Puppets form part of the Toy Museum's historic collection. Image courtesy Brighton Toy & Model Museum
24 Hour Museum Student Journalist Olivia Laing goes behind the scenes at Brighton's Toy and Model Museum to see the vital work that Museum Development Officers play in supporting and improving our nation's museums.
Museum Development Officers are vital to the life of small museums. Where a large or national museum may have a professional staff, local and regional museums often rely on the goodwill of volunteers with a varied skill range.
Enter the Museum Development Officer, whose role is to provide vital support, guiding museum staff through the maze of training needs and funding possibilities.
One of the major roles of the MDO is to shepherd museums through the complex process of accreditation, the process by which a museum becomes registered. For a museum to survive and especially for it to be able to receive funding, becoming registered is a vital step. But for small museums, which have often originally been established by enthusiasts, the process can be arduous and confusing.
Sonia Rasbery, MDO for East Sussex, is currently seeing Brighton Toy & Model Museum through the accreditation process. Founded in 1990 by toy and model restorer Chris Littledale and a group of fellow-enthusiasts, The Toy Museum houses a world-class collection of toys and models, including an extraordinarily varied collection of working train sets.
Chris Littledale, the museum's director, assessing a train. Image courtesy Brighton Toy & Model Museum
Appropriately enough, the museum is housed under the arches of Brighton Station, in a historic building that has over the years housed stables, the local Dad’s army headquarters and a Victorian beer store. There is even rumor that a lost goods line may run close to the museum headquarters.
The Toy Museum is incredibly popular with visitors, particularly children. Toys are part of the national curriculum, and school visits are one of the site’s real strengths. Education Officer Andrew Woodfield is justifiably proud of the museum’s popularity with schools, observing that parties from as far afield as Paris and even Moscow come to eye up the teddies and trains.
But as Sonia Rasbery explains, “the museum can’t survive without accreditation. It had been established because it was a passion of the founders, and though it was very strong on areas like outreach, it wasn’t quite ticking all the boxes as far as accreditation.”
The appointment of a professional curator, Claire Eden, in September 2005 helped the process enormously. Claire and Sonia have spent the past six months painstakingly identifying all the areas in which the museum needs to improve, before gradually “putting into place the building blocks” that will ensure successful accreditation and the museum’s continued survival.
Two areas identified as needing most attention are the collection and the legal structure of the museum itself.
George the Steiff bear, Claire's favourite exhibit in the museum, is a toy that appeals to boys and girls. Image courtesy Brighton Toy & Model Museum
The collection desperately needed cataloguing, and was also not as diverse as it could be.
“I put my foot down”, says Claire, “and said there must be something for the girls. Most of our junior members are little boys, not girls. We have to increase diversity. We’ve got really rare Regency furniture for a doll’s house, lots of bears and have been offered a rare Sindy collection. It would be so nice for the museum if we could be more feminine sometimes.”
The cataloguing also needed to be looked at and Claire describes a lengthy process of wading through drawers full of scraps of paper and unfinished inventories, implementing a new system that will be up to accreditation standards.
Additionally, the pair identified staff training needs, which Sonia suggested could be tackled via the Skills Bank Directory. This project, established by Renaissance in the Regions, allows local museums to utilize skills and knowledge held by staff in other sites within the region.
A beautifully restored traction engine is one of the many fascinating items on display. Image courtesy Brighton Toy & Model Museum
Providing this sort of advice and direction is invaluable, and really underlines how useful the MDO can be to a museum. “I do get very involved”, Sonia admits. “Sometimes I find myself saying ‘we’ and I have to pull back and remember that it’s not my museum.”
But such a hands-on approach is wonderful for its recipients. The Toy Museum, in the midst of its accreditation process, still needs to work on a constitution, as well as getting staff training in place. But the team are already excitedly plotting the ways in which they can expand once the finally achieve the status of a ‘proper’ museum.
“We’re planning on building a resource centre to display paper archives, plus a new office and workshop," says Claire. "An oral history project would be nice too. There’s so much history behind some of these toys.”
“There are grants for that - that’s possible," responds Sonia, encapsulating just how reassuring the encouragement and support of the MDO can be. “I do like it when you say that!” says Claire happily.
Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.