Collections Community and Diversity Curators Learning The Shop Floor

Citizen Curators programme launched

Street art in Santiago de Chile, one of the many important topics for the modern curator
Street art in Santiago de Chile, one of the many important topics for the modern curator

Last Thursday at Cornwall Museums Partnership’s annual Share and Learn day in Helston, I launched the Citizen Curators Programme and introduced its prospective pilot at Royal Cornwall Museum.

Citizen Curators is basically museum studies in the workplace and takes the place between attending one-off training and a full-on course at a university such as an MA in Museum Studies.

Citizen Curators is a work-based training programme aimed at skilling up volunteers (and also staff who want to develop new skills) in modern curatorial practice. The idea behind this programme was developed over 18 months ago in response to the increasing lack of opportunities to learn curatorial and modern museum skills while working or volunteering in a sustained manner, and have the opportunity to test and assess competencies and in a peer learning framework.

The rural context of Citizen Curators is important. People of smaller museums in large rural regions lack the most access to training, skills, networking and peer groups.

For me it’s an opportunity to experiment with delivering education to workers while they work, and also led by the needs of their work. Colleagues will know about my growing interest and involvement in museum skills development and I am grateful for this opportunity try out something new.

Apart from access to skills and an opportunity to test them out, the Citizen Curators pilot will also focus on recruiting at least 50% under-25s.

The emphasis will be on the participants’ learning goals, rather than on fancying up a regular volunteer opportunity or disguising a dreaded unpaid internship.

That said, participants will have to demonstrate commitment and a dedication to completing the course and creating an outcome that is meaningful to the museum.

Chart showing Citizen Curators competencies
Citizen Curators competencies

It is thanks to Arts Council England support through Cornwall Museums Partnership received through through the Change Makers leadership programme that I am able to conduct this pilot.

Download the Citizen Curators Pilot summary (PDF)

Download the Citizen Curators Flier (PDF)

Exhibitions The Shop Floor

Exhibitions development at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

In July 2013 I was contracted by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall to provide maternity cover for their exhibitions development role, and in particular to develop new shows for their small but multi-layered Quarterdeck gallery.

The first exhibition I was charged with installing From the Loft Floor (Sep 2013-Jan 2014). This show of reportage drawings by Anna Cattermole revealed the build of a traditional Scillonian pilot cutter by Luke Powell at his boatyard, Working Sail.20130918_100716

The thirteen drawings were interpreted in the artist’s words in accompanying captions. We complemented the artwork with a film by Steve Morris of Ideaplus, a display of authentic boatbuilding tools from the NMMC collection, a half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter, and a tactile display of tools on a workbench (sensitively secured to prevent over-excitement and caulking mallets getting the better of each other).

Tactile work bench with boat building tools and apprentice pieces from Falmouth Marine School.
Tactile work bench with boat building tools and apprentice pieces from Falmouth Marine School.

It was a joy to install–much credit to the previous work on the project by Anna Cattermole and the person whose role I am covering. An ideal show for the Autumn with its muted colours easy browsing layout. The artist also provided visitors with a free newspaper-style guide to her project. Anna’s drawings were started and completed on site, live. She did not use sketches or photographs to revisit them.

The opportunity to display objects from the museum’s collection was a particular highlight for someone like me who finds the act of object interpretation and display deeply satisfying. The half model of the Falmouth pilot cutter was a challenge to install owing to its age and size but it created beautiful lines and gave much needed height to the exhibition space.

Half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter made from the NMMC's collection.
Half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter made from the NMMC’s collection. 

The next show is a big one that is currently only partly developed in style and concept on smuggling during its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Time to get my historian’s hat on and also get inventive about how to make tax evasion an interesting subject.


Collections Curators The Shop Floor

Top ten for heritage digitisation projects

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.
Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Digitisation usually refers to making collections data, including images and other media, available online. But it may also refer to making any quantitative (e.g. historical datasets) or qualitative information (exhibition and learning resources) available and discoverable via the web.

A digital collection usually comprises an object record describing the object, its composition or makeup and other descriptive elements. It may have an associated image, video, audio or document with it. Sophisticated digital collections will display links to related objects and information. Some are aggregated into larger digital repositories which allow you to search across several collections such as Culture Grid or Europeana.

The digitisation movement in the UK heritage sector started in earnest under the New Opportunities Fund Digitisation (NOF-digi) programme, funded by the National Lottery between 2001-3/4. One of my previous projects, Hantsphere, was part of this. NOF-digi projects taught heritage and cultural technologists a lot about good and bad practice, and most importantly about sustainability. A significant amount of data remains undiscoverable and in some cases has been lost altogether through lack of onward funding and resources within the organisations that ran these projects.

The Shop Floor

Building digital communities for your heritage project

Social bookmarks (credit:
Social bookmarks (credit:

This is the presentation of my training seminar on building digital communities for heritage projects. It was given to mainly postgraduate students, some of whom were engaged in community projects, at the College of Arts and Humanities, Swansea University.

The session lasted one hour and included time for questions and discussion.

It was part of a Key Heritage Skills training programme offered to postgraduate students across disciplines.

