Beamish: The Living Museum of the North

The grass is always greener when you're a rural museum

Geraldine Kendall Adams, Issue 116/07, p12-13, 01.07.2016
Rural museums suffer from isolation and a funding imbalance skewed towards urban areas, but larger museum services could learn from their collaborative approach and experience of working in challenging circumstances
In the UK’s vast and multifaceted heritage sector, the voices of museums in rural areas can often get drowned out, but recent developments show that the sector is keen to make itself heard. In May, the Rural Museums Network’s (RMN) annual general meeting was held at the St Fagans National History Museum in Wales – a site chosen specifically to showcase the progress of its £11.5m redevelopment.

The open-air site received the largest Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant ever awarded in Wales to transform its galleries and visitor services, a redevelopment that is intended to play a key role in establishing Welsh identity on the world stage.

It is one of several large capital projects in the pipeline for rural heritage. Others include a £17m project at Beamish: The Living Museum of the North, in Durham; a £1.7m redesign of the Our Country Lives gallery at the Museum of English Rural Life, in Reading; and a redevelopment of Somerset Rural Life Museum, in Glastonbury. This month also marks the official opening of the Voices from the Workhouse galleries at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk.

Against a background of austerity, the number of ambitious rural projects is encouraging, says Robin Hanley, chairman of the RMN. “It shows there’s significant investment going on in the rural museum sector, and museums are demonstrating their relevance,” he says.

Part of this heartening level of investment may be a result of the rural sector’s increasing drive to collaborate in recent years. By their nature, rural museums can be geographically fragmented and isolated, which means they can struggle to have an impact when it comes to influencing policy at a national level. Museums of all types have long realised that they have a stronger voice together and in some rural regions they have formed successful partnerships to maximise their impact.

This is bearing fruit: the Cornwall Museums Partnership successfully bid for Major Partner Museum funding from Arts Council England (ACE) last year.

Innovative collaborations

On a more individual level, rural museums are seeking to make the most of their resources by exploring innovative collaborations with external partners, such as the Collaborate with Gressenhall project (see box).
Collaborative work often aims to address connectivity, one of the key challenges facing rural museums, says consultant Tehmina Goskar, who works with museums across south-west England.

This can be practical – in some areas, simply finding transport for visitors or opportunities
to train and network with colleagues is difficult – or more abstract.

“Are the voices from our region actually informing the big debates on things such as diversity and governance?” asks Goskar.

It’s an important question. As larger local authority museums wrestle with funding cuts and new running models, the rural museum sector, which is dominated by small and independent organisations, has a unique perspective to offer on surviving (and thriving) in challenging circumstances. “Larger museum services could learn a lot from the way we work, as we’ve been working in that context for a lot longer,” says Goskar.

“We know how to work with fewer resources while still changing, experimenting and doing new things.”

But museums in rural areas often find that they lack the capacity to communicate learning and best practice, says Goskar, as well as not being part of the wider culture of sharing across the museum sector. “People [in rural museums] are used to working in their own little bubbles – the case studies you see tend to be the big city museums,” she adds.

The Cornwall Museums Partnership is making a concerted effort to address this issue, producing online resources to share learning, as well as an advocacy video demonstrating its title, Why Museums Matter, to the region.

Seasonal audiences

The subject of this video raises another key challenge in the rural sector: the unique makeup of its audiences. Museums in sparsely populated areas, particularly in a region such as south-west England, tend to be heavily reliant on tourists. And while tourism is a vital part of the economy, it means museums are sometimes geared to the needs of one-off visitors at the expense of building ongoing relationships with the local community. Such museums can lack the resources to open during the off-season, a time when local people can be more likely to visit.

Other rural museums tend to bring in lots of families with young children, attracted by the outdoor spaces and, perhaps, a somewhat rose-tinted view of the countryside. This can pose a curatorial challenge. “It can be hard enough to get an audience out here without throwing them in at the deep end on serious issues,” says Megan Dennis, the curator of Gressenhall. “It does mean that some of our detailed and more meaningful work has to be done in a certain way.”

Attempts to address these issues are encouraging: the driving aim behind many of the aforementioned redevelopments is to ensure that rural collections resonate with contemporary audiences and museums establish a strong commitment to community engagement.

However, many museums in rural areas are struggling, as public funding becomes increasingly tight. Also, other forms of funding, such as sponsorship, can be thin on the ground away from affluent urban areas.

Loss of expertise

A real concern for the RMN, according to Hanley, is the hollowing out of specialist expertise from rural museums, as staff are made redundant or not replaced after they retire.

Even before austerity hit, collections based on rural life, often involving bulky equipment that requires specialist knowledge to operate, were at particular risk, facing neglect or disposal by museums that failed to realise their significance.

Cuts have exacerbated this, says Hanley. “We keep a close eye on disposals and, where appropriate, we raise concerns, but there’s a real risk ahead of us,” he adds.

Some help is at hand, with the RMN producing a series of guides on interpreting rural-life objects and hosting a lively online forum that connects museum staff with specialists. It is also undertaking a consultation on how to improve its network of support and advice for rural museums.

An over-reliance on volunteers is another challenge brought about by cuts. Several smaller rural museums that once had professional staff are now open only thanks to the efforts of volunteers, who have less and less access to curatorial expertise. “[The volunteers] need to have mentors, but it’s becoming much harder,” says Alison Boyle, the chairwoman of the Highland Museums Forum.

Some forum member museums are facing a 45% cut to their council funding next year. Although the museums are independent and have other sources of funding, some may close as a result.

The dependence on volunteers poses a moral dilemma, adds Boyle. “If you can no longer afford to pay staff, how much can you ask of volunteers?” It is also exacerbating the issue of low pay for professionals, which is particularly endemic in rural areas, where staff are expected to cover a wide array of tasks for little reward.

Some of these problems are indicative of a structural imbalance in funding for rural areas that precedes the current cuts. Even taking into account population differences between urban and rural areas, recent investigations have laid bare how public funders have neglected some regions.

A review published by ACE last year on investment and participation in rural areas showed there is still work to be done. According to the report, the Strategic Touring Programme, which was specifically designed to target hard-to-reach audiences, attracted just 8% of its applicants from rural areas, and the bids from those areas that succeeded accounted for just 3% of the total funding distributed through the programme.
More encouragingly, the report also found that people living in rural areas had higher rates of museum engagement than urban respondents in most English regions. This shows that rural museums must be doing something right – now it’s time for the rest of the sector to listen.
Creating a network of partners has benefited us in so many ways
Collaborate with Gressenhall is about creating innovative ways of working at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, a small rural museum in Norfolk. The initiative, funded by the Museum Association’s Transformers scheme, aims to develop collaborative partnerships with higher education through a network of colleagues and partners.
A key barrier for many rural museums is their isolation. By taking collaboration online via a dedicated blog, we have developed a range of digital, creative and academic partnerships.

The impact on the organisation has been broad and deep, bringing us into contact with a range of groups and individuals. The framework has the potential to become a template for the museum sector, for collaboration with limited resources.

Our collaborators are generous. We have had offers of publications, projects and events. We will be hosting partners to run workshops, performances and learning experiences. By opening up our museum to new ways of doing things, we enhance our offer to our visitors. We create a new set of advocates and increase our capacity. We are constantly challenged and are thinking of our collections in new ways.

As a single organisation with limited staffing and funds, we can do only so much. By making our resources available to partners and collaborators, the sky is the limit.

Megan Dennis is the curator of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, part of Norfolk Museums

The Museums Association Conference in Glasgow (7-9 November) will feature a session looking at community museums in rural areas