Funeral bier at the Somerset Rural Life Museum

The Somerset Rural Life Museum

Redeveloping the museum
The Somerset Rural Life Museum was established in the 1970s and in 2014 it will close for a major redevelopment project. This project was the impetus behind Somerset museum service’s participation in the Monument Fellowship programme.

It enabled them to bring back Martyn Brown, a colleague who had been at the centre of creating the rural life museum in the 1970s, to share his knowledge of how the collection was formed. This part of the museum’s history was largely undocumented and to a certain extent unknown.

In order to redevelop the museum it was important to understand how the collection had originally been formed, and to understand better the significance of some of the objects that were collected.

This knowledge was essential in developing new themes for the galleries, selecting objects to go on display and enhancing the overall value of the collections.

During his fellowship Martyn worked closely with a group of six colleagues from the museum, regularly participating in sessions on the history of the collection as well as joining the museum's redevelopment project team.

This informal exchanging of knowledge and discussions led to a significant number of concrete outcomes for the service, which included a complete record of the first 10 years of the museum and the development of the storylines for the two principle galleries in the redevelopment.

Looking back on how the collection was developed also helped to identify gaps and shape a contemporary collecting policy and programme.

The information that was gathered and shared through the fellowship was used in a final temporary exhibition at the museum before it shut, and the stories and images can also be found on the museum’s project blog which runs throughout the time of the refurbishment. Beyond the museum itself, Martyn and other colleagues spoke at numerous events across the south west.

Hopefully lessons learnt through the fellowship will influence the future work of the museum. A museum spokesman said: "The Fellowship has highlighted the value of external input into project work and this is something we will endeavour to build on in the future."

Martyn said: "I valued working alongside a team of highly skilled and motivated colleagues and the feeling of confidence that has given me for the future of the service despite the challenges ahead.

"The fellowship has reinforced my hopes of continuing involvement in museum work."

The one downside to the timing of this project was that many of the staff at the Somerset Rural Life Museum were facing redundancy when the site closed for refurbishment, so knowledge had to be collected in a way that was not dependent on existing staff passing it on.

Thanks to the Monument Fellowship as the museum moves forward with its two year refurbishment, it is not only far more aware of the history of the museum’s development, is also better placed to document this new chapter.