Interview: Sue Knox, Herefordshire’s Museum Development Officer

In order to present a different perspective of the museum sector, I thought it might be a good idea to interview some of my colleagues.  They are involved in many different areas of the service; I suspect some people won’t even have heard of some of their roles.  I hope after a few of these interviews, you’ll appreciate how much work goes into running a good service and not only learn about these different roles, but understand that they are invaluable to the sector.

To kick things off I have interviewed Sue Knox, Hereford’s Museum Development Officer (MDO).

What does your job as a Museum Development Officer (MDO) involve?

I work with all museums, local history groups and heritage sites across the county of Herefordshire.  These include independent, National Trust, English Heritage, council and charity sites.  I also go over the border to Wales (which doesn’t have MDOs) to visit three sites that are closer to Hereford than anywhere else.  I am responsible for making sure they are all working to a high standard, aiming at SPECTRUM and working towards achieving accreditation.  I provide training, either personally or by calling on a curator or RAW training course to help.  In addition, I promote the sites and services with leaflets, Heritage Open Days (HODs) and by writing articles for publications (for example, Herefordshire Life).

Although there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ week, can you give an example of a week in your job?

Monday:

I visited Leominster museum in the morning to help the team change the batteries and sheets in, and recalibrate, their thermo-hygrographs; this is part of monitoring the museum environment.  We also discussed an adult learning session regarding reminiscence using photographs and a subsequent exhibition.  In the afternoon I attended a Heritage Services Service Plan meeting.  This was to discuss the future of the service: what we do now; what should our core role be; and what’s our future?

Tuesday:

In the morning I visited Leintwardine who are setting up display cases, funded under the Herefordshire Small Grants scheme, in their visitor room.  It is entirely volunteer run and led.  As part of the funding they were asked to meet a few criteria regarding collection care and documentation.  I talked about UV filters and blinds for their windows, and using reproduction prints (as opposed to originals) in the cases.  I informed them that any books used need to have their pages turned regularly to minimise the lux hours on any given page.  We discussed the best practice in terms of documentation, i.e. there must be a paper trail for all objects: accessioning, entry and exit forms, and movement tickets.  Interpretation can also be an issue: small font sizes and information overload needs to be controlled.  My afternoon was spent writing the January article for Herefordshire Life which also involved research.

Wednesday:

I went over the St. John Medieval Museum & Coningsby Hospital site to help ‘dress the chaplain’.  Downstairs is a chapel and upstairs has a replica hospital for Coningsby servitors, where the mannequin of the chaplain is.  He had been wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes for a few decades but with the insight from the costume & textile collection officer in Hereford (Althea Mackenzie) we managed to get more appropriate attire made for him (based on the Traherne window in Hereford Cathedral).  We also gave the whole place a good clean.  This was after having to wait a while to get into the building (time-keeping can be tricky to enforce with volunteers).  After that visit I attended a Team Leaders’ Meeting (for Herefordshire Heritage Services).  This took the form of an update on what we all need to be doing as well as discussing various projects and exhibitions.  One of the more concerning topics was funding.  My MDO funding might not stretch to allow HODs to take place next year (which is an important offer for the service).  In addition to that, we’re not sure who will be funding MDOs at all until February 2012.

Thursday:

One of the ‘new’ cases in Hereford Museum was recently donated by the Cathedral and now replaces the old 20th Century Case – itself serving another role elsewhere in the museum.  I was asked to help re-cover the panels inside it, changing the dark maroon fabric for a brighter, cleaner look.  While I was doing this, Althea visited a site that we’d normally attend together.  The team at Kington needed a hand with a Christmas window display.  Part of an MDO’s job is to provide pastoral care and every issue that a site has needs to be treated in a different way.  Often, I act as an intermediary between museums teams (voluntary or not) and the people that can address their specific needs.

