There are many different ways to celebrate, preserve and share the stories and objects that form our heritage. Starting a museum is not the only option here, so you need to work out in advance, before any other steps are taken, if a museum is right for you.
Temporary displays, websites, learning resources and community events all contribute to the public's understanding and appreciation of a topic or issue. While a museum may be your first port of call, your ambitions could be better realised through a different method. However you do it, it will take a great deal of passion, energy and focus.
The first steps guide is intended to help you select the right structure by:
- Outlining the key characteristics of the different options
- Exploring whether you could work with other organisations
You may want to revisit this guide as you work your way through the New Museum Toolkit. Some options may be a stepping-stone on your way to a larger project.
Even if you are clear about what you want, the checklists in this section may be useful in helping you communicate your ambitions to those you need to influence.
What do you have?
What is the starting point for your museum?
Is it a collection? A community? A specific audience need? A market opportunity?
Anyone wanting to start a museum needs to have a good reason why, and needs to establish what pre-existing resources they have before beginning. Use the examples below to work out what foundations you have to build your museum.
Are you trying to preserve a building of historic interest? This can often be a strong starting point. Such buildings can be important because of someone who lived there, architectural significance or its role in the community.
Objects collected over time, whether that's by an individual, community or special interest group, can form the basis of a collection. Collections are essential to the life of a museum.
These objects might have been offered as a result of changes in the community, such as the loss of an industry or a way of life. A responsibility for safekeeping comes with the decision to begin a collection.
You will need to decide whether gathering objects together will continue and whether you intend to keep them on a permanent basis. Take other organisations and museums into consideration when working out what and how to acquire objects.
Some collecting is constrained by legislation. For example, human remains and some forms of archives can only be held by certain organisations with safeguards in place.
Photographs, documents, oral recordings or films
Groups of original records can be considered to be an archive and can provide evidence of significant stories. Oral testimonies are a popular and evocative way of capturing people's experiences, opinions, stories, language and accents.
Stories and information about a place of people
The best museums tell stories. Perhaps your community organisation has undertaken research and brought together copies of documents and published sources for local reference.
This can include:
- Genealogical indexes
- Copies of local reference material, such as newspapers.
Volunteers and community groups
You may have an existing group of enthusiastic and committed individuals who want to encourage activity and strengthen the identity of a community . Ongoing commitment and availability of volunteers with a range of skills will be essential to a successful project.
Intangible cultural heritage
Remember: cultural heritage is not limited to artefacts. It also includes traditions and knowledge passed from generation to generation. These include language, rituals, customs, performances and traditional craftsmanship.
Keeping this intangible cultural heritage alive and constantly recreating it provides a sense of identity and continuity.
What do you want to do?
Once you've worked out what resources you have, you then need to work out what you intend it for in the first place. There are a number of different options for using resources, which we've outlined below.
Exhibitions or displays, both long-term and temporary, are the most immediate ways of presenting collections to the public. You can do this using objects, written material, photographs and sound.
This doesn't necessarily mean starting your own museum. Your location and reputation are important. Collaborate with existing venues such as museums, libraries, local halls or even shopping centres and pubs to reach a wider, established audience.
Interpret or tell stories
Think creatively about how you can tell the unique stories that you have at your disposal.
Your information could come from a variety of sources - from the people donating objects, local knowledge, your own expertise or academic resources.
The people, places, events and objects in your collection need to come with interpretation. This could be anything from simple labelling of an exhibit to staging costumed tours or dramatic performances. Think about using interactive displays, digital apps and public events.
Lending and borrowing
People starting out in the world of museums generally need a boost to their collections. Supplement your collection with items owned by other people to help tell a particular story.
If you do need to borrow items, ensure you have written agreements setting out care and insurance conditions. Some museums will only lend if you are an Accredited museum. Lending your own items to other venues can raise the profile of your organisation and collection and will probably require similar safeguards.
Preservation of heritage skills
Some time-honoured traditions would die out if it weren't for the passion and effort of people who care about these heritage skills.
Perhaps you want to be a part of preserving cultural and traditional knowledge, keeping industries and ways of life alive through your craft. Although the numbers of specialist skilled craft workers have declined, the need to repair and maintain buildings and machines has remained.
Research is a crucial part of any museum, whether that is in-house projects or creating facilities to welcome in external researchers. Using and building your knowledge about your collections, stories and skills can place you in a position of expertise. This can be shared through displays or publications, including websites.
Who is it for?
Museums do not exist in isolation, they are created to connect with other people. Think carefully about your resources and aims, then work out who could benefit from them.
A common cause, interest, location or building can bring people together and create a focal point for a community. The activities involved in doing it, such as volunteering, staging events, temporary exhibitions, creating a meeting place, information sharing and fundraising will all contribute to bringing people together.
