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Valuing shared learning at Herberton Mining Museum

Community collaboration has always been central to my work as a MDO. And, in our current climate, with the restrictions that COVID-19 is placing upon travel and gatherings, I thought I’d tell you about a recent training series I ran at Herberton Mining Museum,

Creating workshops for collection policies and collection management procedures aren’t the easiest topics to be creative with. Just how much fun can you have with a Deed of Gift or a Loans form?  And how do you convince volunteers wary of change that a bit more paperwork and process is a good thing? My challenge was to develop comprehensive AND accessible workshops that made sense to the participants.

Funded through a Community Heritage Grant from the National Library of Australia, the workshops bought together a total of 12 people from six different museum groups: Herberton Mining Museum, Loudoun House Museum, Tolga Museum, Millaa Millaa Museum, Malanda Dairy Centre and Ravenshoe Visitor Information Centre.

Participants in the CHG training at Herberton Mining Museum. (Two missing from Tolga).
Photo: Sherrie-Ann Cockell, Herberton Mining Museum.

Participants congregated (yes, face to face) at Herberton Mining Museum for three weeks of two day training sessions. The first day of each week involved an overview of the principles and examples from the industry. The second day was dedicated to practical reinforcement, and the challenge of adapting perfect museology principles into day to day reality.

The value of people being able to articulate their experience of managing the museum, and outline their successes and frustrations regarding donations, acquisitions and procedures in a collaborative environment is immeasurable. We heard stories about wayward items appearing on museum doorsteps, anonymous donations, lost databases, misplaced loans and cataloguing triumphs.  These helped create a sense of inclusion and camaraderie, and injected a bit of humour into the discussion. Some of the comments on the workshop evaluation forms highlighted the ‘priceless’ nature of shared learning experiences, and the opportunity of hearing from groups struggling with similar issues.

Jo Wills revving up one of the cataloging groups during the training.
Photo: Sherrie-Ann Cockell, Herberton Mining Museum.

Some said the chance to come together helped them ‘regain their mojo’ as they felt cataloguing and some of the processes had been overwhelming them until they heard from others. Benefits were also gleaned from spending time with people they don’t normally work with.

One of the most salient lessons from the training was the need for organisations to have clear volunteer induction procedures. It is reasonable, we decided as a group, that new volunteers understand that volunteering in a museum means you engage with objects and that this has certain responsibilities and requirements.

Groups are now working on developing up policies and procedures, adapting some of the templates I provided as part of the workshops, and reflecting on their induction processes. They are also enjoying the archival and collection management materials that were made possible as part of the grant.

Rob and Helen Fuller and Stacee Hillyard receive archival supplies as part of the training.
Photo: Sherrie-Ann Cockell.

Thanks to Herberton Mining Museum for hosting the training and making everyone feel welcome.

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to travel to Muttaburra to deliver some workshops.  Although a (very) small town, Muttaburra boasts two museums – the Dr Arratta Memorial Museum and Cassimatis Store and Cottage –  which are managed by a small but dedicated team of volunteers. Keen to learn about how best to care for and interpret their collections, we devised a series of four workshops covering collection policies, interpretation panels, cataloguing, and object labelling.

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Learning how to make interpretation panels using foam core board.

While we all may know what is exciting and unusual about our own collections, it is worth giving some thought to how we share this with our visitors to make sure we’re providing the best possible experience of what our collections have to offer. During our workshop on interpretation panels, the Muttaburra volunteers thought and talked about how to plan exhibitions and displays (and what’s the difference between the two!), how best to interpret objects to make them accessible and interesting for visitors, and the nuts and bolts of what makes good interpretation panels. Thinking and talking is good, but doing is even better, so the volunteers soon got stuck into making their own interpretation panels. Now armed with the tools of the trade, I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with their new skills!

Writing a Collection Policy may not sound like the most exciting aspect of museum life, but it is really the most important document in helping you manage your collection well. It helps you clearly define all the main aspects of managing your collection, including how you will collect objects, how you will document them, how you will care for them, as well as tackling some of the more tricky issues of deaccessioning and ethical considerations. With two very different collections to manage, some thought had to be given to how to structure the collection policy to best suit their situation, but very quickly the volunteers worked together to painlessly produce a document which will be their first port of call in all important decision making processes.

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Checking to see if our location system works!

Another hallmark of a well managed collection is good documentation, but with backlogs common to all museums, it often gets put in the too hard basket. We spent some time in Muttaburra looking at the processes for accessioning items into the collection, followed by the more detailed work of cataloguing. While some useful work has been done in the past at the Hospital Museum, we had to spend some time trying to establish if previous location systems were still practical, and devising new ones for the Cassimatis Store and Cottage. As always, practice makes perfect so getting their own electronic catalogue started was an important component to the workshop.

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Cassimatis Store display

A good catalogue is of little use if you can’t identify your objects, so applying accession labels to objects was our last topic. Good object labelling, combined with good documentation, is also another weapon in the museum arsenal when confronted with a disaster. There are several options for doing this safely and unobtrusively dependent on the materials of each object, so the volunteers were introduced to a range of techniques. I expect that soon everything that isn’t nailed down will have a number attached to it!

The workshops were funded by the Regional Arts Development Fund through Barcaldine Regional Council. Thanks to the volunteers for being such wonderful hosts and willing students, and also to the volunteers from the Aramac Tramway Museum who made the trip to Muttaburra to take part.  It’s great to see small museums and communities working together. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your new skills in action.