So, you’ve joined the Network but why not go the whole hog?

The Rural Museums Network is run by a dedicated committee of volunteers who support members, organise events and initiate projects. The committee are always keen to ensure that they represent the network as a whole – in terms of the types of museums and individuals involved, the geographical spread and the various roles we have within our organisations. Want to know more? Dr Ollie Douglas from the Museum of English Rural Life shares his experience of being drawn into the fold:

Since the start of my museums career, I’ve had the chance to serve on the committees of two different Specialist Subject Networks (SSN) – the Museum Ethnographers’ Group (MEG) and the Rural Museums Network (RMN) – as well as other sector-related organisations. In these contexts, I have met and worked alongside many talented and inspiring people. I have watched as older ways of doing things have yielded to newer ways. I have seen generous colleagues step aside to make way for different skillsets and voices. I have seen the sector and these SSNs evolve and adapt to meet changing circumstances and challenges facing the arts and heritage world.

You don’t have to hunt far for articles and commentaries that speak to the benefits of serving a term (or in some cases several terms!) on an SSN committee. Over the years I’ve read numerous positive statements about career development and continuing professional development. Many cite the enormous value of trustee experience, which stands loads of our peers in great stead for future roles on the advisory boards of museum consortia, charitable trusts, or other heritage organisations. True as these excellent testimonials are, I didn’t seek out experiences of trusteeship or committee membership for these reasons. Truth be told, I was herded rather unwittingly into SSN work by well-meaning mentors who were keen for me to connect with others. I have been lucky enough to have the support of my employers behind me. But if your managers are worried about the commitment, it is worth noting that I have never been asked to give more time or energy than I could afford, and the museums have always benefited far more than the cost of my participation.

For my own part, I agreed to put myself forward not for CV points and future opportunities but because I was tempted to explore fields unfamiliar and pastures new. In other words, it was the offer of fresh perspectives that drew me into the fold. The excuse to sit with peers and examine the landscape of our shared corner of the heritage world. The chance to absorb and respond to some of their passion, skill, and expertise. Here was an opportunity to compare my small plot with best practice from other places and roles. And perhaps more than all of this, this was a space in which I could start to shape the future of the sector.

Sitting back from my experiences I can reflect on the skills and knowledge I’ve gleaned. I struggle to recall the number of places I’ve been lucky enough to visit but there have been many opportunities to visit other museums and to see behind the scenes. I can at least remember each and every one of the amazing people I’ve worked alongside, and they have been numerous and their collective expertise and support has been an unimaginable bonus. In hindsight, I can also now recognise lots of other outcomes and benefits. Serving on the MEG Committee opened my eyes to the ways in which these organisations work and gave me the chance to shape and deliver a major conference event, something I’ve done multiple times since. The RMN Committee, meanwhile, has been a mainstay throughout my career and has challenged and honed my professional practice and specialist knowledge at every turn. Together these SSN roles have provided the experience necessary for me to feel confident in taking on leadership of an ICOM-Affiliated Committee – the International Association of Agricultural Museums – operating on a global stage, and to feel capable and confident in convening and organising an international Congress.

When it comes to my part on the Committee of the RMN, I must confess that I look forward (with a combination of trepidation and excitement) to a time when I find myself unfamiliar with the latest jargon, unable to contribute quite so effectively, and ready to hand over to someone else. I’m not sure if anyone is putting me out to pasture quite yet but I won’t mind when they do. I will be happy in the knowledge that I’ve had an enjoyable and creative hand in shaping the RMN and in making meaningful change across the sector. I joined in the hope that I’d help improve our practice and shift the conversation in productive ways. However, I have learnt that these committees are only as good as their members and, like all other facets of museum work, they benefit from a diverse and inclusive range of talents, and they thrive on change. So, whether I stay on the RMN Committee or not, I’d like to see a wider range of rural museum skills and roles represented, not just curators and collections managers. We need a committee that meets complex intersectional challenges and reflects the institutional variety that we see across our Network. Where are the learning and education specialists, community engagement and interpretation managers, conservators, cataloguers, marketing and digital staff, and front of house colleagues whose collective efforts keep our rural museums thriving and active? I’d like to be part of an organisation shaped by the leadership and voices of people from the full scope of the Network’s geographic reach, and from all quarters of our complex but exciting sector.

