Blog 101 – saying goodbye

I heart museums
I heart museums

100 blogs – I can’t believe I have written 100 blogs. On good days this seems like an amazing, creative, powerful turnaround in my life. At other times it seems like a waste of time, why I have spent hours upon hours writing away late at night, early mornings, snatched moments. This week I gave a talk about blogging and engagement – I was incredibly nervous, it has been a long time since I have had to stand up in front of people and talk about anything. It seemed faintly ridiculous, I am not an expert in blogging. I looked back at my first blog – 12th October 2012, 500 words where I talk about beginnings and first steps.

I said I was going to throw myself into the museum world. I have certainly stayed true to that: volunteering at Bromley Museum, Museum of London, Horniman Museum and RAF Museum, countless exhibitions, days lost in a museum. I have met volunteers, museum directors, curators, visitors, digital teams, learning teams, the list could go on and on. I feel as immersed as I can be on a part-time basis, whilst never losing the wonder every time I visit a new museum or re-visit an old one.

In my first blog I spoke of becoming a museums student, I am not sure if that is my aim anymore. At least not in a formalised way, I already feel like a student in a free unstructured way. I am learning all the time, seeking out answers and pushing myself. It has been 2 and a half years of learning and I feel no need to stop now, in many ways I am still at the beginning.

Bromley Museum
Bromley Museum

But I am delaying in talking about what I want this blog to be about. I have made a decision, a long drawn out, painful one that in truth has probably taken over 6 months to get to. I have decided to stop volunteering at Bromley Museum. I am walking away from it all, I don’t want to do any more meetings, or surveys or even the most painful, any volunteering with the education events.

2014-04-10 11.30.15

It has been 2 and half years since I first started one day a week, a volunteer role I clung to after quitting my job and dealing with an autism diagnosis for my daughter. It has been a volunteer role that began on such a basic level, I remember cutting out animal shapes for half term activities, I revelled in the uncomplicated nature of the work. It was a role that took me onto the Heritage Lottery Funding Panel, interviewing families, carrying out surveys. It has been a role that has taught me the joy of education and creativity, that has given me the confidence to run my own education sessions. Finally it is a role that has seen me ask difficult questions and write letters to councillors who are intent on closing the museum down.

Whilst part of me thinks it is nothing to quit, it makes no difference to outcomes, no-one cares what I do, what will be will be, I have done all I can. Another part of me thinks I am weak to walk away when the museum needs people more than ever to stand up for it and protect it. I just know in my heart I can’t do this anymore.

Bromley Museum at the medieval Priory
Bromley Museum at the medieval Priory

I don’t know what we are fighting for. Some want to keep the museum in the medieval Priory, some are happy for the museum to move to the central library in Bromley. Some just want to save the Priory building and don’t care what happens to the museum. I understand the council need to make cuts but withdrawing all funding is too tight a stranglehold that will squeeze all the lifeblood out of the museum I love.

I have faced some hard truths in the past few weeks. I can see the museum in many respects was failing, but it is a failing borne out of years of neglect by the council. I had a comment on one of my blogs that many local museums have lost their way, the only visitors are school children on education visits. It is true, but do you know what? I wouldn’t care if that was the only thing Bromley Museum did. If we were able to keep engaging and inspire generation after generation of Bromley’s children, not just in broad historical themes but their local history too, that would be a beautiful wonderful thing. But you can’t do that without staff.

Engaging children with archaeology at Bromley Museum
Engaging children with archaeology at Bromley Museum

Bromley Council have given the museum a three-month reprieve to consult with local groups and interested parties. Although encouraged by this small victory, they have not changed their fundamental view that they will not be giving any more money to the museum. They don’t see that a display case in a library is not a museum.

They are consulting with volunteer groups who they want to bring in to change over displays and possibly run education sessions. I have fundamental misgivings on this chosen path. For this to work there has to be an equal partnership between council and volunteer groups. As far as I can see there is no equality to a partnership where the council off-loads all responsibility and volunteers give up time and energy to a museum out of desperation of losing a service and access to historical collections.

Where is the volunteers support and training? I know what working in a supportive volunteer environment is like. At the Museum of London I get support, training, encouragement, opportunities and sometimes simply volunteer managers who are happy to give advice and have a chat.

I have made an incredibly hard, clear-cut decision in my mind that volunteering for Bromley Museum in these circumstances is not a compromise I am willing to make. But what if that means no longer having a museum service? This is where my resolve crumbles. I have to believe in the professionalism of museum staff and trained curators. I have seen cuts eroding my own profession as a librarian. Libraries becoming volunteer run (also in Bromley). Who wants to move into a profession where there are no jobs, no pay and no opportunities? As a volunteer in this instance I feel the line is being crossed. Job cuts I don’t like but I understand. Going from three staff to none is a decimation. It kills the museum and erodes the role of museum professionals. Replacing staff with volunteers who will do it because basically they are being blackmailed, it they don’t do it no-one will, is not the answer.

