The Art Fund Prize 2009 interview: Outside the Box at the Museum of Reading

By Ben Miller | 07 April 2009
A picture of The Art Fund Prize logo

The Museum of Reading sends 20,000 objects to schools, local groups, care homes and public organisations in the largest and oldest loan service in the country. Learning and Loans Officer Emma Lee explains why The Art Fund Prize represents a vital opportunity for the Museum to expand its pioneering community work.

A picture of various colourful artefacts including comics and boxes

How did the idea for Outside The Box come about?

We did some evaluation of the service with teachers from 2000 to 2002 and they said that the packaging of the boxes wasn’t really up to standard. We didn’t have much branding and the notes for the boxes were very old fashioned, they were type written, we didn’t have those in digital form at all. At that time we had about 1,700 collections so it was just impossible for us to do what they wanted us to do with the number of staff we had, which was basically three of us running the loan service.

We applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for just shy of £1 million for a four-year project to basically do what the teachers said, which was to upgrade the service, removing some of the less great services and looking at value for money. We’re in the final year of the project, employing six members of staff.

How does it work?

The loan service has been running since 1911, but more recently with this money we’ve been able to make things a lot more up to date. We give people training on how to use the boxes and handle the objects, but essentially they go out on their own. We offer taught sessions here at the museum and sessions where a member of staff will go out and use objects as well. In a nutshell the money from HLF has allowed us to upgrade everything.

Some of the collections went out in old suitcases, which didn’t look very professional, so we’ve repackaged those into metal cases with branding plates. Obviously you have to accept a risk that they may get damaged or lost, but actually it’s very rare. I think people appreciate the fact that they’ve been given the opportunity to handle them.

We’ve got about 250 schools using the service, including boxes and sessions, mainly from Berkshire. I think the reminiscence boxes are really important because there’s been a lot of talk on TV recently about people with dementia, and I think that’s only going to increase. It’s going to be a real issue that the health and social services are going to have to deal with, so the museum can help to provide objects and get people talking about their memories.

Why did you decide to enter the Art Fund Prize?

We saw what they were looking for and thought ‘we do all that, we can do this.’ It’s always good to get recognition for our work. I think it is quite important for all museums to try and get money from somewhere else to do more of the projects that they want to do to increase access.

How confident are you of winning?

I think we’ve got a good chance of at least getting to the shortlist in April. We’re all just really chuffed, it’s morale-boosting to get recognition that we’re doing good work. The judges came in on Tuesday (March 10 2009) and asked a lot of good questions. We had to do a bit of preparation – we weren’t nervous but you’re keen to make sure that you get the right impression across. They asked us what our favourite boxes were and about the different audiences that we were going into. We’ve made some boxes for reminiscence at care homes so they were interested in that. They also wanted to know about how we package things, how we ensure things are well cared for, what sort of advice we give to teachers, all those sorts of things.

They seemed to be impressed. We were all feeling very positive at the end of the day. One of the judges said they liked the fact that we were about getting our objects out into the community. Quite a lot of museums do that, but I’m not sure that they do it to the extent that we do, so I think they were really keen on that.

What would you spend the money on?

The way that museums work is that you don’t always have an awful lot of revenue funding to do new stuff beyond what you’re doing already. If we did win it would really help us with that. There’s still lots more we could do, so winning the £100,000 would really help us with that.

What has the reaction been like?

It’s just really exciting. We’ve been very pleased with some of the comments that members of the public have put on our website – I think at the last count it was about 127 comments. The Art Fund sent us some of the comments they received at the end of last week and it was really lovely to read people saying how much they appreciate the service and how good they thought it was. Sometimes you don’t always hear those things.

It’s been great publicity for us just to get onto the longlist and there have been a lot of teachers who have come in for events and said ‘we’ve all been online and pledged our support for you’, so that’s really nice.

Who do you think should win the Art Fund prize 2009? Tell the judges who you think should win and why by visiting the Art Fund Prize website. You can also add comments - a selection of which are regularly added to the website.

Read about more of the museums on the Art Fund Prize 2009 longlist on Culture24.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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