Hidden treasures - Museums Association

Conference 2024: The Joy of Museums booking open now – Book before 31 March 2024 for a 10% discount

Conference 2024: The Joy of Museums booking open now – Book before 31 March 2024 for a 10% discount

Hidden treasures

Museums Journal exclusively interviews the winners of the Unsung Heroes award, which is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Art Fund Prize for museums and galleries. By John Holt
The ability to take a wide variety of visitors on a voyage of discovery around a collection, an eye for detail, having the facts at your fingertips and a willingness to go that extra, often unpaid, mile to ensure that museums and galleries are geared to really connect with the public: these are some of the priceless qualities you look for in individuals whose tireless efforts make the cultural sector tick.

But wait … what about a head for heights and strong tolerance to toxic bird droppings? And don’t underestimate the sheer effort of landscaping a 10-acre sculpture park by hand or the endurance of the 80-year-old engineer still laying down railway track. And let’s not forget the cleaners and carpenters, the out-of-hours administrators, the spare-time friends and fundraisers.

These are the trademarks and talents, achievements and abilities of the 10 unsung heroes chosen by the Museum Prize Trust, which administers the Art Fund Prize for museums and galleries. The Unsung Heroes award has been created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Art Fund Prize.

“These 10 brilliantly stalwart personalities represent the rank-and-file of museum professionals and volunteers, without whom the cultural and heritage life of this country would simply cease to function,” says Penelope Cobham, the chairwoman of the Museums Prize Trust.

Pam Brown, founder and director, Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire

Seeking a suitable site for open-air sculpture, husband-and-wife artists Pam Brown and Roy Kitchin were delighted to find a likely location on an ancient tile works in historic Coalbrookdale.

“My late husband noted that the nature of the landscape could have been worked only by men with wheelbarrows with all earth moved by hand. In order to retain the flavour of the area, all our landscaping had to be done by hand, too.

“So that’s how we prepared all 10 acres, clearing the land, spreading 600 tons of top soil, shaping, seeding and, finally, installing sculptures. We opened seven years later in 1991,” says Brown of this very personal labour of love.

“My husband, who was my tutor at college, used to get distressed when it was time to take an exhibition down so we decided on this course of action, keen to see how a dialogue between landscape and sculpture would evolve when they were placed permanently together.”

The museum – just up the picturesque road from the cradle of the industrial revolution – now features the work of 29 artists and Brown maintains the site, mowing the hilly lawns, pruning trees and clearing undergrowth.

She also attends to more traditional museum matters such as paperwork and administration, fundraising, events, exhibitions, workshops and outreach programmes.

“Twice a year, I clean the sculptures with soapy water and a little bleach because moss can build up. Rust is a problem, too, so there are various paints and treatments,” says Brown, who has also turned the majority of her house into a large workshop with machine tools for exhibiting sculptors and workshop participants.

Pam Fry, volunteer, trustee and friend, Cambridge & County Folk Museum

Pam Fry first visited the Cambridge & County Folk Museum in 1937 as a young girl and began volunteering there 24 years ago after retiring from secretarial work.

“My niece was one of two museum assistants and she used to say how dusty the museum was becoming so I went along to help with some cleaning,” says Fry, who eventually helped to form the Friends committee, which has raised considerable funds for the institution.

Fry retired from her role as trustee in January at the age of 86. “I can’t ride my bike as easily as I once did and I’m not hearing or seeing so well and there are some lovely new trustees who are much more capable. I’m returning to small things like the cleaning and working on reception,” says Fry, who is treasured by museum staff for her incredible local knowledge and is known to all as ‘auntie’.

“I’m always welcome there and that’s a lovely thing, isn’t it?”

Adam Corsini, volunteer coordinator, London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, Museum of London

Adam Corsini is bringing archaeology to the masses by attracting hordes of helpers from sources other than the traditional white middle-class volunteer pool. He aims to recruit a diverse group of people with no previous experience of the subject to help archive and maintain the archaeological collections.

Alongside the traditional retirees and students, Corsini has been looking for likely candidates in local schools and homeless charities and among the unemployed and disabled groups.

Candidates are offered a 10-week course of volunteering and around a third find a job or go back to education as a result of working at the museum. “The scheme is good for me, too,” says Corsini.

“I’ve been here for seven years and have good knowledge about London’s history but I’m constantly hearing new stories and learning new things.

“Some of the volunteers have lived in London all their lives, others have recently arrived in this country but they all share a core interest in history. “One day we could be talking about a prehistoric axe head and a Victorian milk bottle the next. The volunteers help keep everything fresh and interesting for me and the other staff.”

Anne Lord, volunteer, Colne Valley Museum, Golcar, Yorkshire

“I came to the area to teach at a local school and when I brought my class to the museum, I was enchanted,” says Anne Lord of her first sight of the Colne Valley Museum, which is set in four traditional artisan cottages and records the life and work of mid-19th-century Yorkshire weavers.

“It was created 40 years ago by the local community and, if the term had been around then, would have been called a heritage centre rather than a museum. There were no display cases or labels; that ethos carries through today. People come to live the whole weaver experience.

“It really is social history at its best and, when I took early retirement, I decided I had to get involved.”

Lord began as a steward at the museum, which is still wholly volunteer-run, later joining the schools team and demonstrating her cookery skills in the kitchen. She helped the museum gain Accreditation and now organises and publicises events and exhibitions and manages the website.