So, this is me asking you to think about putting yourself forward and me asking you to share your ideas, skills, and abilities so the rest of us can reap the rewards of your expertise.

If this has inspired you to play a more active role in the Rural Museums Network and to help shape it for the future, do get in touch and go the whole hog!

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RMN’21: Telling the Stories of Rural LGBTQ+ Lives

Our speakers for the final Rural Voices panel session in 2021 were specialists in developing and undertaking new research to uncover and make accessible queer rural stories.

Norena Shopland discussed how rural heritage organisations can utilise her research to showcase a queer reading of the local landscape, while Joe Jukes touched upon understanding of the word ‘queer’ and how it could provide a different approach to telling marginalised stories, whilst pushing for change. Tim Allsop collects life stories of rural queer people and mediates them through technology, theatre, and film. Together with Sally Dix from the Museum of East Anglian Life, Tim shared his experiences of using performance art to explore these life stories with wider audiences.

This session was hosted by Rachael Thomas, curator and conservator, based in Inverness.

Tim Allsop is an actor, writer, and director. After studying History at Balliol College, Oxford, Timothy trained as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Tim holds an MA in Creative Fiction from Royal Holloway.

His plays include Open (co-written with Chris Adams) and fiction work includes The Smog, along with various short story publications. He is co-leading the Queer Rural Connections Project, writing the original play based on real life interviews, and directing the live theatre production and film. The film is currently being screened in film festivals. @TimothyCAllsop1

Sally Dix is an Audience Development Officer at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, Suffolk. She has worked on various projects that have helped to engage audiences with LGBTQ+ history. In the summer, Sally curated ‘Dining with Pride’, a temporary exhibition exploring the lives, loves and achievements of a number of people from the LGBTQ+ community in Suffolk; past and present. The museum also worked alongside Timothy Allsop to host multiple performances of ‘The Stars Are Brighter Here’, a play exploring LGBTQ+ rural lives in the countryside.

Joe Jukes (they/them) is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Transforming Sexuality and Gender, University of Brighton. Joe’s research concerns rural queer experiences, relations and emotions, asking how we might think about the countryside’s LGBTQ+ communities differently.

Joe has presented their research for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, at the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association, and has written for CPRE – The countryside charity. They also curated the exhibition Queer Constellations at the Museum of English Rural Life, which showcased 8 artists from across UK and Ireland. @jsdjukes

Norena Shopland is an author/historian specialising in the history of sexual orientation and gender identity, particularly in reference to Wales. Her book Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales (Seren Books, 2017) is the first completely historical work on Welsh sexual orientation and gender identity.

Queering Glamorgan and A Practical Guide to Searching LGBTQIA Historical Records (Routledge, 2020) have become very popular as toolkits to aid people doing original research. Shopland’s latest book A History of Women in Men’s Clothes: from cross-dressing to empowerment (Pen and Sword Books, 2021) looks at thousands of individuals who cross-dressed, cross-worked, and cross-lived as men. @NorenaShopland

Rachael Thomas is a museum curator and conservator, based in Inverness, who has worked with collections across the Highlands of Scotland. Most recently this has included time as Assistant Curator at Auchindrain Township in Argyll, and as Project Conservator during Gairloch Museum’s award-winning reinterpretation. Her areas of interest include the material culture of Scotland’s Gypsy/Travellers, and the interior decorations, fixtures and fittings of Scotland’s vernacular buildings. She is secretary of the Rural Museums Network. @rachaelthomasconservation

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RMN’21: Decolonising Rural Collections

In the second of our Rural Voices Seminar sessions from 2021, we introduced participants to what decolonisation might mean for their organisations and working practices.

Until recently, colonial legacies had not been central to rural history, heritage, or museology but there are clear issues to address concerning land rights, extractive colonialism, and contemporary social justice.

Work by Tehmina Goskar had begun to explore how museums in rural locations can help meet these challenges and The MERL had begun to think about what this all means for collections of rural life. As well as advocating for greater transparency about the impact of empire and globalisation, our panel argued for fundamental changes to our roles, teams, and ​how we interpret collections. Participants were encouraged to join us in exploring how ​reforming rural museology was critical to decolonisation.

This session was co-hosted by Dr Ollie Douglas, Curator at The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading and Dr Tehmina Goskar, Director and Curator, Curatorial Research Centre.

