The not so secret World of Museums

A blog written by Eileen Atkins, Bridge North East Museums Manager. 

Museums and heritage organisations have increasingly engaged with the work of Bridge North East over the three years and the creation of my post as Museums Manager has had a real impact on this. My role has strengthened the embedding of museums and heritage work across the whole Bridge programme and I have enjoyed the fusion Bridge has provided of cross sector working.

When I started in 2013, many museums and heritage educators were facing uncertain times. They were already coming off the back of the demise of the Museums, Libraries and Arts (MLA) Council and the end of Renaissance in the Regions so there was a certain amount of suspicion about how the Arts Council would include them. Defining museums, heritage and film as ‘the wider cultural footprint’ didn’t help with this. Personally, I think it is a false divide to separate museums from heritage as they work so closely together and are so connected. I have also tried to include archives in the work as they provide a link between libraries and museums and somehow have slipped through the gap. Symptomatic of this was the sector’s questioning about the relevance of Arts Award in the early days and the word ‘Art’ which signified (to some of them) that it was designed for more traditional ‘arts’ venues like theatres and dance studios.

Now, as Bridge North East is ending, we have a bank of heritage and museums case studies, Arts Award projects have been delivered successfully in venues right across the region from Bellingham Heritage Centre to Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum. The seven museums involved in the Museums and Schools project in the Tees Valley (Making a Mark) have created their own bespoke Arts Award log book. I hear about Arts Award projects now popping up all over the place in museums and heritage venues independently of Bridge, including a very exciting whole school project using Hadrian’s Wall.

In the North East we have a particular wealth of Industrial, Victorian and early 20th Century history. Coupled with this, the predominant schools audience for museums and heritage venues is Primary Schools. Michael Gove’s chronology based crammed History Curriculum which starts at Pre-History and stops just past the Tudors for Primary Schools was like a smack in the face for museums. A wave of panic descended across the Country’s heritage venues.

Bridge North East answered this call for help through the heritage action research bursaries. The idea was to give partner museums a small pot of money, £1,000, to give them an opportunity to do targeted development work with local schools on getting their schools offer ready for the Curriculum and to share the outcomes with the wider sector. The results were far wider reaching than we could have imagined from such a small starting point. This reflects the enthusiasm, commitment and positive attitude of the museums staff involved. They used the project to drive long lasting change to their schools offer and ways of working.

These are just a few examples of the ways Bridge North East have been able to support the museums, heritage (and archives) venues around the Region. I am confident that those organisations and individual staff now feel more supported, connected to the wider arts and culture education work in the region, more informed about schools and best practice ways of working and will continue to connect with each other more.

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