Resources Provocation paper

Small and Mighty: Celebrating the impact of community museums

Clore 15 Fellow Bryony Robins considers the impact of grassroots organisations; how they are undervalued and ignored at our peril.

The cultural establishment has long disdainfully ignored grassroots organisations and devalued the often innovative and meaningful work they do, but it’s time to wake up. Survival increasingly relies on demonstrable community engagement, and strategic and funding bodies require more evidence of audience impact. But, what do they mean by ‘community’, and do they really value true community work? There’s a lot we can learn from small museums, but is the establishment ready and able to change the way museums work?

What is a small museum?

‘Small museums’ is a generic term for what others call community museums, or those museums based in rural locations; small towns and villages that receive no regular, core funding.  The Association of Independent Museums defines small museums as those receiving less than 20,000 visitors a year. The grassroots museums discussed in this paper are located in often isolated rural communities and receive far fewer visitors. They might more accurately be called micro museums.

Many of these museums achieve Museum Accreditation; meeting and maintaining national standards, and they are almost entirely volunteer run and managed, self-generating all income required to operate. These museums must innovate to survive, they have to stay relevant and engage and they do this because they are, first and foremost, community focussed.

These museums usually offer the only access to cultural activity within their locations. They focus on heritage but provide a richer cultural blend; learning sessions will include storytelling and drama, music, drawing and creative writing. If they have space they offer activities such as yoga, art classes and heritage talks. These museums potentially form people’s first route into culture and play a vital role in establishing wider audiences for arts and heritage. A school visit or work placement in a friendly, welcoming organisation can establish a lifetime’s pattern of cultural engagement.

This access to culture is vitally important in rurally isolated locations that have little public transport. In communities like these older people in particular suffer from rural isolation. People may be able to drive, but the challenge of taking out a car and navigating narrow lanes and parking spaces makes travelling to larger towns more difficult and not to be tackled lightly. So, community museums are crucial for older people facing later life loneliness. They offer coffee mornings, reminiscence events, and sometimes just a friendly chat and comfortable environment. They can also provide a way of building confidence and self-worth through volunteering and identification activities.  The museums impact in rural communities can not be underestimated.

A creative approach

Saltash is a small town on the Cornwall and Devon border on the Tamar estuary. The town supports 3 small museums and has a memorial garden and blue plaque town trail. These organisations are the holders of the town’s identity; defiantly Cornish and keen not to be subsumed into the neighbouring city of Plymouth.

The volunteer run Saltash Heritage is a social history museum based in a former shop premises on the steep high street in the centre of town. The museum has around 60 volunteers, each has their own role according to their skills and interests. When one valuable volunteer started finding travel too challenging to get to the museum, the team devised a new way of working. They assembled work packages that could be completed at home and took them out to the volunteer, collecting and exchanging work packages every 2 weeks.

It was a simple idea, and it takes some planning and organising but ultimately benefits both the museum and the individual. The volunteer maintains regular contact with friends at the museum, gets to hear any news and gossip, and they also continue to contribute to the community through their work. Since launching the scheme 2 years ago more volunteers have come forward, and the outreach volunteering scheme has flourished.

The work is mainly digitising images and transcribing handwritten documents; something easily achieved away from the museum, if you are willing to carefully select items and take a practical approach to collections care. And this is the crux of the matter, the museum has to be flexible and willing to challenge accepted ways of working, something that’s infrequently shown in larger organisations.

‘Professionals’ in any occupation, encumbered by targets and staffing hierarchies can fall into the trap of working to rule and avoiding anything that takes a new approach or isn’t part of their role description. This unhelpful culture fails to gain the best from people, often slowing processes, supressing ideas and restricting innovation. Volunteer museums can be more reactive and responsive to immediate needs; if the community needs older people’s services; they provide. They have people already willing and signed up to work for the good of their town, and their programmes are borne from its immediate needs.

Re-thinking volunteers

The terms ‘professional’ and ‘volunteer’ are labels I simply use to distinguish whether staff are paid or not. It’s relevant in the sector only for funding applications and possibly in understanding people’s motivations and ability to commit time. Almost all volunteers have considerable commitments caring for family members or in other volunteer roles, so contrary to expectations are usually unable to be flexible with their time. However, their commitment and dedication are obvious; if a job needs doing they adapt and simply do it. Things happen quickly and instinctively. Why have we lost this ‘can do’ attitude in the workplace, and just how much does it hamper our achievements?

In some professional circles, people assume that volunteers are not professional in their work. The word ‘volunteer’ has come to mean amateur or worse, hobbyist, without any understanding of the professionalism of the work many volunteers do. In large museums there’s often a disconnect between their volunteer workforce and paid roles, with volunteers being kept at arm’s length. They are often disdainfully referred to, and only allowed to undertake what is perceived to be unskilled work. This belies the range and expertise of what volunteers can offer; their potential is undervalued and the understanding they bring of the community and their differing perspectives, could be extremely valuable to the organisation.