Nicola Minney is a Collections Researcher at The MERL and has spent the last year working with the collections as part of the ‘Building Connections’ Project.

Throughout the project she has produced new interpretation on themes of migration, decolonisation and LGBTQ+ stories, including school sessions focused on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month; ‘Queer Constellations’; and an upcoming exhibition called ‘Changing Perspectives’.

Anooshka Rawden is the Cultural Heritage Lead for the South Downs National Park Authority, supporting a range of projects to increase awareness of the culture and heritage of the South Downs. Previously, Anooshka was Programme Manager with both South East Museum Development and Science Museum Group. Anooshka’s background is in collections management, and she has managed the collections of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and The Novium Museum, focusing on support for collections research and opportunities to make collections more accessible through public programming. A career highlight has been mentoring for Museum Futures, a programme which provides opportunities for diverse museum professionals to gain on the job training. @anooshka_rawden

Dr Winane Thebele is Chief Curator and Head of the Ethnology Division, Botswana National Museums, which she joined after graduating from the University of Botswana in 1993. Her professional and scholarly research interests have been geared towards the country’s migrated collections and participating in international debates and projects around the same colonial holdings as well as contemporary cases on the illicit trafficking of cultural property. This includes facilitation and presenting at conferences and workshops on heritage and she therefore boasts a vast experience on issues of museum collections, restitution, human remains, genocide etc. She has contributed to publications on heritage and several local and international projects on heritage and exchanges between museums and universities.

Dr Ollie Douglas has worked at The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, for over a decade where his role focusses on curation, interpretation, management, research access, and public engagement. During this time, he has both led and participated in numerous projects that have sought to reimagine rural heritage and museums in a range of creative ways. He sits on the Committee of the RMN and the Folklore Society. He is currently President of the ICOM-affiliated International Association of Agricultural Museums. @OllieDouglas

Tehmina Goskar is the Director and Curator of the Curatorial Research Centre, an independent organisation dedicated to modern, ethical curatorial practice. She is a Fellow of the Museums Association, and from 2016-21 was a member of its Ethics Committee and Decolonisation Guidance Working Group. She is an accredited facilitator and Research Associate at Swansea University. From 2016-18 she was an Arts Council England-supported Change Maker when she founded the Rural Diversity Network, and from 2018-21 she developed and led the cultural democracy and alternative pathways programme, Citizen Curators in collaboration with Cornwall Museums Partnership. Tehmina is currently preparing a new book on curating which will also explore how she decolonised her own curatorial practice. @tehm

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RMN’21: Representing Gypsy, Roma and Travelling Communities in Rural Museums

In the autumn of 2021, the Rural Museums Network went online once more with a new Seminar Series – tailoring contemporary thinking and practice to those who work with rural life collections, providing practical suggestions and support.

Monthly tea break seminars were held, with the opportunity to hear expert panels discuss how rural collections and rural sites could better include a wider range of voices in the stories they tell by looking at Gypsy, Roma and Travelling communities; decolonisation; and LBTQ+ lives.

For the opening session, the Rural Museums Network brought together a panel of experts who were passionate about the representation of Gypsy, Roma and Travelling communities in our rural histories. Jeremy Harte, John Henry Phillips, and Georgina Stevens discussed how and why GRT histories have a place in our museums, as well as who we should be working with to make these stories accessible to all.

This session was hosted by Guy Baxter, Associate Director (Archive Services) at the Museum of English Rural Life.

Jeremy Harte is curator of Bourne Hall Museum at Epsom and Ewell, where he has been researching and presenting Gypsy history for twenty years. He is co-organiser of Roma Gypsy Traveller History Month in Surrey, sits on the committee of the Romany and Traveller Family History Society, and has worked with community leaders to create the Surrey Gypsy Archive. He worked on the international Roma Routes project collating Romany material culture in museums. His history Travellers Through Time is the fruit of a project to present an honest portrait of Gypsy history from the inside. He can be found on Epsom Downs each June, enthusiastically buying whatever everyone else is buying. @FolkLoreSociety