In the afternoon, I had a one-to-one with my line-manager.  Since I am spread over a large area and many different sites (I am directly involved with 25 right now, but I have more), it is important that I feed everything back to my line-manager so that she knows what’s going on across the county as well as sometimes contribute in different ways.  We discussed the ways in which I am meeting the performance indicators to satisfy Renaissance, the MDO funding body.  Quarterly reports need to be produced covering data, financial and narrative issues.  There are ongoing projects that I work on and help to facilitate, so that needs to be fed back also.

Friday:

I spent the morning sorting out the minutes from the Herefordshire Museum Forum and sending those out to the relevant people, and then updating the agenda.  I also responded to applicants for a Herefordshire Museum Development Grant: it’s a small scheme to help with collections care and access to them.  Again, there are criteria that the institutions must meet.  These can be immediate as well as long-term (and anything in between); in order to apply again in the future, the institution must show that it has developed and that it’s working towards being sustainable.  Since I had worked so many hours I am sometimes able to leave a little bit early.

Why do you think MDOs are important?

I think MDOs are important for several reasons, because we serve a variety of functions:

Quality Control   Many small museums have low standards and are not, or often cannot, work to a certain level. We not only teach them how to do it themselves, but how to do it well.

Brokerage   We act as a control hub.  We spend a lot of our time helping directly with the many issues faced by museums of different types.  If we can’t help personally, then we almost always know someone who can, and we put them in touch with the relevant people.  For example, Butcher Row in Ledbury had an Irish harp that needed to be conserved.  I managed to find a conservator who was cheap and very good.  He fixed the harp as well as some of the other instruments, and even taught me how to sort out those pieces that weren’t worth him charging us for repairing.

Partnership   Since we’re connected to many different sites, especially across the region, if we know of two that are working on a similar project we can put them in touch with each other for extra support and ideas.

Volunteers   We brought in someone external who had fantastic experience in setting up volunteers in museums and they handpicked one museum per county and taught them how to develop their volunteer schemes.  We were then able to roll that out across the county based on the initial selection of sites.

How do MDOs fit into the sector as a whole?

We translate from above to below.  To volunteers running their own idiosyncratic museum in the middle of the countryside, Arts Council speak doesn’t make a lot of sense.  When MDOs translate and deliver those messages in our way, the impact is felt deeper on the front line.  It makes sense relative to them and their situation.  We facilitate “information exchanges” so that museums can discuss concerns, successes and training at all levels.  County museums also have a remit to help and guide smaller museums: MDOs are the intermediary in that set up.

What part do volunteers play in the service and as a part of your job?

Volunteers are essential: half of all our museums are volunteer run and led.  There would be no service at all if we didn’t have dedicated volunteers across the counties.  There are all sorts: from the front of house staff who keep the buildings open and accessible, to the specialists at the Resource Centre, interpreting the costume collection, for example.  Many of those museums that are not entirely volunteer run and led, have only one member of staff who supervises a team in turn made up of volunteers.  It’s a relationship of trust: the sector relies on them, they need me, and I help them.

What’s the best part of your job?

Going around the county and working with people whose heart is totally in their work: their enthusiasm is infectious.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Statistics and money/budgets.  It’s essential but frustrating.

What are the most challenging aspects of being an MDO?

Once the previously mentioned enthusiasm has been lost and the people are in a rut.  You have to spend the whole time being chirpy and diplomatic, as well as helpful and practical: it’s hard work.  Depression is also infectious.  Another challenge is never being able to get enough volunteers.  At the moment, museum volunteers tend to be very much of a type.  Unfortunately, we need to start appealing to everyone, not just retired people.  We have very little young blood volunteering across the county and it’s something we have to rectify.  I’m also not a fan of the brown tourism signs!

I hope that was interesting and insightful.  Although I work opposite Sue and had picked up a lot of the above over the past 9 months, there were still many aspects to her job that I’m only beginning to appreciate.  Thanks a lot, Sue!

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