The volunteers I encounter in community museums carry out the same work as professionals. They may or may not have heritage qualifications, but will all come with skills, experience and viewpoints that contribute to the organisation. They attend the same training courses as paid staff and have the same commitment to professional standards and should therefore command the same respect and be valued for their achievements. It’s time to rethink our attitudes to volunteers.

Representing the community

Newquay Heritage Archive and Museum has grown out of the local branch of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies; a network of organisations that aim to protect Cornish culture. Newquay is a holiday destination with a vastly fluctuating population according to the season. Its fortunes have declined over the years, and has fallen victim to rapid, unchecked growth cashing in on cheap holiday accommodation. It has become the party town of Cornwall, famous for stag nights and post exams celebrations. In part due to having the best surfing beaches in Cornwall, the town has an unusually young population and a high number of non-Cornish residents. This provides both challenges and opportunities for the museum; there’s reduced ability to access traditional volunteers and potentially less interest in local history, yet they have an active and diverse community to serve.

Newquay Museum is another volunteer run museum with no financial support from the local council, who operate from a modern, town centre location and generate all their operating costs from donations, events and heritage walks. They have a strong inclusive ethos and support a volunteer workforce of young and old and of differing backgrounds. They have one young volunteer with autism. He has teamed up with an octogenarian who has some mobility difficulties; and together this pair operate in a mutually supportive partnership. The museum has also devised a programme of skills development for ex-offenders that not only provides valuable work experience but also builds confidence and mutual trust.

These are just two examples of how the museum flexes to accommodate people. Work plans are devised according to the individual, their time commitments and the skills they bring. They don’t start with an operational function and create a role but build a work programme around the volunteer. This means the overall organisational plans have to be more fluid and accommodating, but ultimately, they still achieve their goals and have a happy and fulfilled workforce. And, in working in this way the community museum is better placed to establish a workforce that represents the diversity of their community.

Collaboration; more than the sum of its parts

We hear a lot about community collaboration and co-curation and here again, smaller museums excel. They are such a fundamental part of their communities they naturally work in partnership without even acknowledging the fact. It’s an approach that offers a more efficient way of getting things done. The museums are unconstrained by protocols and the hierarchies of power that prevent communication.

In the recent drive to tackle environmental issues Bude are aiming to become the greenest town in Britain and achieving plastic free status. The museum might not seem an obvious partner in this initiative but have become one of the main champions, creating an exhibition and offering learning activities that spread the word. They are working with local conservation charities to highlight the dangers of sea pollution and encourage interest in the natural environment. The museum café has also made a huge effort in becoming plastic free and aiming for zero waste. The whole organisation has recognised the importance of the Greener Bude initiative and acted quickly to make it the main focus of their work.

Similarly, Perranzabuloe Museum are using a pop-up museum to promote the issue of ocean plastics. The museum is based in the small yet busy holiday town of Perranporth that has miles of sandy beaches. In fine weather the museum empties, so the natural thing to do was to take the museum and its activities to the beach, offering talks and children’s activities. A few years ago, a tragedy occurred where a young child lost their life when exploring what she thought was a cave, falling down a mine shaft. The museum immediately realised they had a job to do in raising awareness of these dangers and altered their programme accordingly. However, they also realised they needed to get the message across to a younger audience. With the aim of recruiting younger volunteers to help engage young families, they approached Exeter University, and a lasting partnership emerged. Now on busy bank holidays about 30 students run the pop-up museum, chatting to beach visitors, creating the displays, running activities and undertaking valuable audience research.

Rapid response

These examples show how these organisations can change focus quickly according to current trends and community needs. They are responsive and relevant and not afraid to adapt and change. They may have written programmes, and in fact Museum Accreditation demands 3-5 year Forward Plans, but they are not written so much in stone they can’t be adapted, they probably all know their trustees by name and decisions can be made quickly. There is a level of trust and respect afforded to their volunteers, they are able to tackle big and sometimes controversial issues with freedom that many professionals would relish.

I genuinely believe that the mainstream museum sector has a lot to learn from grassroots organisations, and would benefit from adopting some of these flexible, responsive approaches where they truly affect change at local level. We need to reconsider the museum rule book, thinking people first. It has become fashionable to shape projects around the human centred design model, and Derby Museum has rightly been given credit for adopting this ground-breaking model for larger organisations, but isn’t this how small museums have been operating for years? They work in a creative way; identify a problem, brainstorm solutions, address it through their practice, change and adapt and continue to innovate.

Their open approach to programmes and working practices mean that they operate in a way that defies the traditional museum label. These are active community venues offering wellbeing before it became fashionable with everything from yoga to coffee mornings, gigs to poetry readings. And they also play a really important part in maintaining life in our declining high streets and providing an inclusive and inviting space for all.

It’s about time we, the museum establishment, take a step back and really celebrate everything smaller museums achieve. These organisations help to build a sense of belonging and encourage the interactions that create a sense of meaning and respect within communities that might just be the saviour of our larger museums in the future.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist

Themes Inclusive Leadership Practice Sector Insights