How have small, independent museums coped during the pandemic? To find out more I talked to the staff at five museums, all of which are led by volunteers. Their experiences were very varied but it was striking that none of them had struggled financially, indeed one had flourished beyond all expectation, and that the main challenges concerned their volunteers.
Brynmawr and District Museum in the South Wales Valleys is a local history museum with a strong focus on furniture made as part of the Brynmawr Experiment, a Quaker scheme aimed at providing employment in the area during the 1920s and 30s. They took the most lo-fi approach to the pandemic of the museums that we visited in that they simply shut the building and remained closed until June 2021. Like other museums in Wales they were automatically awarded a business rates grant and this covered their gas and electricity bills, which were lower than previous years. Volunteers checked the building on a twice-weekly basis and took advantage of closure to repair some faulty lighting, replace the blinds on the windows, and have the carpet deep cleaned. Otherwise they waited for when they could re-open. The museum has a core group of around ninety supporters who pay an annual subscription and meet for coffee every Thursday morning. Vivienne Williams, one of the original founders and the museum secretary said that everyone had missed the museum. ‘It’s a hub, a social hub’, she explained, ‘they just love the place’. Despite being in her eighties, Viv had no concerns about returning to the museum and said that her fellow volunteers felt likewise: when we spoke, Covid rates were low in the area and the group had all been double vaccinated.
When I asked Viv if they had developed the museums online activity during the pandemic, she replied ‘No, no, no, nothing like that, we’re all too old for that, Fiona’. Paul Cowan, one of the co-founders and chair of the Pewsey Heritage Centre in Wiltshire made exactly the same remark. Like Brynmawr Museum, they had more or less mothballed throughout the pandemic with two Local Restrictions Support grants from Wiltshire council enabling them to cover costs. These grants went to business-rate payers to help alleviate loss of income during the pandemic.
When we spoke in May 2021, Paul was worried about having enough volunteers to re-open on a regular basis. The museum, which is housed in a Victorian foundry and concentrates on the local history of the area, usually opens six days a week and they need between 35 and 40 people to keep running. There are two stewards on duty at any time, while other volunteers clean the building, or organise and run events that help generate an income. Most of the volunteers are elderly. Four died during the pandemic (although not from Covid) and many of the others were uneasy about coming back. However, five new volunteers from a different demographic had joined the team. One woman had commuted to London on a daily basis and during the pandemic had started working from home. She suddenly had four extra hours a day at her disposal. Another new volunteer worked at a nearby laboratory and had felt it was time to put something back into the community. In Pewsey restrictions on movement led to residents having greater available time and on focusing their attention on their immediate area, and this resulted in younger volunteers coming forwards. Even so, the museum group still needs more help.
There were no such problems with volunteers returning to Ingrow Loco, a railway museum in Keighley, North Yorkshire. The rolling stock is regularly hired out for use by heritage railways or for special events and so it has to meet modern safety standards and is subject to ongoing testing and maintenance. The museum chairman, Keith Whitmore, explained that ‘a lot of our volunteers are of an age, but nevertheless the engineers were very keen to come back and do some workshop tasks’. The volunteers argued that maintaining the rolling stock was essential work and was therefore permitted under pandemic regulations. The trustees did a risk assessment, took advice from one of their trustees who was also a medic, and then agreed that volunteers could return to work if they socially distanced. Keith said ‘you’ve also got to take wellbeing into account: not just the Covid virus but mental health as well’. For the volunteers, working at the museum was sufficiently important that it overrode their other concerns.
Unlike any of the other museums we visited, Ingrow Loco re-opened in the summer and autumn of 2020. The museum is on the Keighley and Worth Valley Heritage Railway and in normal circumstances the steam locomotives stop outside, dropping off potential visitors. However, during the pandemic, the railway decided to run a non-stopping service as having groups of people getting on and off made it difficult to manage social distancing. As a result, potential museum visitors just went steaming past. To make matters worse, the railway normally subsidised a vintage bus tour that enabled visitors to take the train one way and then return by road, stopping off at villages along the way. This had benefits for Ingrow Loco in that it brought more visitors to the door. Under financial pressure, the railway withdrew those funds and the bus service ceased, further reducing the number of museum visitors.
The furlough scheme and business grants helped Ingrow Loco manage its costs when closed. Once they opened they were eligible for a Local Restrictions Support Grant (open) that mitigated reduced income and they successfully applied for National Lottery Heritage Emergency Funds. These helped subsidise the vintage bus tour and thereby increase footfall to both the museum and the railway. It also enabled them to install contactless payment and to promote the 45596 Bahamas locomotive. Careful marketing generated interest in the south of England and for the first time since the 1960s the Bahamas ran on a number of rail tours that departed from London, generating income to help cover the costs of maintaining the engine. This year the museum re-opened in July and had a busy August, with visitors returning in greater numbers, although they are still below the numbers required to break even.
Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre
Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre was unable to re-open, but used the period of closure to their advantage. Samantha Parker differs from the other volunteer staff we talked to by dint of her youth. Having been a trainee at Norfolk Museums Service, she became a volunteer collections manager and trustee at Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre, and was made vice-chair of trustees this summer. She is also looking for paid employment. She explained that when lockdown started their first concern was for their volunteers. As Sam said ‘we didn’t want them to think they’d been abandoned’ and they duly set up a WhatsApp group and arranged Saturday zoom lunchtimes for when volunteers would usually be on-site. As at Pewsey Heritage Centre, many of the volunteers were vulnerable and were shielding, and others were uneasy about returning. The ensuing lack of stewards meant that the visitor centre was unable to re-open during summer 2020. Others, particularly those involved in maintaining the exhibitions, were keen to come back and in spring 2021, they redecorated the building. The site was originally a World War 2 airbase and the buildings are badly insulated, cold, and expensive to heat, and so are usually kept closed over the winter and for the rest of the year they are open to the public, which makes the timing of any major maintenance work difficult. On this occasion, volunteers could repaint the walls in a socially distanced way and in relative warmth.
Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre was eligible for business grants that covered their basic outgoing, and they got a North Kesteven District Council restart grant that allowed them to redevelop the kitchen and run a café. With the centre’s costs in hand, the trustees started to meet on a weekly basis to plan in the long term. They had been intending to apply for Community Interest Status, and being closed to the public gave them the time to do so. It also prompted them to look more closely at the organisation and they considered each trustee role in detail, how to diversify their trustees, volunteer recruitment, governance, and their other activities. These meetings culminated in a ten-year strategic plan and in recruiting a new trustee who promptly led on a successful bid for Cultural Recovery Funding. This enabled them to purchase PPE, to employ a freelancer to improve their digital presence, and to open an online shop. They re-opened over the summer of 2021. The café has been a hit and they are already planning for next year.
Museum of North Craven Life
Ingrow Loco and Metheringham Airfield Visitor centre both successfully fund raised during the pandemic. The Museum of North Craven Life in Settle, North Yorkshire took that to a different level. The museum occupies a seventeenth-century Grade 1 listed historic house that has variously been a farmhouse, a bakery, warehouse, furniture shop, fish and chip shop, bank, and salvage business. In 2019 Anne Read who had co-founded the museum in 1977 stepped down as its Honorary Curator. The new incumbent Heather Lane, who had previously managed the redevelopment of the Museum of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, took up the post in autumn of that year, intending it to be a project for her semi-retirement. One of Heather’s first moves was to have the building surveyed by Historic England and unfortunately they found that the building was in worse condition than anyone had previously realised. The roof was leaking badly, some of the timbers were rotten, floors were sagging, there was no insulation, and the windows needed replacing. There were also other problems. The museum café was at the opposite end of the building to the kitchen and catering staff had to walk back and forth through the reception area, tea-trays in hand.
They were also short of volunteers. There were particular conditions at the Museum of North Craven Life that underpinned this problem. In 2018 a new heritage development officer had introduced a more professional approach to curating and while this raised standards it also marginalised some of the volunteers. As Heather explained, the volunteers previously had total responsibility for exhibitions. Now, feeling that someone else could do the work they stepped back. The sense that they had to step up or no-one else would had been a strong motivating force for the group, and that was now lost. The change in process loosely coincided with Anne stepping down. Recognising that it was the end of an era several other long-term volunteers decided to do likewise. Heather wanted to go back to the original model and for the volunteers to be ‘completely engaged in the research so they feel like there’s something really worthwhile in coming in and working. There might need to be a bit of steering, but we’re not there to say this is how you do an exhibition’.
And then the pandemic started. Heather started applying for funding and was awarded substantial grants from the National Lottery Heritage Emergency Fund and both rounds of Cultural Recovery Funding, as well as smaller grants from the East Riding council and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She also recruited a recently retired chartered accountant, Richard Greenhalgh as trustee and treasurer. Like Heather he was slightly taken aback by the magnitude of the task in hand, commenting that ‘I didn’t expect to be running a small company with hundreds of thousands pounds worth of grants going through it. I thought it was going to be a “on the back of an envelope” type of post’.
