Museums at Night Case Study: Making the most of volunteers' talents

By Teresa Fox-Wells, Heritage & Learning Officer, Borough Museum & Art Gallery | 18 January 2011
A photo of an adult and child in colourful shirts
Museums at Night brings out the colourful shirts at the Borough Museum and Art Gallery
Teresa Fox-Wells, the Heritage & Learning Officer at the Borough Museum & Art Gallery, tells us the story of the campaign there last year...

We took part in Museums at Night for the first time in 2010. We are a small local authority museum with limited staffing, meaning that we rarely ran events in the past. We had never run any evening events at all.

Museums at Night seemed something we could be part of successfully without going it alone too much. Individual organisations are totally free to decide what kind of event is best suited to their size, budget and venue, yet everyone still gets the same great support and useful publicity.

After discussion among staff and volunteers, we decided that we should aim to bring the museum to life, providing an interactive experience for all ages. We also felt that the event should be free, so it was essential that we kept our costs to a minimum.

Events don’t always need a huge budget (or even any budget) to be successful, so we relied on volunteer help and staff giving their time in exchange for time in lieu, rather than overtime. The Museum Friends group also sold refreshments, which gave their funds a boost, and we charged for one of the craft activities to cover the cost of materials.

Our volunteers have always been very important to our organisation and provide essential support; however, they had no previous experience of interpretation for an audience and I was concerned that they might feel uncomfortable.

I clearly underestimated their enthusiasm for dressing up and was delighted to find that they were more than willing to channel their passion for history in a new direction. You never know what people are willing to do if you ask nicely – you may find that the most staid, sensible and upstanding citizens actually have a secret urge to dress up and entertain the public.

I wanted to maximise publicity, but had no marketing budget to buy advertising. I recommend that anyone in a similar position lists their event details on Culture24’s database as soon as possible to increase the chances of featuring in their advertising.

To that end, I was delighted when I picked up BBC History Magazine’s Guide to Museums At Night booklet on a day trip to the seaside and found our event listed.

I put flyers in all the obvious places – libraries, supermarkets and so on – and we featured on the council’s website. Sending out a press release got us a mention in the local newspaper and a great feature on local radio.

Feedback on the night suggested that the flyers around town were the main way that people found out about the event, especially those in supermarkets, so we will use the same simple, cost-effective methods this year.

It was nervewracking waiting for people to turn up on the night. My husband and mother-in-law were the first to arrive and at first I worried that they might be our only visitors. Fortunately, they were soon joined by many more and our final count was more than 100 visitors.

They included families with very young children, older couples and even a lively group of teenagers joining in the fun.

On arrival, visitors enjoyed dinosaur balloon-making (a big hit with the teenagers) and a range of craft activities including clay creature making and lift-the-flap Ichthyosaurs.

These were inspired by “Iggy”, our fossilised Ichthyosaur – a sea reptile from the time of the dinosaurs. Iggy’s remains were available for a special sneak preview on the evening, before going on permanent display at a later date.

Ambience was provided by our 1970s radiogram playing a selection of classic vinyl including Now That’s What I Call Music 1, which proved fascinating to anyone currently awaiting the release of Now 76.

Younger visitors followed a trail encouraging them to visit the entire museum by collecting stickers from each of the costumed characters stationed in the room sets.

We were keen to really make the museum come alive, so the characters encouraged visitors to step into usually restricted areas including our Victorian street scene shops and Victorian parlour.

The characters included Miss Mosley, an original Victorian inhabitant of the museum in the days when it was a private home, who was most surprised to see the teabags proudly presented to her by two young visitors, not to mention being somewhat scandalised by the number of young women being bifurcated in trousers.

Our World War II room was occupied by Mrs Cross, a Home Front housewife with tales of life during the war years and ingenious examples of “make do and mend”.

The Victorian street scene was staffed by two of our fantastic volunteers, Jim Worgan and Stan Mayer, who got into character as an overworked ironmonger’s assistant and an eccentric doctor respectively. Stan is determined to source real live leeches this year.

Possibly the most popular character was our new mascot, Brampton Bear, making his first public appearance. The atmosphere during the evening was superb and all feedback received was very positive.

Comments included:

“Tonight has been fantastic – very informative, with friendly, approachable speakers”

“Thank you for opening up the museum. The children had a wonderful time and loved everything, especially the bear. It was a privilege to step inside the shops and the staff all did a wonderful job bringing it to life.”

“We thought the event was brilliant. These days, when both parents work, the weekend often becomes the only time to get domestic chores out of the way. Having the museum open at night is so much more convenient and seems more of an adventure! It’s a brilliant idea. We loved the characters in costume, it makes the visit so much more interesting and fun”

“I love the museum. I found it very interesting learning all this stuff, and they made it seem more real.”

Culture24’s support gave us the inspiration to try something new and the practical help to get it up and running. The results so enthused the staff and volunteers that we have added more events to our programme, and can’t wait for Museums at Night 2011 – fingers crossed we can get the leeches.
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