All this sounds very moral and forthright but in truth my decision feels weak. I feel I am running away when my museum needs me more than ever. I know many museums survive and thrive on volunteer run basis but the circumstances have to be right. To put it quite simply, I do not trust Bromley Council.

Assessing the collection as part of the HLF bid
Assessing the collection as part of the HLF bid

This is not the first bump in the road, I spent months helping with the HLF bid. I firmly believed we were building a better future, which sounds a bit trite but in my enthusiastic naivety I believed it. The council pulled out of the bid just as we were ready to submit. It was the death knell that threw away years of work for all involved and crushed our dreams of ever seeing a new vision for Bromley Museum.

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To be honest, I am just so tired. Too much volunteering, too many fingers in too many pies is taking its toll on me, coupled with months of my daughter not sleeping. Her struggle with autism, our struggle with autism, is eroding me like waves on the beach. Some nights gentle, some nights bruising, crushing, powerful stormy blackness. Volunteering was supposed to be my release, my saviour, my sanctity, not a stress, an overwhelming sadness and frustration.

So I walk away. Whilst there is some small relief, there is a nagging feeling. I am weak, I am craven. I have failed. I try to cling to the fact I have learnt a lot from the experience, I have met some wonderful people. My life has taken an unexpected turn from volunteering and to me that is what volunteering should be about, new experiences, new people and sometimes if you are really lucky something really special comes out of it.

So I will finish blog 101. I have bookended my first chapter in my museum story. It began at Bromley Museum and it ends at Bromley Museum. One of the final things I did as a volunteer was to take a loan box to my daughters school. On my own, having watched and learnt and been inspired so much from the wonderful education officer at Bromley, I delivered 3 x 40 minute sessions to 60 kids. It is my most treasured memory and something I would never have done without Bromley Museum.

I fervently hope there will be a Bromley Museum in the future, one that will welcome and inspire just as I have been welcomed and inspired. I wish all the groups involved trying to save the museum the best of luck, they are doing a brilliant job and putting in so much time and effort, I just hope the council don’t take advantage of that passion.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learnt is the most painful – learning when it is time to stop volunteering, when it is time to walk away. It is one thing to not go to meetings, it is another thing entirely to disentangle your heart from your local museum. I am not sure when I will ever be able to do that.

Save Bromley Museum
Save Bromley Museum

The current Bromley Museum survey on the future plans can be found here it runs till 1 May 2015. Please feel free to have your say –

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/prioryandmuseum 

8 comments

  1. This does, of course, make for painful reading and, it would seem, painful writing. The role of volunteers in Bromley is obviously being warped and I can quite understand why you feel the need to walk away rather than take on even more of the responsibility for the borough’s public services.
    As a volunteer myself I’ve had many conversations about where the line is. I mean the line between being utilised to add value to a service and being used to push a paid professional out of a job. Clearly Bromley Council has crossed that line.
    Thank you for writing this.

    • I think when you see it working well as we do at the Museum of London it gives a different perspective. But it is clear even where it works well that volunteer roles have to be continually evaluated so they don’t cross that line. For the relationship to work well between volunteers and staff there does need to be clear boundaries.

  2. I know how you feel. Five years worth of cuts are finally finishing off museums. We’ve covered the topic at the Museum of Marco Polo but we’re amazed at how little national discussion there’s been – especially in the run up to the election. Since when has it been the case that local museums are only a local issue? Surely they tell all our stories and therefore we should all have a say in their future? From http://www.momarcopolo.com

    • Thank you for the links I had a look at the articles. There does seem to be a bit of the attitude that natural attrition in the current economic climate means some local museums will go. We talk about diversity in museums and its importance, some kids visit their local museum but would never have the money/incentive to visit a large national museum. We are never going to inspire a diverse staff or future visitor if you don’t start off small and local.

  3. Congratulations on having the courage to leave. Perhaps you should consider talking to volunteers who are being pressed to take over libraries: tell them why it’s unlikely to work in the long run and they should be refusing to abet councils that are intent on abdicating their legal and moral responsibilities.

  4. I love museums too, but its not just councils that may take advantage of your passion. I know of a National Museum, who in 2012 made no secret of their policy to staff a building predominantly with volunteers! I thought this to be an innovative approach at the time, however in 2014 when they consulted on staff redundancies, my waning trust finally crumbled. The truth is that sadly, the public and museum wanabes are complicit when it comes to directorial decision-making, yet more than willing to raise objection outside of the institutions. The fear of career suicide runs deep and only a major moral turnaround will bring anything approaching integrity. I continue to wholly support the concept of full-time Visitor Assistants aided and abetted by a conscientious volunteer work force. We all know about the external threat to heritage – but a unified, strong ‘joint service group’ needs to be wary of damaging ‘internal’ political issues orchestrated by museum careerists who are regularly picking up their rather large bonuses. After all, this is a shed-load of public money we’re talking about.

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