A Supporting Role - Behind The Scenes With A Museum Development Officer

By Emily Sands | 22 March 2005
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A photo of the outside of Eden Valley Museum in Kent.

Eden Valley Museum, just one of the many that Joanna Follett advises as an MDO. © 24 Hour Museum.

What exactly is a Museum Development Officer? Emily Sands met Joanna Follett at the Eden Valley Museum in Kent to find out.

It’s sometimes hard to imagine just what it takes to keep museums running smoothly, especially those that are small and volunteer-led, found in most British towns.

These museums, like Eden Valley, are important to their communities and to tourism in the area and need Museum Development Officers or MDOs like Joanna Follett, for guidance and support.

This is not to deny the hard work and commitment of volunteers, but not being trained museum professionals, it can be hard to know how to make progress in certain areas of museum management.

Each MDO is in charge of their own region of the South East; Joanna’s being Kent and Medway where she works with 50 registered museums, and those looking to become registered. Funded by the Museum Development Fund, her main role is to provide advice and information to help these museums raise standards and improve services to current and potential visitors.

“I’m always at the end of the phone or making visits,” said Joanna. “Staff can chat to me if they have a specific need, whether it be a perspex stand or conservation materials. Volunteers working in places like Eden Valley really need that general day-to-day support in running a museum.”

A photo of Emily Sands, Joanna Follett and a dummy.

Emily, Joanna Follett and friend. © 24 Hour Museum.

Training-orientated help can also be given, most of which will be geared towards accreditation, previously known as museum registration, which promotes professional, ethical practice and the improvement of standards to reflect the growing expectations of visitors.

MDOs run training workshops and surgeries for curators and curatorial advisors, and Joanna has recently worked with the Group For Education in Museums in running a workshop called ‘school visits on a shoestring’.

One was also given on environmental monitoring to get staff thinking about conservation and how to look after their collections as well as possible.

“The training programmes are really useful,” Joanna told me. “We’ve done one on successful fundraising and there’s one coming up about disability awareness,” she said.

Keeping museums moving forward is always a top priority for Museum Development Officers, and as part of the Specialisms Fund, Joanna carries out access audits.

The aim is to evaluate accessibility for disabled people and help museums, as service providers, understand where physical barriers are and make plans to alleviate them.

“I did an access audit here at Eden Valley,” said Joanna. “With everything we do the over-arching aim is to make it sustainable, and improve the experience of visitors.

“For example, I’m working with the Kent and Medway Museum Partnership Group, which deals with larger museums, on an audience development project geared at youth. We’re looking at what museums mean to younger people, and we’re trying to get them interested.”

A photo showing a group of dummies depicting local characters through the ages.

Just some of the exhibits at Eden Valley Museum of social history. © 24 Hour Museum.

Funding is vital in helping museums move forward with action plans. With the Museum Development Fund Small Grants Programme, Joanna advises museums on what projects can be funded and takes staff through the application process.

Jane Higgs, honorary curator at the Eden Valley Museum, recognises the support Joanna gave when applying for a grant to relocate the museum’s front door to improve access.

“We needed the main door to open onto the high street,” Jane said. “Joanna encouraged us to apply for a grant and showed us how to do it. Now we have better access and a proper lobby with information boards. It’s improved visitor numbers drastically; we’ve had the busiest February since the museum opened in 2000.”

A photo showing the new front door that leads onto the high street.

The museum's new front door, made possible with Joanna's help and the Museum Development Fund Small Grants Programme. © 24 Hour Museum.

Joanna herself started out volunteering in local museums. From 17 she offered her help during every holiday, and continued to volunteer through her Degree and Masters in Museum Studies. “I completely empathise with the problems that face volunteers in museums,” she told me.

Jane Higgs agrees that there can be difficulties. She said, “Having Joanna as our MDO is a fantastic resource as she keeps us in touch with the wider world of museums. I’m not a museum professional, I came up as a volunteer so she is very valuable when it comes to funding and the courses she runs."

“She brings her expertise to us and fills in any gaps in our knowledge. This museum has managed to turn a few heads our way and people have started to realise what we’ve got here."

Joanna and honorary curator Jane Higgs in the new museum lobby.

Joanna and Jane discuss how improved access has increased visitor numbers. © 24 Hour Museum.

“Events on the horizon include a World War Two exhibition ‘Doing Our Bit’ and being part of the Hidden Britain Project, which encourages tourists to discover lesser known areas of the countryside,” Jane added.

It looks like Eden Valley Museum, with the help of Joanna, will continue to turn heads.

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Emily Sands is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South Eastern region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

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