Over time this focus can help to generate a sense of identity for a community, demonstrating the potential that every heritage project can have.
Families are often looking for something to do together. Heritage projects, organisations and museums are attractive as they are both fun and educational. This builds for a legacy, as a child who visits with his or her family is more likely to involve their own family as an adult.
Learning opportunities do not only have to be for schools - learning is a lifelong project and nobody is ever too old to learn something new.
Formal education encompasses pre-school, primary and secondary school, further and higher education. Object-based learning can bring subjects to life in ways not possible in the classroom. Make your resources available for informal learning, too, so that lifelong learners can also enjoy them.
Many individuals or groups are interested in having objects, research or resource spaces for their own use. The community you are working with may not be local. Shared interests with specialists, experts and hobbyists from across the world can create strong networks and communities too.
Heritage and culture are a vital part of Scotland's tourism industry - stats from VisitScotland show exactly how important it is.
That said, there are a growing number of attractions competing for tourists' time and attention. Most tourists will only visit a town or city for just one day. Think about how your visitor attraction can be a part of a wider experience in the area, so that people will stay for longer.
Young people are rarely considered as an audience in themselves outside formal education settings. However, young people are generally community-minded, committed, skilled and in search of new opportunities. Additionally they can bring new perspectives on how to do things.
You need to also think about how long your project will be.
A two to three year project can be short, sharp and make a big impact in the community. A mid-length project, lasting up to ten years, can build a research collection and requires commitment of resources and people. A project that will last over twenty years means ensuring objects can be enjoyed for future generations and long-term planning and commitment.
Identifying what you have, what you want to do and who you want to do it for will have helped you establish the reasons for your project. You are now ready to explore the various options that could help you realise it.
This isn't an exact science and there is a lot of crossover between different models of heritage projects. We've outlined a few of the main options to help give you an idea of what you might be aiming for.
A community archive is a group of documents or other records (such as, photographs, film and sound) brought together by people who share an interest in their community and how it developed. They are unique in providing a way for people of all backgrounds and ages to meet, talk about what they have in common, develop new skills, and capture stories that would otherwise be lost.
- It provides varied and interesting material.
- Archives bring community focus.
- Support networks around the nation are available for such projects.
- They are easy to make available online.
- You need a secure space to store and archive.
- Develop a website or set aside desk space for research purposes.
- Such projects tend to involve medium term commitment.
Events are the life blood of some communities. They often mark key events in the calendar of an area or people. Events allow people to come together to celebrate and explore their heritage in a creative fashion – reinterpreted for today’s society.
- One-off events do not require you to maintain a building or collection.
- It offers focus on one activity or story.
- Events come with the potential of partnerships and creativity.
- They have a wide variety of audiences, from local communities to visiting tourists.
- Establish whether you need public liability insurance.
- Consider creating an archive as a by-product of the event.
- You can choose between making it a profitable event of keeping it just for heritage purposes.
- It is a short term commitment.
Exhibitions can take on many different forms and take place in a variety of buildings - it's not just the obvious options. For example, some people pioneered online virtual exhibitions that allowed viewers to decide what was included, while others exhibited reproductions of their paintings on advertising hoardings. Partnerships with existing venues provide access to an established audience and can bring venues and objects to life in new ways.
- You aren't in charge of maintaining a building, you just provide the items.
- You can focus on doing the things that interest you.
- There is the potential for partnerships with established organisations.
- You don't, necessarily, need a collection.
- Exhibitions can be incredibly creative and give you lots of scope to do what you want.
- Make sure that your venue is secure.
- If you loan items for the exhibition, ensure you have a thorough loan agreement.
- It's a short-term commitment, but agree in advance how long the exhibition will last.
Heritage centres differ slightly from museums and galleries. These are spaces with interpretative media, often used to share information and stories about a place and its communities.
Think of them as a useful orientation point and introduction to an area and a hub for community activities. A heritage centre may have a few objects, but it does not generally have ownership of a collection in perpetuity.
- The focus in heritage centres is on stories.
- There are no collections to look after, manage or store, but you can still bring them in.
- Heritage centres can help to regenerate a historic building.
- These aren't suitable for preserving artefacts long term.
- You need to operate and maintain a building.
- These require medium to long term commitment.
Museum or gallery
Museums take many forms and sizes. While the traditional building with exhibition cases is the most common, some continue to innovate, for example through mobile museums. Read our Big Question to work out if museums are right for you.
- Museums and galleries are an established, widely understood model for a heritage project.
- The standards schemes create a benchmark that give you direction.
- They come with establish support networks.
- Collections can bring stories to life.
- Caring for collections takes responsibility and significant resources.
- You will be entering a competitive field - there are many museums already in existence.
- It often takes ten years or longer to be fully established.
- Historic buildings offer poor environments for collections.
- These are long term commitments as you are agreeing to care for collections in perpetuity.
