Empowering, relevant, dynamic – using industrial history collections to engage and inspire

How do we get visitors to engage with our collections? How do we ensure our collections are relevant to the modern audiences? Could local communities and other visitors become more involved in how we manage our collections?

These were just some of the questions we looked at during the Industrial Heritage Network North West (IHNNW) meeting last Thursday at the National Waterways Museum (Boat Museum) in Ellesmere Port.

The theme of the meeting was Empowering, relevant, dynamic – using industrial history collections to engage and inspire and the recent Museum Association’s report on Empowering Collections formed the basis for our discussions.

Margaret's talk

Margaret Harrison, the Collections Manager based at the National Waterways Museum, introduced the theme for the day and talked to us about the restoration journey the museum has been on for the last five years. The collections’ team had the daunting task of figuring out what to do with over 60 boats sitting in water around the museum, and slowly rotting away. The original collection was created as a reaction to an industry which was rapidly disappearing and needed to be saved as quickly as possible. The assembling of the collection wasn’t done strategically. This is one of the reasons why the team today knows what they have, but information about where many items came from and from who, is missing.

After reading the Empowering Collections report, Margaret started thinking about how they can change their approach to collections to make them more empowered, relevant and dynamic. She believes that telling new stories, relevant to people today and evoking their emotional response, is a great start. According to the research conducted by the Canal & River Trust with non-visitors when asked what stories they would find most appealing, the potential visitors talked about learning more about the life on boats, how the canals were built, people who worked on the canals, life on the canal today and the history of the local canals.

Discussions

Our audiences can help us tell those stories and fill in the blanks. Asking visitors and members of the local communities to help with research and interpretation can be a truly rewarding experience. Through that engagement, the audiences become more invested and the heritage becomes more relevant to them. Figuring out how to make your collections relevant is crucial for achieving sustainability. The fact is, that no founder is going to give money for heritage to just sit there and do nothing – it needs to have a purpose. It needs to evoke emotion, relate to people’s current or past experiences or future motivations. Our task is to show how the heritage will achieve that and engage variety of people from diverse backgrounds.

Margaret’s talk offered us plenty food for thought and we then started discussions and brainstorming around the theme. The key question we focused on was ‘How would you empower your collection or collections’?

Some members shared what they have already been doing like moving their collections to empty units in a local shopping centre – Wigan Council has been successfully engaging with variety of audiences, and most importantly, audiences who they might not have reached otherwise by displaying their collections in an unexpected location. Another member talked about the Lancashire Mining Museum initiative where the museum took photos of old machines around the museum and then posted them online asking ‘Anyone would like to restore them?’. The response was great and many people who got in touch now continue to volunteer with the museum.

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We also discussed new ways of engaging visitors to make collections more empowered. Thinking about different types of interactions including doing more conservation in action and allowing visitors to take ownership of objects. Letting them touch the objects, feel them, smell them and work them, if possible.

We also talked about how we should talk to our visitors more and listen to what they say. We should really explore who our audiences are and what it is they want. We agreed that we might have the tendency to often assume we know what visitors want to see and do, but until we ask, we can’t be certain. And asking doesn’t have to be difficult, or costly. For example, involve your staff and volunteers in collating feedback and ideas from your visitors simply by letting them ask questions about their thoughts on interpretation, accessibility and what would make them get involved with your site in the future. Furthermore, asking your visitors about what they enjoyed most about their visit and what they would like to see more of. Asking any questions really which will help you figure out how to use your collection, make it relevant and open to the public.

Thinking about who your visitors are, but also who they could be might help you ask the most useful questions. What are young people interested in? What would entice families to visit? Could you offer a volunteering opportunity suitable for professionals to get involved during the week, perhaps on their lunch break? Are you engaging with the local schools? Can you offer an opportunity for a work placement? There are so many opportunities out there. Try thinking outside of the box – engaging with students doesn’t have to mean offering opportunities in conservation or other museum studies only. They can help you create a social media presence and engage new audiences this way. Photography students can update your images’ database for promotion and revamping your website. Offering a possibility to develop any transferable skills that can be added to a CV is an opportunity to engage with a new audience or reinvigorate old relationships.

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There are many other areas of collections management which can be discussed, and future networks’ meetings will be addressing them. Each network meeting focuses on a specific theme allowing members to share their knowledge and experiences and learn from others.

The bi-annual networks’ meetings are ‘igniters’ for further networking, discussions, and development of ideas. The purpose of the IHNNW, and the other Industrial Heritage Networks (IHNs) across England, is to offer peer to peer support throughout the year by focusing on specific, sector-wide issues.

IHNNW currently has 50 members representing 37 industrial heritage sites and organisations. The full list of member sites and organisations can be viewed on the IHNs website:

https://industrialheritagenetworks.com/ihn-north-west/

IHNNW is one of the 11 regional networks currently in development across England:

The IHSO, Joanna Turska, brings industrial heritage sites and organisations together, organises inaugural meetings, facilitates each network’s development and provides tools and resources for networks’ growth including the dedicated IHNs website for promotion, awareness and knowledge sharing:

https://industrialheritagenetworks.com/

Do subscribe to the IHNs website to stay in touch and receive the most up to date news and stories from across the industrial heritage sector!

For more information about a network in your region, contact the IHSO on: joanna.turska@ironbridge.org.uk

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