The training session aimed to:

1) Introduce students to the principles and purposes of engaging audiences through digital media, primarily online.

2) Demonstrate how digital media and other media should be used together to get your message across.

3) Introduce students to modes of analysis to evaluate how and whether digital engagement is working, in the context of sector-wide and worldwide usage statistics

4) Use examples from my previous experience and those of others to highlight what worked and what didn’t.

Level of knowledge expected

A basic awareness of digital media tools and their names e.g. blogs, Twitter, web forums, mailing lists.

Key points are given after the presentation. If you would like similar training tailored to your group or society, please contact me.

You are free to download and use this presentation for personal and student research but please do not try and recreate it without asking first. View the slideshow in Full Screen mode (click the 4-arrow icon) for best effect.

[iframe src=”″ frameborder=”0″ width=”480″ height=”389″ allowfullscreen=”true” mozallowfullscreen=”true” webkitallowfullscreen=”true”]

Download Building Digital Communities Swansea 6-12-12 (.pptx, 5MB)

19 Key Points

…the average consumer is apparently subject to over 5000 messages a day – that’s a lot of competition!

  1. Spend time visualising what you want to achieve before you set off: who are your target audiences and what is the message(s) you want to send out? 
  2. Try to communicate rather than only broadcast information – the average consumer is apparently subject to over 5000 messages a day – that’s a lot of competition!
  3. How do different media interact and how can you use this to your best advantage? Think about how newspapers operate their online editions, how posters carry a simple message and a web address inviting people to find out more and how quickly and easily people use social bookmarking to share information online.
  4. How should you structure your digital landscape? Think about how each element links together such as your website and social media (Facebook, Twitter etc), where will discussion take place (if you want it), how and where will you distribute your content (information in the form of text, video, audio, documents, apps, etc.)
  5. For all the people that are now using digital media via their computers, but increasingly through mobile and tablet devices, there are millions who do not; how does your project cater to those audiences?
  6. Be intelligent. How will you find your audiences? Find out how and how many people make up digital communities worldwide. But don’t be dazzled by big numbers, you are a small and focused heritage project, not Coca Cola.
  7. There is increasing data available on digital engagement in arts, culture and heritage. Reports are made available online. Big players such as the British Museum, BBC and National Trust have become ‘trusted brands’ simply because of the size of their followings, and not necessarily because of their content.

    The original Bagpuss on display in Whiteley's, Bayswater for a special exhibition on Peter Firmin's work, 2011
    The original Bagpuss on display in Whiteley’s, Bayswater for a special exhibition on Peter Firmin’s work, 2011
  8. The best advert for your project is to provide engaging and high-quality content on a regular basis. It is important to keep the momentum going throughout your project or you will quickly lose your following. Make your content easy to access and easy to share.
  9. A value of a visual cue or brand in the form of a logo and/or slogan cannot be under-estimated, particularly when you are integrating several social media channels as well as print media into your campaigns.
  10. I believe blogs are the best way to engage people with your project, even beyond its funded life. You have more control over what happens to information accessed via your blog than you do if you only use Facebook or Twitter to disseminate and collect information.
  11. Case-study 1: Copper Day, a free city-wide festival in Swansea on 5 March 2011: how we used digital media to promote the event and collect information from it, including analysis.
  12. Case-study 2: The Elizabeth Treffry Collection, documenting women’s heritage in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, difficulties in building discussion online e.g. via its Facebook page.
  13. Generating active participation is HARD. Do not be disheartened if you feel like you are talking to yourself. It is worth persevering but keep an eye on which channels you are receiving most feedback and then concentrate on those.
  14. Case-study 3: DigVentures, a new model for undertaking archaeology through crowdsourcing, building a community of amateur archaeologists and sharing and discussing excavations online; the web forum or ‘site hut’ did not work as intended because other channels took precedence e.g. Facebook and email.
  15. Be prepared to moderate ‘trolls’ or deliberately provocative behaviour-do not feel inhibited about removing comments altogether if they are not serving your purpose.
  16. Twitter. Used extensively in the heritage world but often without good effect. Be a person, have conversations, welcome people to your following and reply to people who tweet you directly. The worst offence committed by heritage organisations is when Twitter accounts are allowed to become dormant because of lack of use.
  17. Mailing lists or (in the US) Listservs. These a specialist email-based networks which allow for more qualitative exchanges. I have so far found these to be the most effective method of getting messages about projects, events, surveys and discoveries across, especially if they then lead the reader to your website or blog.
  18. Digital photo culture. Documenting heritage visually should not be under-estimated. When you are competing for so little of someone’s time it is always worth building up a bank of good images or even short films or audio clips to grab people’s attention. Although waning in popularity since it first launched Flickr remains a sophisticated and powerful way of storing, accessing and discovering digital visual heritage. Remember that Facebook will never store your original image but present a cruder version and it is very hard to extract images from the system once they are in.
  19. The best way to understand how digital communities work is to take part in some yourself. Find out what works for you and as importantly, what works for others. Do not assume that just because you don’t like something one way your audience won’t either.

Got a comment? Please leave questions and messages here. I will do my best to answer them.