John Henry Phillips is an award-winning archaeologist, author and filmmaker of Romani descent. He is the co-director of Romani Community Archaeology, a new non-profit looking to elevate Romani communities through archaeology. By excavating, engaging and educating, the project aims to uncover sites and artefacts highlighting the material culture of Romani Gypsies in order to combat modern misconceptions and showcase Romani as a unique ethnic minority with a deep and rich history. By working with Romani communities, the project aims to elevate Romani voices, improve mental and physical well-being and open the heritage sector up to those who may otherwise not have access. @johnphillips185

Georgina Stevens is from a Romani background and previously worked in education. She is Vardo Project Curatorial Officer for Hartlebury Castle Museum in Worcestershire, home to the most complete collection of Vardos in the UK. Georgina has been appointed as part of a 3-year project funded by the John Ellerman Foundation that aims to illuminate the context of the museum’s extremely unique collection, by engaging directly with the travelling community, sharing information about its culture and identity. It aims to empower the collection to challenge negative stereotypes and preserve a neglected history in the public domain before it is lost. @WorcesterMuseum

Kathy Townsley McGuigan grew up in the 1960s in a traditional Scottish Traveller family based in Argyll and all-around Scotland. She spent most of her working life in traditional farming or equivalent roles. Out of work, her family hung on to the traditional ways longer than many others. She was always aware and proud of her community’s traditions, and became an articulate advocate for these, and for Traveller rights, within her own community and to the outside world. She has worked at Auchindrain Historic Township since 2014, where her knowledge saw her become a subject-specialist on the intangible and tangible elements of Traveller culture, taking part in research, recording, collecting and interpretation.

Guy Baxter is Associate Director (Archive Services) at the Museum of English Rural Life. He has worked at the Museum since 2008 and is a strong advocate for museums, libraries, archives and researchers working closely together for a common purpose. Having contributed to the inclusion of Gypsy Roma and Traveller stories in the Museum’s new galleries in 2016, Guy supported the strand of The MERL’s Building Connections project looking more broadly at interpretation about migration. This led to the Museum’s successful first engagement with GRT History Month in 2021, as the springboard for longer-term engagement – online, in schools and in the Museum. @archivesgb

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Looking back: Why Black Lives Matter in the British Countryside

Our final speaker, Louisa Adjoa Parker, closed our 2020 Conference by encouraging delegates to understand what they can do to support Black Lives Matter in a rural context.

©Robert Golden

A writer and researcher from South West England, she focused on the experiences of people of colour in white rural landscapes, including the Black History in Dorset project (2007) which explored the presence of African and Caribbean people in Dorset over 400 years. She brought that work up to date for us by exploring the differences between rural and urban racism, the challenges in challenging others, Black Lives Matter protests in rural areas, as well as what museum workers can do professionally and personally to enact change.

This session was hosted by Melanie Williamson, Collections Assistant, Staffordshire Archives and Heritage

Louisa Adjoa Parker is a published writer and poet of Ghanaian and English heritage from South West England. She began writing to talk about the racism and domestic violence she experienced as a child, and is passionate about telling the stories of marginalised voices. Louisa has written books and exhibitions exploring black, Asian and ethnically diverse history in the South West. She set up the Where are you really from? project which tells stories of black and brown rural lives. As co-founder of The Inclusion Agency (TIA) she provides consultancy around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion to a range of organisations as well as delivering diverse Arts and Heritage projects. @LouisaAdjoa

Melanie Williamson is Collections Assistant at Staffordshire County Museum. She studied Art Museum and Gallery Studies at the University of Leicester, but moved into social history. She has gained experience in front of house, consultancy, collections, outreach and events, following part-time and temporary roles all over the country. She’s been in her current role for seven years, and collections are where her heart lies. She is a committee member of the RMN.

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Looking back: Coronavirus in the Countryside – Rural Museums’ Responses to Covid-19 and Lockdown

As we continue our series of posts, looking back on our October 2020 Conference sessions, this event explored three case studies that supported and inspired delegates to manage the changes wrought by Covid-19 on our day to day practice.

Chris Copp of Staffordshire Archives and Heritage presented ‘Lockdown Memories’: creating a lasting record of the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown measures and how they affected the lives of Staffordshire people. Megan Dennis of Norfolk Museums Service shared ‘Keeping Volunteers Engaged’: supporting volunteers at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse during the pandemic. And Fay Bailey of Shropshire Museums Service contributed ‘Opening up at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm’: the practicalities of re-opening an open-air museum post-lockdown.

This session was hosted by Dr Ollie Douglas, Curator at The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading.

