument project in progress - many thanks to Gabbie who recorded this  for Wayland Radio just after our first session:

A lovely example of how the project is already reaching out to local communities and encouraging more involvement in the museum and its' collections. Also how the project can be recorded and knowledge saved for the future in a variety of formats.

Finally I have plans for a Monument section on our website - containing a link to the blog, pdfs and hopefully ultimately podcasts and video clips. I'll report back and let you know how I get on.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

reviewing and planning for the future

Had a really rewarding few hours together looking at how the first Collections Session went and planning for what happens next. We felt the first session was a great opportunity to bring different parts of the museum together - but it also made it clear that whilst it was good to get people from across the museum together for the project to have lasting impact and change the way the museum uses it collections we also need to plan in some more detailed sessions with individual volunteer and staff groups.

This then moved on to thinking about what we could do with the gardening collections - some blue sky thinking - it was great to think big, and then actually rather exciting to plan what we can do with the remaining time. We filled a flipchart paper with ideas - there are so many opportunities to use the collections once you begin to know them a little better. I'll upload a photo of the "brainstorm" later so you can see where our thinking was going.

We have also begun to plan out the rest of the project and it seems like everything is beginning to fall into place. We have enough time (fingers crossed) to do another joint in-house collections session (this time on objects), then a series of specialised sessions for individual groups followed finally by two workshops for the wider museums community. We are planning on working with the SHARE network to run two day workshops at Gressenhall - one on the gardening collections themselves but the second on how to use collections effectively across the diverse roles of a museum - how to get the most out of your collections.

We also thought about how to desseminate the inforamtion from our collections sessions to a wider museum audience and I am going to try and develop a "Collections Corner" informal newsletter that I can then continue to use and explore the collections with other staff members after the project has finished. The idea would be that I would briefly write up any particular part of the collections I had been working on - something I was requested by a researcher, something I was looking at for a temporary exhibition or a theme I was exploring for an event. These would build up into a library of informal guides to the collections - hopefully of use for my successor as well. We would aim to have these available on our website too to increase the amount of collections information available to our digital audiences. All very  I just need to find the time to get on and do it!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Stark and Ryburgh Bells...

I promised to share some of the stories we have been uncovering. One of the collections we have been considering is that of Stark and Son Ltd, of Great Ryburgh. I have copied below Bridget's retelling of the story for the Hardy Plant Society, Norfolk and Suffolk branch:

In among the collections relating to gardening and horticulture at Gressenhall
Farm and Workhouse there is a group of some hundred certificates and
awards won by George Stark and Son at shows across the country. This
includes a commendation by the RHS for Campanula Persicifolia “Ryburgh
Bells”, awarded in 1910, as well as a later award for the same variety given by
the Norfolk and Norwich Horticultural Society.

Stark and Son were nurserymen, seedsmen and florists first in Great Ryburgh
then moving to Fakenham at some point shortly after the First World War.
They closed in 1966. Peter Trent, a local historian and bellringer in Great
Ryburgh, has found out that George Stark came originally from Fifeshire to
be a gardener at Sennowe Park and married the daughter of a local grocer
and draper in the village, taking over the shop by 1891. The shop was almost
adjacent to the church in Great Ryburgh and George’s son Arthur became
a bellringer in 1891. Fakenham Local History Society hold a number of old
catalogues from Stark and Son, and future research in these may tell us more
about the history of the firm and for how long they sold “Ryburgh Bells”

Sadly it seems that “Ryburgh Bells” appears to be no longer in cultivation, or
at least it is not in the national collection of Campanula, although the RHS
hold a pressed specimen. The Ryburgh Bellringers would be thrilled to hear
from anyone who is still holding this old variety, as would the museum who
would love to be able to add a plant or two to Cherry Tree Cottage garden as
there is such an intriguing local story to tell.

It is these intriguing stories that make working with collections so interesting - you never know where you are going to end up next...

Saturday, 4 June 2011

1st collections session done!

We did our first collections session last Wednesday. I haven't posted about it until now because I wanted to let it all sink in. We got a lot of the printed ephemera out (perhaps too much - but it did provide an idea of the extent of these collections). It was really interesting to see other people's reactions to the items. We had a group of 10 from various different parts of the museum. I think mostly they were flabbergasted by the amount of stuff - because most of the collection is normally tucked away in the stores people just forget that it is there. By getting it out it brings it to the forefront of our minds, It made me think about how much is done backwards - how we plan events, learning sessions and even exhibitions and galleries based on what we assume an audience wants rather than on our collections. Not that I am advocating completely disregarding your visitors - but that there is no sense in trying to create a museum that has no relationship to its collections. A key part of our project will be about bringing collections back into the planning stage at Gressenhall.

One of the best things about the session was the informal conversations that struck up after it - discussion about how we could use the collections throughout the museum. I think we will have to be very strict about what we can actually achieve given the limited time we have for the Monument project! The whole process is making me think more about how I can continue to enthuse and explain the collections after Bridget has gone - something that we also discussed during my recent appraisal. This is something I am keen to do but will require some thought and also a good deal of time management.

One of the key things that really stayed with me was the power of story telling. Watching Bridget enthuse about an item and telling the story about its collection and the family it belonged to reminded me that without context many of these items lose their appeal. Poke an object and stories ping out! Therefore this project is also about retaining and recording the context and stories of each object for the next generation of curators. I am hoping to highlight a few of the stories we have uncovered in the blog in later entries.

We also tried to record some of the session - so hopefully I might be able to add multimedia to the blog!