Case Studies

MDNW are keen to support the development of museums in the North West through sharing knowledge and best practice from museums across the region and beyond. One of the ways we do this is by publishing case studies written by museums who feel they have a story to share with others.

If you would like to write a case study to appear on our blog, please complete the Case Study Template and email your completed form to Alex Bird at alexander.bird@manchester.ac.uk along with images of your project. Please ensure you have the relevant permissions for the photographs before sending them to us.

National Waterways Museum: Building Resilience by Safeguarding our Collection

Author
Margaret Harrison, Collections and Interpretation Manager for Canal & River TrustI look after the Designated collection held at the National Waterways Museums in Ellesmere Port and Gloucester and at the Canal Museum, Stoke Bruerne. I’ve held this post for four years and previously was a freelance consultant for 14 years specialising in collections management and documentation.

Date May 2018
 

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Project aims 

When we submitted an application to the Arts Council England Museum Resilience Fund in 2016 we were unable to care for our boats appropriately. Boats in the water were deteriorating and at risk. This was not sustainable for the collection or for the future development of the museum.

Our project was developed in partnership with the Boat Museum Society and aimed to improve our resilience by:

• Delivering a storage solution to improve care of the historic boat collection (16 boats removed from water)

• Developing space at the National Waterways Museum and Gloucester Waterways Museum to improve the visitor experience

• Initiating the development of a dry dock to care for the floating collection and provide opportunities for commercial use

• Share best practice and ethics with our committed and long-standing volunteers, the wider waterways enthusiast community and the museum sector

• Utilise the skills of our volunteers to provide project management for delivery

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Work done 

Our most significant achievement was to move 21 boats to our new boat store. However, this was extremely challenging at times.

The first hurdle was that we weren’t able to acquire the building we had originally identified. Finding somewhere where 70ft boats can easily be manoeuvred and stored was hard work but we were very lucky to eventually secure a much better building. The new store is only 2 miles from museum, is easily accessible and has a large outdoor yard.

Moving the boats was a major logistical operation and took months of planning and hard work. The move took place over one week in October 2017. A 350 tonne crane arrived on site at 7am on the Monday morning to move the boats, starting with the oldest surviving all-wooden Mersey Flat which was relocated opposite the museum entrance. The 7ft-long vessel was loaded onto a lorry, backed into the yard and then turned by 90 degrees. This took two-and-a-half hours. The boat lift continued throughout the week with the craneage contractors working with museum staff, volunteers and historic boat specialists. By 6.30pm on the fourth day the UK’s largest movement of historic vessels was complete.

The project was managed by a Volunteer Project Manager, Barry Green, working with the museum’s Technical Manager and Canal & River Trust Project staff. The project would not have happened without Barry’s dedication and commitment as his time allowed us to find match funding for the grant.

The project also included the reinstatement of the large dry dock at Ellesmere Port that will enable us to dry dock and look after the larger boats in the collection. The new caisson has been built and delivered. Installation is still in progress and we are working with Canal & River Trust engineers to complete this.

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Impact 

We have opened up new spaces for events and made operation of the museum easier. The impact was obvious at the Easter Historic Boat Gathering. Clearing the upper canal basin allowed us to offer more mooring spaces and enable boats to stay for longer.  The boat store has added an additional attraction. Behind the scenes tours at Easter were over-subscribed.

Being able to share and demonstrate best practice has had a huge impact. It has given us an opportunity to demonstrate conservation in action. Volunteers at Ellesmere Port have been committed to the project throughout and are working on the stabilisation and conservation of boats in store.

The Easter gathering of historic boats at Ellesmere Port provided a particularly valuable opportunity to share best practice with the waterways enthusiast community. Owners of historic boats are very significant stakeholders for the museum and have in the past been very critical. There was also a lack of understanding of conservation in museums and scepticism about the move of boats into store. 80 people went on tours of the store. Contractors, staff and volunteers who had been involved with the project all took part.

Feedback over the weekend showed that we had positively engaged boat owners with the principles of conservation and the work that the museum was doing. For example:

“I want to congratulate you, your team and the volunteers for what has been achieved to date in moving the selected boats to their new environment…  The result so far to me is amazing.  I hope the now tangible evidence will go a long way to convince most of the former critics of such moves that one can give the boats a significant role to play in the future, whether as restored artifacts or stable templates for recording and research.”

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Lessons learnt 

The project has emphasised for us how important it is to be able to show in practice what the museum is doing and not just talk about it. We’ve learnt the value of being as open about “behind the scenes” work as the front of house visitor experience.

The decision to use a volunteer project manager to lead the project was both risky and innovative. However, Barry was able to work with an experienced member off staff on the project. We have demonstrated the value of volunteer staff, especially when utilising highly specialist skills and we believe this provides a model for the wider museum sector. With the right mentoring and support in place, this approach proved to be a great success, but not without challenges. These were mitigated through having in place a steering group attended by the Trust’s Programme and Project Manager. Barry’s exceptional contribution to the museum has been recognised through his shortlisting for the Museums & Heritage Show Volunteer of the Year Award.

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