Museums across the south-east region have been using the Skills Bank Directory to offer a wider range of museum activities and events.
What does a museum do if it wants advice on putting together interactive exhibitions on a shoestring, conserving fragile collections or dealing with a plague of mice? While larger museums often have specialist staff, smaller regional museums can struggle to access the advice and training they need to deal with specific enquiries and make the most of their collections.
In response, Renaissance in the Regions South East have established the Skills Bank Directory, a pilot scheme aimed at helping museums in the south-east region to make the most of local resources. As Laura Williams, Sharing Skills Manager at the South East Museum, Library and Archive Council (SEMLAC) explained.
“We are trying to create a skill-sharing culture, where museums can establish good practice and access training. Museums regularly need answers to very specific queries. Our aim was to capitalise on the resources and skills available locally, and to encourage the exchange of advice and support.”
Improved staff training is leading to more interactive exhibitions and outreach activities.
The Skills Bank is a comprehensive online listing of people and organisations across the South East willing to share their expertise and experience with others for free. Skills available through the bank include conservation, photography, design and PR, as well as how to deal with those troublesome mice!
Sara Isted, curator at Petersfield Museum, is already reaping the benefits of the Bank. She has so far received the input of two experts who provided specific advice on conserving and exhibiting the museum’s social history collection.
Petersfield Museum was established in 2000 by Petersfield Area Historical Society, a group of enthusiastic historians with an extensive local archive collection. Until October 2005, the museum was entirely volunteer-run, but a legacy from one of the members, which was given on the proviso that it be used for 'ongoing improvements,' allowed the appointment of a professional curator.
Petersfield Museum is one of the smaller museums in the South East to receive training through the Skills Bank.
“It’s an exciting time for the museum,” Sara said, “but there are lots of gaps in our knowledge, so it’s absolutely brilliant to have this sort of help and advice. And it’s all free, which is wonderful because like most small museums we only have a limited training budget.”
Soon after taking up her new post, Sara attended a course in Winchester run by Hampshire County Council Exhibitions Officer Nick Suffolk. This provided specialist training in how to run an exhibition on a budget, a vital skill for the curator of a small rural museum.
“It was fantastic,” Sara enthused. “The course provided really practical advice on how to put together a professional show on a limited budget.”
Another benefit that Sara in particular is grateful for is the chance to network with museum staff.
For small museums with limited training budgets the scheme is already proving invaluable.
“Because I’d just moved to the area, I found it very useful to get to meet other people who are working in museums locally. During the exhibition training, we all sat down and brainstormed together. I really appreciated having the chance to meet peers, and to be able to help one another.”
Sara also found assistance with conservation advice for the museum’s displays via curators based with Hampshire County Council.
“I had a couple of milk churns that I wanted to display, but they were completely rusted through. I didn’t really know where to start with them, but the Skills Bank put me in touch with someone with a similar collection, who advised on materials and processes used to clean the churns.”
Petersfield Museum has an extensive social history collection, including archive material celebrating the history of the town.
So far 200 museum, library and archive staff have agreed to be included in the South East Skills Bank, and organisers are planning to extend the list in Spring 2006.
Museum Development Officers act as brokers in the scheme, putting museums in touch with skill providers. As Lauren Gilmour, Museum Development Officer for Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, explained, the Skills Bank has been enormously helpful.
“The directory has put the abilities of Museum Development Officers to advise museums on a whole new plain. It gives us the opportunity to draw on experiences from all over the South East and provide specialist advice to any venue in our region.”
Surprisingly, uptake has not only been confined to small museums. The Ashmolean Museum has called upon the Bank in order to access training in conservation techniques from Hampshire Museums Services.
“It’s so morale boosting for staff to have their skills recognised and for people to be calling on them”, Laura Williams said. “The uptake has been great and I think everyone is really benefiting from working more closely together.”
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