The accrued funding covered the refurbishment of the building in line with heritage standards. Window frames and timbers were replaced, and the building was replastered using traditional techniques that allow the structure to breathe. The wood ash and horse hair required for lime mortar and plaster was supplied by local residents who left it in large bins outside the museum. An old garage immediately next to the café was converted into a convenient and good-sized kitchen, and the previous kitchen was transformed into an archive, providing space for a recently acquired collection of around one thousand glass negatives and numerous prints. The pictures were taken by the Horners, a local photography firm run by three generations of the same family between 1860 and 1960 and depict Settle and its residents, often showing the same people over a number of decades.
The funding also paid for new IT systems and for two heritage development officers to be appointed. Kirsty Mitchell was hired for six months and she overhauled recruitment for the volunteers and trustees, surveyed the volunteers and worked on ways to keep them involved during the pandemic. She set up a Tuesday tea break with mini-lectures on what was happening behind the scenes at the museum. Caitlin Greenwood re-organised the museum shop and commissioned a new website, working closely with the designers to put existing exhibitions online. She also began planning and co-curating new exhibitions with volunteers and a group of local historians. A freelancer was hired to develop online resources for schoolchildren at Key Stages 2 and 3, and a new group of dedicated volunteers are digitising the Horner collection. As Heather said, ‘it’s been really extraordinary to have a pause and to put the museum back on its feet. The museum had to be made sound, we needed to have good infrastructure, to rebuild our relationship with volunteers, and do some business planning. Those were the essentials and with the grant funding we’ve been able to do pretty much all of that’.
Then, in May 2021, just as the museum was preparing to re-open to the public, a huge crack appeared in the tower housing the central staircase. While it is free to go into the downstairs spaces, there is an admissions charge for the main exhibitions, which are housed upstairs. The crack meant that the upper floors could not be re-opened, which had serious implications for their income, as Heather said, ‘We’re looking at a black hole in our revenue’. Fortunately the café had did extremely well over the summer, generating just enough income to tide the museum through a few more months, and Heather is now in the process of applying for further grants, both to have structural work done on the tower, and to cover the ongoing shortfall in income.
Benefits and difficulties
During the pandemic, small independent museums had the advantage of being able to easily close. Their running costs are generally quite low and the Local Restrictions Support Grant was sufficient to pay their immediate bills. Ingrow Loco and the Museum of North Craven Life furloughed their paid cleaning, catering, front of house and project staff, but in both cases the senior management roles are held by volunteers who were able to carry on working during lockdown. Thus, the strategic work necessary for re-development and re-opening could continue without incurring cost, as was also the case at Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre.
Ingrow Loco struggled the most because they re-opened and actively worked to attract an audience, which proved difficult due to circumstances beyond their control. For both Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre and the Museum of North Craven Life, the pandemic gave the staff time to recalibrate, to rethink their organisation, and to apply for grants. Although it was personally demanding for many of those involved, on a whole range of levels, the closure of the museums proved an opportunity rather than a disaster.
Volunteers and trustees
For me, the most consistent theme to emerge across the five conversations was that of the volunteers. It was clear that the museums often played a central role in the lives of the volunteers, particularly at Brynmawr Museum and Ingrow Loco, and that during lockdown they had felt the loss of the social interaction and practical activity that it usually offered. It was also noticeable that participation differed considerably depending on the volunteers’ roles. At Metheringham Airfield Visitor Centre, the people who usually stewarded the exhibitions did not generally participate in the zoom lunchtimes and were reluctant to return to the museum whereas those who had a curatorial role were ‘champing at the bit’ to return to work. A similar situation obtained at Pewsey Heritage Centre. They also struggled to find enough people to supervise the museum during opening hours, but simultaneously had new volunteers coming forwards to take on the more complicated tasks of accessioning the collections. It may be that the more committed and enthusiastic volunteers are those that have the more complex roles. Alternatively, having a challenge and responsibility may create and reinforce commitment. All the people we spoke to are themselves examples of highly committed volunteers undertaking complex and responsible work, particularly Sam and Heather.
Almost all the museums wanted or needed to recruit new and younger volunteers. This was particularly urgent in Settle where a core group of long-standing volunteers had all simultaneously retired. Again one of the issues here was that they had less responsibility than previously and were feeling a little disenfranchised. But it was also noticeable that a combination of strategic recruiting and the effects of the pandemic meant that museums were able to attract new people and a wider range of people than previously. And finally, it was clear that the trustees, who are also volunteers, and especially new trustees with particular specialisms were key to improving the museums’ capacities and offer during the pandemic.