Of her nomination she says: “It’s a nonsense, of course; we have more than 100 volunteers and we all make it the place it is. I’m standing on a lot of shoulders. “I do know, however, that I’ve never worked as hard in my life and that comes from a teacher who dealt with Ofsted and the national curriculum.”

Tricia Candlish, volunteer guide, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway

“Every museum should have their own Tricia,” say the staff at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum where the inestimable Candlish inspires visitors with her good humour and insight.

She is also a very able ambassador for the site, both in the local community and among its faithful following online. And, on top of all that, she’s bursting with ideas for ways to improve the visitor experience.

“Some of us put our heads together and came up with the idea of combining a book club with a cookery school,” Candlish says. “Burns would have looked favourably on the project as he was passionate about encouraging people to read.”

Candlish showed her artistic side during last year’s Alloway 1759 celebrations when she designed and painted a mural of Burns Cottage. Candlish also volunteers in the tearoom at a local hospital. 

Roy Overall Honorary curator and birdman, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

For 50 years, Roy Overall has climbed precarious ladders into the darkened roof space of the tower at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to monitor the colony of swifts that makes its home among the dreaming spires.

“I was asked to ‘ring’ them one year and then 10 years had flown by followed by decades more. You just don’t think about it at the time,” says the daredevil birdman of Oxford, who has probably climbed the tower some 1,200 times to record some 4,000 swifts.

But has it been hazardous work? “Swifts certainly don’t like being held upside down and their legs are extremely short from knee to ankle so the ring can’t be very wide. They can be difficult to handle and the tower is in relative darkness.

“They are also extremely filthy creatures and nest away from the entrance up against the glass front of the boxes. There are lots of droppings, saliva and detritus and I regularly clean the glass because there are cameras up there now.”

Although Overall has now given up the ringing and recording, he still accompanies invited guests – including celebrity twitcher Bill Oddie – journalists and camera crews to the top of the tower. The university marked his achievement by making him an honorary curator.

“I see the other ‘honoraries’ around the place,” he says. “They tend to be members of staff who have retired but simply can’t get the museum out of their systems.” 

Sally Hall Senior guide, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Cumbria

Sally Hall’s first connection with Grasmere dates back to the 1960s when her recently retired father moved the family to Cumbria to look after a small museum.

“They say you have got to be here for half a century to be considered a ‘native’ so I just about qualify,” says Hall, who has chalked up two decades of service at the Wordsworth Trust’s Dove Cottage.

Now responsible for all the cottage tours and the people who give them, she’s also tending the garden, which she ensures looks and operates in a way the poet himself would recognise. Living in the village, Hall – a former teacher and art gallery organiser – has also helped build bridges between Grasmere and the trust.

“They have not been close in the past as I suppose the trust used to be looked on as being a little intellectual, but there’s a real rapport now,” adds Hall, who has shared the wonder of Wordsworth with everyone from schoolchildren to royalty.

“The Prince of Wales visited in April and his first remark was: ‘Weren’t you here the last time I came?’ I thought that was a lovely thing to say.”

John Henry, volunteer and membership secretary, Downpatrick & County Down Railway, Northern Ireland

“I enjoy working outside,” says John Henry. Which is just as well, really, as Henry – a railway worker like his father before him –has spent 20 years working on Northern Ireland’s only full-size heritage train line. And for the majority of the time before his recent retirement at the age of 80, that meant laying new track and maintaining the infrastructure.

“There are lots of people and machinery as well as me. Four days a week outside in all weathers appeals to me,” says Henry, who is involved in backbreaking work that would trouble men half his age. Henry also meets and greets enthusiasts at the museum events, demonstrates how to drive a steam train on footplate experience days and carries out administrative duties.

“It has been very rewarding to see things move and evolve since we began in the 1980s,” says Henry of the line that originally closed in 1950.

“We’ve scoured the countryside to find old stock and machinery, some of which was being used by farmers as hen houses and then to restore them to working condition gives you immense satisfaction.

Michael Quinn, foreman, National Museums Liverpool (NML)

Michael Quinn has been the foreman of NML‘s small in-house production team of joiners, electricians and painters for 15 years, providing behind-the-scenes back-up for a variety of exhibitions and events across the museum’s seven venues.

The team has also built a number of NML’s permanent galleries including Battle of the Atlantic and Lifelines at Merseyside Maritime Museum, along with the Titanic and Liverpool: The Untold Story temporary exhibition, which opened in March. On an even grander scale, the team carried out all the joinery work on the installation of the new Museum of Liverpool’s stunning elliptical staircase.

“The nature of the staircase meant that no two treads or risers were exactly the same due to its shape and the tolerances on the concrete,” Quinn says. “Each tread was bespoke, a complicated and exhausting process but the end result looks amazing.”

Jeff Elson Historian and archivist, Staffordshire Regiment Museum, Lichfield

Jeff Elson has come full circle during his time at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum. He first went there as a visitor to research his grandfather’s army career and – 15 years later – he now spends his spare time updating the archives and answering questions from members of the public about their military and family histories.

His work – and that of the other 70 volunteers – is invaluable as the museum is able to afford just a part-time curator and one full-time post supported by the Ministry of Defence.

“I’m ex-regiment myself so was delighted to volunteer and help out with the collection, indexing the war diaries and cataloguing photographs and helping with the research,” says Elson, who has written books about the regiment and travels far and wide to record the oral histories of old soldiers.

“One chap, for example, escaped from Dunkirk all the way down to the Spanish border only to be handed in by a local gendarme because he didn’t have the correct bicycle pass. Needless to say, our man took a bit of a dislike to the French after that.”

Leave a comment

You must be to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.