Chris Copp is Senior Museums Officer at Staffordshire Archives and Heritage. He has over 25 years’ experience of working in museums, initially in Leicestershire, but mostly in Staffordshire. Until 2017 he was based at Shugborough and managed the collections and displays at Staffordshire County Museum and Shugborough Park Farm. Having since relocated to Stafford he is currently working on the development of the new Staffordshire History Centre and is Secretary for the Rural Museums Network. @CoppCJ

Megan Dennis is Curator at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Norfolk’s rural life museum, part of Norfolk Museums Service. Following a degree in Archaeological Sciences, and a research Ph.D. Megan developed knowledge of archaeological collections and practical excavation within public-facing organisations. She later created and managed museum learning programmes in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk. Since 2008 she has been Curator at Gressenhall. Her responsibilities include development and management of collections and management of a team of staff, trainees and volunteers. Recent projects include a Skills for the Future trainee programme and Voices from the Workhouse £2 million re-development project. @CuratorMeg

Fay Bailey is Service Manager of Shropshire Museums. Her twenty-four years in the heritage industry have taken her to Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust, English Heritage and latterly Shropshire Museums Service where she managed the learning, marketing and audience development teams before taking on the role of Service Manager.

Dr Ollie Douglas has worked at The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, for over a decade where his role focusses on curation, interpretation, management, research access, and public engagement. During this time, he has both led and participated in numerous projects that have sought to reimagine rural heritage and museums in a range of creative ways. He sits on the Committee of the RMN and the Folklore Society. He is currently President of the ICOM-affiliated International Association of Agricultural Museums. @OllieDouglas

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Looking back: How to Reap the Rewards with the RMN

In 2020, we hosted our first online conference, with a wide variety of sessions examining how rural collections and rural sites could respond to global environmental issues, Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter.

Looking back, we appreciate that although the conference has long since finished, the discussions that the sessions inspired remain ever-relevant. With that in mind, in this post we return to our second session, which explored how the Rural Museums Network itself could support people to get the best out of their collections.

We brought together a panel of early career professionals working with rural life collections for this Conference session. Rachael Thomas, Melanie Williamson and Holly Franklin-Trubshawe discussed the isolation, lack of collections knowledge and working with volunteers as some of the learning curves emerging museum professionals face in museums with rural collections. The session looked at how the RMN supports people to get the best out of their collections, and how the Subject Specialist Netowkr (SSN) should build on its Understanding Rural Collections and Reap the Rewards programmes (2019/20) that reached out to new people and museums to widen its support. What changes needed to take place now to embed this work?

This session was hosted by Bob Clark, Director of Auchindrain Township

Melanie Williamson is Collections Assistant at Staffordshire County Museum. She studied Art Museum and Gallery Studies at the University of Leicester, but moved into social history to open up more job opportunities as well a love of connecting with people through everyday objects. She has gained experience in front of house, consultancy, collections, outreach and events, following part-time and temporary roles all over the country. In 2015 she was working in Staffordshire, Cheshire, Glasgow and Coventry! She’s been in her current role for seven years, and collections are where her heart lies. She is a committee member of the RMN.

Holly Franklin-Trubshawe is the Curatorial Assistant at Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum, a small accredited independent museum in South Devon. The museum has a large agricultural collection, and Holly is responsible for managing the volunteers that are relied upon to look after the objects and keep the museum open. Holly is also the co-founder and a current committee member for the South West Emerging Museum Professionals groups (SWEMP) and a committee member for Devon Museums. @HTrub88

Rachael Thomas is Assistant Curator at Auchindrain Township where she’s responsible for everything from documenting archaeological finds to researching the families and buildings of the Township. She grew up in Gairloch in the Highlands of Scotland, before heading to Edinburgh College of Art. At Durham University she gained an MA in the Conservation of Archaeological and Museum Objects, including a placement at the Museum of London. She’s worked across the Highlands, including as Assistant Conservator at the Highland Folk Museum. She was heavily involved in Gairloch Museum’s buildings move, acting as Project Conservator for many years. @RachaelTCons @RachaelThomasConservation

Bob Clark is Director of Auchindrain Township, Scotland, and RMN Chair until 2020. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies and is a Fellow of the Museums Association. Bob’s career began at Beamish where he was responsible for the industrial collections. In 1989 he emigrated to Scotland, and held senior posts at the Scottish Museums Council and a large local authority. Between 1999-2009 he worked in consultancy on short-term project development roles, ending up at Auchindrain where he is now in the twelfth year of a one-year contract. Bob’s interest is vernacular buildings, and presenting the ways in which new technology and improved scientific understandings transformed agriculture and changed life.

