Heritage Cubes provide more than safe storage space for collections that would otherwise be kept in lofts or sheds. Julie Nightingale discovers how the museum quality community stores works in practice
Several aluminium boxes, some shelf space and a smattering of cupboards, tall and small.
It may not sound like the most sophisticated storage facility in the world but this relatively simply idea, called the Heritage Cubes, has added a fresh dimension to efforts by museums in the north east of England to kindle new relationships with local people.
How it works
The Heritage Cubes project, the brainchild of Beamish, the North of England Open-Air Museum, and Tyne and Wear Museums, invites local community groups to put their collections in a bona fide museum store, rather than dispersed around members’ attics, under beds and in spare rooms.
Groups that have never had the wherewithal to unite their collection in one place can now put a roof over its head.
Depending on the nature and size of the collection, groups can choose from the aluminium boxes (70cm x 80cm x 60cm) plus a mixture of shelf space, upright cupboards and filing cabinets. There are 26 cubes, seven double cupboards, four filing cabinets and two plan chests plus shelf space.
One group, a branch of the Embroiderers’ Guild, has its own storage boxes, which it keeps on the shelves, for example. Groups have to provide an inventory of their collection for security.
The self-storage is not open to all-comers, and items are not accepted from individuals. Instead, the collections access team targets groups that are offering their collections for research purposes, putting them on display, or otherwise actively using them.
Once involved, groups are encouraged to learn about collections care, meet the public and share their expertise with museum staff and vice versa. There is also a collections study room that community groups can use to work on their collections, and opportunities for collaboration with other groups to mount small exhibitions.
“They can’t just leave their collections and disappear,” says Helen Barker, collections access team assistant at Beamish, where the Heritage Cubes are to be found.
“The idea is that groups store collections here and think about how to move forward and develop them. The Embroiderers’ Guild, for example, is looking to develop its own centre, and the South Moor Junior Football Club has a collection stored here but is hoping to build a pavilion, so they will move on.”
Neither is the scheme like your standard museum loan. “The groups’ collections are never treated as part of the Beamish collection,” says Barker. “We couldn’t put any of their things in an exhibition without permission – though people can access the knowledge and expertise that exists within the museum.”
The groups still have ready access to their collections. When they sign up, they have an agreement form signed by four “gatekeepers”. If they want access, they just ring ahead. Anyone else who wants access has to have signed permission from one of the gatekeepers.
“People wanting access is not a problem as the collections access team was set up to do exactly that: encourage use of the collections,” says Barker.
The project is an offshoot of the regional museum store at Beamish, which it runs jointly with Tyne and Wear Museums. Part of its purpose is to help break down the wariness between museums and community groups and extend the benefits of the resource centre to collections beyond the museums’ walls.
John Clayson, the keeper of science and industry for Tyne and Wear Museums says: “Our collections – Tyne and Wear’s and Beamish’s – are the north-east’s biggest but there are important collections held by smaller groups.
“They don’t necessarily just want to pass them over to bigger organisations – where they fear they will be swallowed into a black hole – but sometimes these collections can’t be afforded the care that the people holding them aspire to. But neither do we want to tell people that they have to relinquish all of their interest.”
Philosophically, it was also seen as a way of extending the principles behind the designation scheme in England to a community level.
“Designation recognises the national or international status of collections that are not nationally funded. This scheme recognises collections that may be of importance but don’t attract big funding and are held by groups not institutions,” says Clayson.
Diverse user groups
The invitation to use the cubes has been taken up by 13 local societies and associations. They include traditional heritage groups such as the Charlton Photographic Society and the Doxford Engine Friends Association, but also groups with a less explicit heritage connection, such as the South Moor Junior Football Club, which had decades of programmes and other memorabilia stashed among the football boots in its changing rooms.
The North East Police History Society’s collection of uniforms, truncheons and handcuffs has been brought together for the first time in one of the Heritage Cubes.
“They are artefacts that were previously held in people’s attics, cupboards and spare rooms,” explains Ken Banks, the society’s vice-chairman. “Now all our individual items are held together and available for public viewing.”
The society has a good rapport with Beamish staff; access is a matter of calling up and arranging to drop by. They have also taken advantage of the expertise on hand.
“The staff have been very good in showing us how to preserve things. For example, a uniform which would have been shoved in a box will be put in an ice compartment to kill off microbes,” says Banks. “They also give us advice on how to do displays.”
Members have become more closely involved with Beamish through the Heritage Cubes, he adds. “Before, I used to go to exhibitions, but now that the Heritage Cubes are up and running we are visiting more often and hold our society meetings at the resource centre. A major attribute is that it is entirely free, of course,” he admits.
The community groups’ collections are housed in the new regional store, completed in 2006 thanks to a £2.8m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Further grants have come from other bodies including the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Catherine Cookson Trust and the Designation Challenge Fund.
Widening community involvement was a key element of the successful bid for HLF funding. Keith Bartlett, HLF’s regional manager for the north-east, said the scheme easily fitted grant criteria in this respect.
“We had already been speaking to several small organisations who didn’t have the wherewithal to store their artefacts and objects in the right environmental or secure conditions. When I spoke to Beamish and Tyne and Wear about the second phase of development at the regional resource centre, it seemed a logical progression that they become the space for community collections.”
Consultation with groups is key to shaping a project like this where community interest is predicted but cannot be assumed. Helen Barker says: “You need to find out what collections groups have, as that will direct the kind of storage you provide. We asked the groups how much space they would need but we also asked them to rationalise their collections.
“The Scouts, for example, had a huge amount of stuff and a lot of it was minute books. We put them in contact with the county records office [for the documents] and we took the photos,” she says.
Initially, local community groups were contac