With the start of the UK lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic and the closure of museums across the country in March 2020, museum professionals were left trying to work out how to continue their valuable work, but from home. This left many feeling disconnected from their collections and each other, a feeling we shared.
We used to work together at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, but then Rhiannon left to go and work at Horsham Museum and Art Gallery in West Sussex and Shannen took up a full-time role at The Peace Museum in Bradford. We have remained friends and kept in touch professionally to support each other as we progress through our museum careers. At the start of lockdown, we started to do weekly zoom meetings to catch up, and as time went on and it became clear that the effects of the pandemic on our working lives would continue for some time, therefore we wanted to find a way to keep connected. The idea for Museum Buddy was born.
Museum Buddy is a twitter initiative that, each week, brings together either two museums using their institutional accounts, or two individuals who work, volunteer or freelance within the museums and heritage sector. The idea is to find connections within connect their collections, unlock new stories and forge links across the UK. For a week, they support each other on social media, sharing and retweeting content and then create a video, a thread, or a blog that tells us more about the connections they have found. The @MuseumBuddy twitter account then shares the content too. Some of the buddies are either far apart geographically, but have similar collections, or are perhaps closer, but with very different collections.
Our museums fell into another category – far apart, and on the face of it, very different. We decided to be the first official Museum Buddy up to really test the idea. The Peace Museum is an independent, accredited museum and is the only one of its kind in the UK and has a collection of over 9,000 objects that tell the stories of peacemakers locally, nationally and internationally. This includes collections relating to peaceful campaigns such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a collection of objects relating to Conscientious Objectors, and a contemporary collection highlighting the stories of modern peace makers.
Horsham Museum and Art Gallery is a local authority museum situated in Horsham, West Sussex. The museum is run by Horsham District Council and welcomes around 60,000 visitors per year. The museum was founded by members of the Free Christian Church in 1893. A Museum Society was created to promote collecting and to offer talks and excursions to historical sites. Horsham Museum & Art Gallery is home to collections ranging from photography and art, to agriculture and transport. It is an incredibly diverse collection that covers the history and people of Horsham District.
After delving into each other’s collections remotely, and using our respective websites, we started to find unexpected connections. One that immediately stood out was our extensive poster collections. Horsham holds the William Albery Poster Collection which contains over 1400 posters from the Horsham District covering 270 years of the area’s history, from underhanded political campaigns, to home front life in World War One. Albery was a local tradesman, historian and avid collector and on his death in 1950 he donated his collections to the town of Horsham. It is a treasure trove of local history and now, thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Friends of Horsham Museum and Art Gallery, all of the posters are now searchable online (http://www.horshamposters.com/Friends-Horsham-Museum/Default.aspx).
The Peace Museum has an extensive poster collection that has been donated by peace groups and individuals throughout the years. They advertise and support a wide variety of peaceful protests, marches and vigils that took place across the UK. Both collections have vibrant, striking and engaging posters that can really capture audience’s imagination and whilst both collections came to us in very different ways and represent very different events and groups, their very existence reminds us of the important of printed media in a pre-digital age, and the fact that something that seems ephemeral at the time can have great significance in the future. It’s an important reminder that museums should keep collecting contemporary material for the benefit of future visitors and museum staff too.
It was through Horsham’s poster collections that we also found we both have material relating to the post-war peace after World War One. The Peace Museum has objects relating to the celebrations, and those that never were, after the war. In Bradford, there was supposed to be a peace parade to celebrate the war ending, but there was local opposition as some felt it was distasteful to those that had lost so much. It was different in Horsham however, and they hold posters and records of discussions held by the council about how to celebrate.
As well as this WWI connection, we also found we hold collections relating to Conscientious Objectors (CO), those who defied the Military Service Act of 1916 and refused to fight in the war based on their beliefs. The Peace Museum holds the Prisoner of Conscience sculptures by the artist Malcolm Brocklesby, whose uncle Bert was a CO imprisoned in Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire during the war. At Horsham, they have a poster from 1916 that has the message ‘Beware of Conscription’ and asks Christians to remember ‘God is Love, Love Is Not In War’. There were CO’s in Horsham during the war, and a camp in nearby Seaford housed up to 90 men who took up jobs of national importance. Finding this connection was a reminder to us of the huge effect that WWI had across the UK.
It was such a positive experience for us to find these new connections, feel inspired by the connections we both work with from home, and to then be able to share these at a time when everything felt so disconnected and uncertain.
Since this first week of Museum Buddy back in April, we have now had over 20 buddies, including international pairings involving museums in the US and Canada, working with museums and museum professionals here in the UK. A highlight has been seeing the new friendships formed between the buddies doing the social media for their institutions, and seeing visitors and followers of the individual museums finding out new things and discovering new places.
Each week, we have collected feedback from those taking part and so far 95% of participants have felt Museum Buddy has allowed them to make useful connections and expand their networks, discover new links, and made them feel more connected to the wider museum sector. We are so pleased with these outcomes, and glad that a small idea has made the difficult situation of the pandemic just a little bit better for museum professionals around the world.
We hope Museum Buddy can continue beyond the current situation. Even now that some museums are starting to reopen and people are back to work, we still have interest in the project. We look forward to helping create new connections and allowing museum professionals to explore new ways to engage audiences with their collections in the digital focused landscape in which we find ourselves.
If you want to find out more about Museum Buddy, follow us on twitter @MuseumBuddy and get in touch by emailing email@example.com.
Written by Shannen Johnson, Learning and Engagement Officer at The Peace Museum and Rhiannon Jones, Deputy Museum Manager at Horsham Museum and Art Gallery.
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Sebastian McKerracher is a web designer and woodworker. When he isn't sitting behind a computer screen or building a cutting board he sometimes finds time to visit modern art galleries or natural history museums.