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Looking back: Cultivating Change in Rural Collections

Since 2020 was all about change, the Rural Museums Network took the bull by the horns and delivered its first online Conference, with the aim of delving in to some of our greatest concerns and offering practical solutions and support.

Over four weeks of sessions, we were delighted to be joined by fascinating panels who helped examine how rural collections and rural sites could respond to global environmental issues, Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, as well as how the Rural Museums Network itself could support people to get the best out of their collections.  

Looking back, we appreciate that although the conference has long since finished, the discussions that the sessions inspired remain ever-relevant. With that in mind, we thought we would post information on what was covered – a reminder to those who were able to join us at the time, and some handy hints and contacts for those embarking upon these themes for the first time.

Rural Places and the Great Beyond: Techniques for Linking Local Environments with Global Histories

Photograph of Debra Reid

Our keynote speaker for our opening session, Dr Debra Reid, launched the Conference with a clarion call to use local history and historical collections as the basis for taking a fresh look at global environmental issues and human relations today. As co-author of ‘Interpreting the Environment in Museums and Historic Sites’ (2019) she stressed that a process that is suitable to any rural museum involves research, collections assessment and development, and then puts the pieces together to build provocative environmental interpretation. Thinking about the environment with a history lens opens a whole new chapter of environmental literacy, that facilitates the transfer of knowledge gained from experiences with natural environments and natural resources to build a deeper understanding of historic resources.

This session was hosted by Dr Ollie Douglas, Curator at The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading.

Debra A. Reid grew up on a farm in Southern Illinois, on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Her commitment to studying agricultural history and rural minority cultures found a home within the International Association of Agricultural Museums (since 1988) and the European Rural History Organisation (since 2010). She has spent her career working with history museums and teaching history, public history, and gender studies which she continues today as Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford Museum, Michigan, and as an adjunct professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. @AgriHist

Dr Ollie Douglas has worked at The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, for over a decade where his role focusses on curation, interpretation, management, research access, and public engagement. During this time, he has both led and participated in numerous projects that have sought to reimagine rural heritage and museums in a range of creative ways. He sits on the Committee of the RMN and the Folklore Society. He is currently President of the ICOM-affiliated International Association of Agricultural Museums. @OllieDouglas

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Can you separate the wheat from the chaff? Join the RMN Committee!

Image credit: The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading

The Rural Museums Network is looking for some new members to join its Executive Committee. It’s an excellent way to develop your CV, meet people working in museums across the country and share ideas.

It is an exciting time to join as we are currently looking at our future vision for how the organisation can best serve its members in a post-pandemic world. You will be able to help shape the future work of an active and lively Subject Specialist Network.

Rural Museums Network Secretary Melanie Williamson remarked “it’s a fantastic opportunity. I have gained so much from joining the committee, it’s given me the chance to try things outside of my day job and develop my skills. I’ve been able to network with specialists and work with professionals from renowned rural institutions; I’ve been involved in planning and promoting events; and it’s given me ideas for interpreting the collections I work with and wider knowledge of the sector, including the issues affecting museum professionals working in rural organisations. The role is low maintenance, which fits easily into my schedule as I work part time.”

The Committee meet six times a year.  At the moment these are exclusively online Zoom meetings, but we hope to return to meeting face to face at least once or twice a year in due course. The Committee manage the day to day running of the Network, organise an annual conference, and run projects such as the ACE funded ‘Reap the Rewards’ programme.

You certainly do not need to be an ‘expert’ in agricultural collections, and we would love to hear from a wide range of individuals who can help ensure that the committee continues to represent the diverse museums and collections that we’re delighted to have within the network. If you are interested or would just like to find out more, please contact us

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Networking – The Power of People

As part of the Rural Museums Network Reap the Rewards grant, a series of seminars was organised to promote the RMN, a Specialist Subject Network. This event on 4th February was in Rutland, England’s smallest County, at Rutland County Museum in Oakham.

