Looking After The Rural Museums Of North Yorkshire

By Safira Ali | 25 May 2005
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Shows the exterior of the Captain Cook Memorial Museum.

The Captain Cook Memorial Museum. Photo courtesy, Captain Cook Memorial Museum.

24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer Safira Ali hooked up with Museum Development Officer Fiona Keeton during her rounds of the museums in the Ryedale and Scarborough area of North Yorkshire.

Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at a museum and how things are kept running smoothly? A lot of work goes into our smaller museums, many of which are self-funded and important to the community as they depict the history of the town and their people.

Some of these vital museums are relatively small scale, others are sprawling with several buildings to maintain, yet most are run by volunteers so they sometimes need to enlist the help of a Museum Development Officer (MDO) for assistance, advice and support in planning.

As part of the Renaissance In The Regions initiative three Museums Development Officers have been employed to work closely with independent voluntary-run museums in Yorkshire.

Fiona Keeton is the MDO for Scarborough and Ryedale - funded by the Museums Development Fund, Scarborough Borough Council and Ryedale District Council.

shows a steam engine pasing through the countryside

Although not particularly small, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway falls within Fiona's remit. © North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

Fiona works with museums in Whitby, Filey, Pickering and Malton including Beck Isle Museum, Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Filey Museum, Malton Museum, North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Ryedale Folk Museum, Robin Hoods Bay Museum and Whitby Museum.

All of them are individual museums with their own peculiar and particular needs: I went along to Ryedale Folk Museum with Fiona to see what her work there involved.

Fiona began her museum career by studying a degree in history and archaeology, and then took a Masters in Museums studies before she got a job as a curator in Bridlington. After 'a major refit' at Bridlington's Bayle Museum she moved on to becoming a Museum Development Officer, and has not looked back since.

Her job includes 'offering practical support and advice on a wide range of issues such as collections care, standards, marketing, access, volunteering etc...', but today she was looking at 'Emergency planning' at Ryedale Folk Museum in preparation for the new Museums Accreditation Scheme.

shows a bronze statue of Captain Cook

Whitby Museum, another of the museums on Fiona's 'patch' and an important location in Captain Cook country. © Whitby Museum.

“If there is a fire or flood or if anything gets damaged we need to be prepared,” she tells me before the day’s meeting, which is just one of the varied tasks Fiona organises as part of her job.

Another important part is maintaining and fostering a good relationship with the museums and the people who work in them.

“Michael Benson is the Manager of Ryedale Folk Museum,” she explains. “He bounces ideas off me. I have an individual relationship with all the museums, but Ryedale is big and needs attention as it had 35,000 visitors last year.”

“I am aiming to get the museums in partnerships with one another. They are all different, but have similar aspects as they all have collections and common aims.”

shows a photograph of an old museum building with two sheep walking in front

The Ryedale Folk Museum consists of several fascinating old buildings that together tell the story of rural life in Yorkshire. © Ryedale Folk Museum.

Fiona is also in the process of trying to set up a joint website for the nine main museums she is covering.

“Ryedale and Whitby have marketing research to examine visiting trends and to assess how to bring more people into their museums. The website we are producing will show the bigger picture and encourage people to go to other museums that they may not have usually have gone to.”

Fiona believes that building links between museums and encouraging them to share ideas and work together to become more efficient is an important recipe for success. “There was no history of the museums working together before so I am a signpost for where to go to for advice,” she explains. “I have more of an advisory role. Most times they just want someone to talk to.”

Yorkshire has 65 independent museums and three MDOs. They have regular meetings about four times a year. Museum Development Funding comes from Yorkshire Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, (YMLAC), through the Renaissance initiative.

shows a photograph of an old village shop and chemists

The Village Shop and Chemists at Ryedale Folk Museum. © Ryedale Folk Museum.

Despite this support smaller museums still need to be resourceful to make the most of their limited funds. A good example of this is at Whitby Museum, which has recently put together a succesful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a refit.

For Fiona they are a good example of a small museum making the most of their opportunities. “They are committed to what they do and have a professional approach, although they are unpaid they have a lot to give even though they have little resources.”

Back at Rydale, the Folk Museum has been exploring different ways of sustaining and developing the museum. One such project is a student placement scheme in the shape of Catherine Pitre, a French Canadian student who is studying a Masters in Museum Studies.

She is on a 16-week placement learning how British museums operate while helping in the museum’s day-to-day running. Catherine is just one of the ways the museum is facing the challenges of running a smaller collection on a limited budget.

shows a photograph of a single storeyed thatched cottage

The Victorian Cottage at Ryedale Folk Museum. © Ryedale Folk Museum.

A good relationship with the local population is also something that is key to the museum’s success.“We are connecting more with the local people - more than the museum has for years,” explains museum manager Michael Benson.

“The museum is for and about the people of Ryedale,” he tells me. “Village members have a lifetime membership encouraging them to come here.”

Throughout the process of looking at ways of sustaining the museum there are strong lines of communication between the museum and the MDO. “I will call Fiona several times a day for advice,” says Michael, who is committed to competing with some of the larger and perhaps better-funded museums in the region.

“We give as good as we get when it comes to competition,” he says, “but we are still learning.”

As volunteers work hard on a series of projects including an evacuee’s week in June and a STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) fair for 400 local children in July, it’s a learning curve that seems to be reaping rewards.

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Safira Ali is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the Yorkshire 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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