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  • Writer's pictureClaire Venus

Culture Chat: Living through and surviving lockdown

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Well who would have known what we would be getting up to as volunteers at Bailiffgate Museum & Gallery during lockdown? We have zoomed, had webinars and have been contributing to weekly newsletters. All new activities and many skills we didn’t know we had. We closed our doors just before our fabulous summer exhibition in collaboration with Jorvik was going to be set up. Thanks to Josie Snook, we were able to leave our current exhibition in place so the gallery looks as if it is ready for visitors.

Lockdown hasn’t deterred our 34 active volunteers. Once we got over the ‘what do you mean unmute and which little camera will let you see me?’, zoom became a firm favourite for our regular management and Trustees meetings and for a bit of socialising as well. We had a fabulous turnout to all the meetings, lots of hilarity and the same enthusiasm and commitment to provide ‘events’ so that our museum kept going “within and without walls”. in some ways, we were busier than ever.

We thought we would only need a weekly newsletter for a month; optimistic I know! Despite the fact that we are now in the fifth month it is still running and has become a firm favourite. Contributing snippets about what we were up to each week to keep ourselves sane and busy, amusing everyone with the trials and tribulations of new skills, throwing in regular jokes and has had such a positive impact on our sense of wellbeing and camaraderie. So much so, that even though we are due to open at the end of August, we have agreed to continue with the newsletter as everyone looks forward to it dropping into our inbox on a Tuesday. The newsletter has brought us all closer together.

Before lockdown we had been focusing on our priorities, where we felt vulnerable and what we could do to achieve our ambitious programme. We applied for funding to support us in some new project roles, but when lockdown came we were able to find more funds to get us ready for opening and to make sure our Museum was sustainable in the future. We advertised the posts and were blown away with the quality of applicants we received. Pleasingly we have recently appointed to a Volunteer Engagement and Retention post and an Operations Manager post. All done electronically, with one set of interviews held by Zoom and another in the museum using socially distanced measures.

We wanted to reach local people and our national and international supporters of the museum. So, our amazing volunteers focussed their efforts on uploading material to the Collections website, the YouTube channel and to the Out of Town Museum website. That meant that local heritage and history lovers could still visit Bailiffgate Museum and Gallery in Alnwick and see items from our Collection that would normally be hidden away in storage.

One of the exhibitions added to the Collections website included some cinema advertisements from the 1950s. These include an intriguing colour advert from the 1950s for ‘mixed X-Ray sessions’ where all the family can attend and women are cautioned not to wear ‘sequins, ornate buttons or painted fabrics’ and told that ‘no undressing’ is required. There are however, some things that never change, a poster from the pre-National Health Service days advertised the 1937 Annual Fancy Dress Ball at Rennington held to raise money for Alnwick Infirmary. A reminder of just how lucky we are to have a National Health Service.

We also featured Alnwick-born William Davison’s posters. Multi-talented son of a joiner, Davison was a pharmacist, apothecary, printer, engraver/etcher, bookseller, stationer, publisher, bookbinder and librarian and owner of a circulating library. He also set up the Alnwick Dispensary in 1815 which in 1849 became the Alnwick Infirmary. A man dedicated to social reform through education, at the age of 72 he published the first Alnwick Mercury in 1854 which eventually became the Northumberland Gazette.

Our virtual visitors loved what we offered as traffic to the Collections website rose over 170% within a matter of weeks. Quite a few of the thousands of international visitors are new to Bailiffgate and are sufficiently impressed to want to know more about us. With registrations from people from Ukraine, Zurich, Germany, St Petersburg, Texas, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Sweden, Winnipeg and Paris included. It was fantastic to think that the history of Alnwick is reaching so many people across the world. It’s great to be making an impression even when we are closed.

We have been watching some of the British Museum web links finding some of the ‘curator’ talks about different areas of the Museum really inspiring. In some cases, it has also been possible to see video clips of artists at work.

Personal contact was made with all of our volunteers to find out how everyone was doing. It was great to talk to everyone and to listen to the fascinating things they had been doing.

Our volunteers made scrubs, scrub bags and face masks to support our NHS colleagues. They also made each of our volunteers a personal ‘Bailiffgate kit bag’. This bag contains everything from hand sanitisers to personal visors; all the essentials for safe opening.

Over the last few months, we not only realised but demonstrated that, although not ideal, we can still support and manage the Museum from a distance. It’s an obvious thing to say, but much as we love being together and enjoy being in the Museum, volunteering does not have to be based in a building. We have learned to make better use of technology and to support one another through telephone calls, conference videos and so forth. This gives us an opportunity to think about recruiting new people who have many skills, but are unable to come into the building in Alnwick.

We attended a virtual conference held by The Association of Independent Museums (AIM). This year the theme was ‘The Road to Recovery’ and all of the seminars and talks were web-based. The conference is usually a packed two-day event in London featuring key speakers and workshops. It also has a grand dinner and award ceremony for independent museums. We have been shortlisted for awards twice and one of our volunteers won volunteer of the year a couple of years ago, which is quite astonishing given that many of the national galleries in London and large regional galleries are considered. Exciting news we have been shortlisted for an award this year in the Museums & Heritage Awards. We have been shortlisted for the category of “Limited Budget Project of the Year” for our 100 Years of Fashion exhibition. We are the only volunteer run museum in the short list, which makes the Trustees incredibly proud.

We were itching to open the museum so we developed our risk plan which was so thorough that when the official guidance was published we had only minor tweaks to make. We have shared our plan with other museums in the spirit of sharing good practice.

Part of our plan to open was to work with local businesses in Alnwick to open safely and attract visitors to our town. Alnwick Castle and Barter Books agreed to promote the Museum on their websites.

The Castle Gardens generously named Bailiffgate as one of the organisations that will be given a donation from ticket sales, now that they have opened to the public. The funds are to help us to cope with a reduced income over the summer.

We will finalise our plans for re-opening with a final walk round on 21 July ready for the staff training early August. We will open the museum officially on the

1 September with trial dates on the 28 and 29 August. All sessions will be double staffed so that we can safely apply our COVID measures, check to see whether more needs to be done and do all we can to ensure the safety of our staff, volunteers and visitors. 

Jose Snook’s exhibition Anthropocene will be on show when we open until early September.

Our new exhibition by Helen Poremba, “Machine Stitch Art” runs from the 9th September to 1st November. Helen will be putting on a few demonstrations to show how her work develops from sketch to finished product.

Extended Fusion Textile Artists runs from 4 November to 31 January 2021. Followed by the Felton Art Group February to March followed by the work of Ian Patience.

We are so excited that Jorvik Group agreed to move the ‘Vikings Fact and Fiction’ exhibition to 22 May – 3 October 2021. This is a myth-busting exhibition in collaboration with the people behind the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. Subject to Covid -19, you will experience 1,000 –year old artefacts and see how the Vikings impacted the world. Children will discover the sights and smells of the Viking Age, dress in replica Viking clothing, see the ghost of a Viking longboat, visit the saga tent, gather round the Viking fire pit, find your Viking name and an opportunity to photograph your visit.

So it is all go and also in 2022 the museum celebrates a significant birthday. It will have been in operation for 20 years. So plans are in place to celebrate with a bang and we are busy developing our ideas.

Lockdown has been a challenge, but for us, it was much more of an opportunity. We have grown from this experience. It has made us think differently, behave differently, work differently, step up to the plate and has brought us closer together as a team, determined to ensure Bailiffgate Museum & Gallery is better than ever! Onwards and upwards…

Louise Dawson

Company Secretary

Bailiffgate Museum & Gallery

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