Rutland County MuseumRobin Hill was our facilitator for the day and delivered a great example of the sort of friendly expert advice which can be accessed through the Rural Museum Network. As a group we were from a mix of volunteer run, independent, and local authority museums, including one of ‘The Fenland 6’, Leicester Museums Service, and our host Lorraine Cornwell, curator working for Rutland County Council. I was the most distant attendee from Lancashire Museums, but I was keen to learn about Rutland Museum’s Collections Review. With tea and coffee on tap, we each chose an issue with our sites or collections which we would like to disappear. Chatham house rules applied, but as we listened to the issues, helpful suggestions and useful information was provided by Robin and other members of the RMN. My issue, the last mortal remains of a late Medieval / Tudor farmhouse which had been ‘saved’ in the 1970’s but with no paperwork or plans for rebuilding. Robin suggested the Historic Farm Buildings Network as a good source of information and support, and I will be following this up.

Rutland County MuseumAll too often we work in isolation, and this simple exercise really highlighted that networking really works, and just talking is a great support when discussing collections.

Recycle your crisp packets display at Rutland County MuseumMuseum relevance was another topic of the day and we discussed various ways of making our collections and sites relevant as key to improving sustainability. We often forget that originally many of our towns were built to serve a rural community. Today that concept has been reversed, and now the rural community serves the urban. Interpreting our rural collections linking them to food poverty, environmental conservation issues and the impacts of the new post-Brexit common agricultural policy, are other ways to make our collections relevant to our audiences. Rutland Museum also links to the community and governance by having Rutland Council’s meetings in the Museum, but the best idea of the day was the recycled crisp packet collection point scheme –which links to local schools.

At the end of the morning we toured the Museum and it is well worth a visit. The main building is listed because it was built specially as a fencing school to train cavalry troops for the Napoleonic wars. Today its main display area contains chronological cases of Rutland’s history, combined with highlight pieces such as a complete Massey Harris Reaper Binder and an octagonal game larder.

Though a small museum, Rutland has an enclosed courtyard which has been converted to allow the collection to be displayed outside. It was here that the Rutland Collection Review had focused. The review, which we discussed in the afternoon, concentrated on the large objects with each being scored on 6 criteria to a maximum of 35 points. The criteria were uniqueness, surface condition (originality), provenance, production, interpretation value to collection, and personal view / emotional response. Just hearing how Robin and Lorraine had approached the review gave useful indicators as to how I will look at our large object collection review. Rutland has published its review which can be found here>>

Hanging banners at Rutland County MuseumAs a result of the review the displays are great and well interpreted as the photos show, I really liked the hanging banners.

Further displays in the workshop area included the only New Drop gallows in the UK. As a painting conservator it was interesting to see a hand operated paint mill where dry pigments were ground into powder and mixed with linseed oil.

Edwardian games at Rutland County MuseumAs the day continued we enjoyed a great lunch, brilliant cakes and fresh fruit, and we tried the traditional toys and pursuits of an Edwardian child including spinning tops and, ‘Toad in the Hole’- you will have to visit to find out about that one!

During the afternoon Robin highlighted the work the RMN has undertaken to create the Distributed National Collection – a rural collections’ database of objects held in public and private hands which highlight items of significance. Access to this information, via the Collections Trust is a brilliant resource when assessing our own collections and trying to work out the importance, relevance, and scarcity, of an item. Also assisting in avoiding unnecessary duplication of collections across the country.

Every Object Tells a Story sessionEvery Object Tells a Story was the final session of the day. We worked in pairs and reviewed an object to see if we could find other ways of interpreting it for a wider audience. My colleague and I decided on the Euxton Hall gun, designed and built to defend Oakham from Napoleonic invasion. Neither of us were particularly keen on it in military terms but after 30 minutes or so of consideration we thought it had great links to the social history of invasion. We thought that it could better engage audiences by linking back to 1066, and forward to 1940, and should also highlight the importance of local invention and discovery.

So what did the day do for me? Using the RMN and its peer experts, and linking to work at MERL and MEAL, I now know there are major resources out there to help. By linking to experts with Jiscmail I am hoping to learn more about Lancashire’s collections and save time in doing research.

Heather Davis is an archaeologist, art historian and painting conservator with over 30 years’ experience of local authority museums. She is now the senior museum professional at the Lancashire County Museum Service.

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