How Museums Northumberland are Reconnecting Communities
The dark, empty halls of our museums have been left gathering dust during the pandemic. Now, these spaces are awaiting rediscovery, thanks to an ambitious new project hoping to reconnect communities across Northumberland
Over the past year we’ve brainlessly scrolled through our phones, taken the same long walks and generally lacked the motivation to stimulate our minds with anything outside the daily norm (or the next highly anticipated government announcement).
Sadly, our region’s museums have remained closed throughout, with art and heritage sites proving to be the silent sufferers of three national lockdowns. That which once celebrated our region’s history and culture was cast into the darkness. But as life slowly returns to normal, and our museums are braced to reopen this May, Museums Northumberland are preparing for their busiest season yet. We caught up with the curators behind some of region’s most significant historical sites to find out about their plans to bridge and strengthen our communities post-lockdown.
There are four museums which sit under the Museums Northumberland umbrella: Woodhorn Museum, Hexham Old Gaol, Morpeth Bagpipe Museum, and Berwick Museum and Art Gallery. Each museum adds to the complex yet highly significant heritage of the North East region.
Woodhorn Museum, located in what was once the largest pit village in the world, boasts exhibitions echoing the mining background and communities from the 1930s. The museum is often host to nationally-renowned visual arts and cultural heritage projects. Hexham Old Gaol presents pivotal moments from the region’s turbulent past, while Morpeth Bagpipe Museum offers insight into the iconic musical landscape of the county. Berwick Museum and Art Gallery is the oldest of the exhibition spaces, dating back more than 150 years. As the first purpose-built army barracks in England, Berwick Museum is home to more than 300 fascinating art pieces, as well as Medieval artefacts and details on Northumberland’s impact on the wider world. Moving forward, the museums are together embarking on an exciting journey to expand current and future collections – but with a heavy focus on the people of Northumberland, both past and present.
Communities across Northumberland are now being invited to have their say in curating the museums’ exhibitions. They are calling the project Femmer to Firmer – a title which holds historic Northumbrian significance. The word ‘femmer’ refers to the Northumbrian dialect for fragile, with the museums emphasising the notion of creating stronger bonds within the communities they serve and represent. The notion becomes especially significant when looking at our social landscape over the past year. After being forced into seclusion and isolation, our communities have inevitably been cast into a state of fragility. However, we have all learnt that in such times a strong sense of togetherness can unite us and the Femmer to Firmer project seeks to grasp where the museums stand, what they need to move forward and who they represent.
We caught up with Anne Moore, keeper of collections at Northumberland Museums, to find out more about the project and how the collections will expand across the region’s much-loved museums. ‘Until now, the opinion of local people has never been sought in order to let us know what items and areas of collecting they think might be appropriate to represent themselves and Northumberland,’ Anne tells us. ‘The purpose of the project is to celebrate Northumbrian identity, and counter our hyperlocal tendencies, by sharing the culture and traditions which unite rather than divide us.’ The focus on communities within the museums nods not only to the culture and communities of past generations, but also that of Northumbrians today.
The four museums are creating a new community advisory panel, which will be made up of a diverse range of local voices from all ages and backgrounds. Anne has expressed the museums’ wishes for inclusivity of all Northumbrians, with no previous experience required to take part. ‘We’re proud to share Northumberland’s stories, and we want local people of all ages to have a say in how we tell them. We want our collections and exhibitions to remain relevant, and to continue to inspire, challenge and entertain our visitors,’ Anne says. ‘However, we would also welcome other types of volunteers to help with all aspects of the project, so in addition to the community panel, there will be lots of opportunities to take part in cataloguing collections, writing blog posts and helping with exhibitions.’
In order to execute this, Anne emphasises their hopes of moving out of lockdown with a strong and passionate group of Northumbrians guiding their journey. ‘The idea is to take a travelling exhibition out into the community, such as local libraries, vacant shops, and online. There may also be the opportunity to organise a larger exhibition in one or all of the main museums.’
Rowan Brown, Museums Northumberland’s chief executive, is looking forward to opening up the museums to the public once again. ‘Our places only come alive when our communities come to visit them,’ she says. Museums Northumberland hope the Femmer to Firmer project will act as a suitable starting point, and make for a smooth transition in opening up the museums to the public once again. ‘All our assets belong to the people of Northumberland, they are the descendants after all, so the more we can be directed by the people we serve, the more relevant and transcendent we will be.’
Museums Northumberland have also received £281,544 from the second round of the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund, to help the museums reopen this year. Rowan admits the grant will be a huge help. ‘We’re absolutely delighted with this lifeline from Arts Council, who’ve already provided incredible support throughout the pandemic. As we work towards reopening our museums – some of which have now been closed for well over a year – we can do so confidently and creatively.’
Museums Northumberland are set to reopen this May, subject to the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown for the sector. Rowan assures us that the museums have been doing a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure all the sites are safe and ready for visitors to return to and enjoy. ‘We want the experience to be fun and inspiring – helping our visitors to reconnect with Northumberland’s stories, and re-adjust to society reopening.’
If you’re interested in joining the Community Advisory Panel, you can register your interest by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org