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  • Writer's pictureLondon Museums Group Team

Swop Shop I

Originally posted on 8 May 2012 #LMGBlogArchive #LMGBlogArchiveProject

Curators successfully swop knowledge with neighbouring museum professionals and gain specialised skills and peer networks.

Curator, Mammal Group at the Natural History Museum
Curator, Mammal Group at the Natural History Museum

Chomping on courgette cake at the Garden Museum with Jade-Lauren Cawthray, the first Trainee of Heritage Sustainability, we asked: can there be a scheme where museums share full-time paid staff? We chatted about how the London Museums Group’s Share London scheme enables museums to advertise skill sharing offers and how LMG are asking the question: what is skill sharing, how does it work and what are the challenges?  Looking around the sector the Museums Association’s Monument Fellowship scheme is a good example of a knowledge sharing project.  A small grant (£5,000) allows retiring staff to return to their museum and pass on specialised knowledge to colleagues. Sharing Knowledge: A Toolkit the MA’s guide on how to share and sustain collections expertise and start succession planning shows:

  • that the sharing of knowledge and skills is driven by the passion of individuals.

  • that the Fellows had an impact on the organisation, bringing collections to life and empowering all staff (learning, front of house and collections staff) to benefit from developing and sharing knowledge. [source: Lucy Shaw, Museums Association].

handling a specimen
handling a specimen

So, how can museums of all shapes and sizes share knowledge to enhance specialist skills?

Let’s look at the Natural History Museum [NHM] and the Hunterian Museum [HM] and a skill sharing scheme they created.

It started with a conversation. Louise Tomsett, Curator, Mammal Group, Zoology Department at the NHM and Milly Farrell, Curator, Odontological Collection at the HM developed a scheme that grew from informal conversations to a concrete but fluid, one day a week swop shop over a period of 6 weeks.

So, what skills were swapped?

  • Practical skills. Working hands-on with objects the curators gained specialised skills in chemistry and storage.  Louise worked with a Conservator and learnt additional skills in the aesthetic element of object display – a key element of the exhibitions at the HM.  These aesthetic skills can be applied to exhibition design at the NHM.

  • Peer networks. Working with a variety of professionals at the NHM, Milly gained knowledge in loans and record management and skills in destructive analysis, storage and object handling. When Milly got back to her office she was able to pick up the phone for further advice.

  • Reflection.  Being away from phones and emails enabled Milly and Louise to focus on a single task and gave them the time to reflect on processes, which amplified their practical learning.  Louise says ‘you can lose knowledge if you don’t put it into practice.’

  • Policy change. Observing the loans officer working at the NHM with destructive loans enabled Milly to contribute to the re-draft of the latest HM loans policy.

  • Fluid learning. The scheme responded to particular learning needs and time pressured working situations. Louise’s days were programmed around her busy schedule.

  • Knowledge sharing.  Having the time to share knowledge in a relaxed way was important to Louise, who says that through the scheme  ‘swapping of knowledge is more casual, it’s at an easier rate, knowledge isn’t crammed into one training day. [See Swop Shop II | from one dinosaur to the next for detailed narratives]

The Curators couldn’t emphasize enough the significance of having the time to focus on learning specific skills such as preservation and storage, destructive sampling, handling large scientific specimens, aesthetics and preserving the historic aspect of specimens through object based learning.  Educational institutions are re-introducing practical based learning. ‘There has been a general revival in the idea of object-based learning.  This is central to the approach we adopt in UCL’s Museum Studies programme.’ says Paul Basu, Degree Programme Co-ordinator for the MA in Museum Studies at University College London.  Helen Chatterjee, Deputy Director of UCL Museum & Collections, goes on to say ‘Object based learning sessions are excellent for providing opportunities for group work, developing communication, team working and problem solving skills. It is essential for museum staff to have excellent object handling skills.’  One of the benefits of the scheme was that object based learning topped up specialised skills and knowledge.

How did you get the scheme started and how did you justify the time out of the office?

Milly drafted a proposal, outlining how it would contribute to her working practice and how it would benefit each organisation: ‘It wasn’t me abandoning my post to go and work at the Natural History Museum.’  Louise identified how the scheme was part of her curatorial training: ‘The aim of the scheme was to go away with the knowledge, skills and tools to deal with a specific curation project.’ The Curators had focused learning objectives that fitted in to their professional development programmes and working practice. Konstantinos Arvanitis, Lecturer at the University of Manchester, talks about why schemes like this are successful: ‘When in post, museum staff often do not have the time and the opportunity to reflect upon their own practice; so the provision of professional development opportunities allows museum professionals to gain a better understanding of the scope, aims, challenges, limitations and possible directions of their work in the relevant professional and institutional context.’ So, in order to turn those initial conversations into a successful scheme the participants developed clear aims and objectives that were relevant to their own professional working practice.  Milly and Louise are still sharing knowledge and continuing to make invaluable reflection time and it is interesting to see that they have a continued commitment to the project. The joy of skill sharing is that staff are not lost – instead new colleagues and expertise are introduced into an organisation regardless of its size.

Is there a museum you’d like to swop shop with or a skill sharing story you would like to share?

Author: Julie Reynolds, London Museum Group Blogger-in-Residence  With thanks to Judy Lindsay, Chair, London Museum Group for her support and editing time and to all the people who have let me borrow their ear for the articles (Swop Shop I and Swop Shop II). To learn how to run low cost, effective programmes to capture, share and use knowledge Lucy Shaw will be touring the UK running four workshops: Sharing Knowledge: Practical ideas that don’t cost the earth: based on the findings of the Monument Fellowship’s scheme.  The next knowledge sharing event is in Glasgow on the 11 June.

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