A research service is a resource where people can engage in or commission research. These often hold large volumes of records or publications relating to a particular subject or geographic area. These records are often duplicates of primary material held elsewhere.
Some research services are operated by individuals as a private business whereas others are a branch of larger organisations such as army regiments.
- If you are using collections held by others, there is no building to maintain.
- You can focus on your own subject specialism.
- It quickly generates expertise.
- Research services sometimes lead to acquiring objects by accident, rather than through strategic plans.
- They can lack focus if the business model rests on accepting research commissions from other people.
- It's a short-term commitment.
Other people can help you realise your dream heritage project, whether that's a museum, community archive or other model.
There are many community heritage organisations and museums already in existence, a limited number of people available to visit them and increasing competition for money and resources. So before you start a new initiative, you need to consider whether you could achieve better results by working in partnership with an existing group or organisation. The first step is to find out what’s already going on.
Who gets involved
Be open about what you want to do – it helps to get people on your side. At this stage you should cast your net widely to identify those with similar or overlapping ambitions. Make contact with existing museums, museum forums, tourist bodies, visitor attractions and community organisations to find out what is already happening and how your idea fits in.
Museums Galleries Scotland has a database of Scottish museums and knowledge of associated organisations. Your local authority might employ arts, culture or museum specialists who can provide initial advice.
- Partnership could be a win-win situation. The community, existing organisations and your project could all benefit from collaborating on ideas and resources.
- Make sure all parties have clarity of focus and are willing to compromise. Work out a way that all parties benefit.
- Remember, the museum sector is a welcoming one, where people are passionate and provide good support networks.
- Calculate how much you could save in time and resources by working with established organisations.
- Communication is key - there can never be enough.
- Partnerships need active management to keep on track.
Case study: Musselburgh Museum
Musselburgh Museum is a small museum run by and for the people of Musselburgh. The original objective was to open a museum in the Old Town Hall, a historic and iconic building in the town, but a more practical and achievable solution came in the form of an empty shop. It is run by the Musselburgh Museum and Heritage Group and is not currently an Accredited museum.
In their own words
We started out in the 1980s as Musselburgh Museum Steering Committee. There was no museum in the town and we wanted to recognise and show off our heritage. We felt that the right place for this would be the former Town Hall, an iconic building in Musselburgh.
Over the years we organised and mounted exhibitions of three to four weeks duration in the Old Town Hall on aspects of our history. These were highly regarded, very well attended and hugely important for us as they aided our objectives, kept the committee in the public eye and gave us credibility. All this helped us to prove our case to the local authority that there was a need and demand for a museum in Musselburgh.
The level of political support for our venture varied over the years. East Lothian Council commissioned an independent report to investigate the feasibility of establishing a museum, the outcome of which was positive. However, as the Old Town Hall was not considered suitable, alternative premises had to be found.
The tipping point came when a local councillor came up with the idea of re-designating a vacant shop from retail to a museum. East Lothian Council led the procurement process for the design consultants, involving us at every stage along the way. We then worked with them on all aspects of the design and fit out.
The Council supported us by funding the initial building work and for ongoing costs associated with the building. Our museum is entirely staffed by volunteers. We have a contract for services with East Lothian Council which covers all aspects of our partnership, including the requirement to open the museum on a minimum number of days a year.
Our new museum opened in 2011. At the moment, we open three days a week from April to September. We put on regular displays using our collection, supplemented by regular donations and loans from the public. We receive an enormous amount of help and support in kind from the Principal Officer and permanent staff of East Lothian Council Museums Service.
We are staffed by volunteers who open the museum, create the exhibitions and run the organisation. East Lothian Council support us with the building costs but we need to find funding for our exhibitions.
We have had success in the past with funding and have been awarded an HLF grant for our forthcoming World War I exhibition. We have a small sales outlet in the museum but it doesn’t make much money.
We are most proud of...
Our museum! When you walk in it has a lovely feeling. We have a timeline, great storyboards, excellent lighting and display spaces and have really made the most of our small space. And people see it as theirs – it’s the museum for the people of Musselburgh.
Our advice for others
- Get the right support. In our case this was public support over a number of years and the right political support. It takes time but we are now regarded as a ‘little jewel in the council’s crown’ and other people come to talk to us to learn about what we’ve done.
- Don’t be afraid to start small. Our initial objective of having a museum in the Old Town Hall may still come to fruition, but for now we have something which is small but high quality and manageable – we can grow from here.
The Big Question
So you've examined the options available for setting up a new organisation and looked at the sort of activities you might want to undertake and the facilities you will need.
In some instances, the right decision for you might be not to set up a museum but to work differently.
Use this flowchart to ask the critical questions to determine whether a museum, or a different model is the best for you.
Is a museum the answer?
We've compiled resources on all the different heritage models we've listed in this part of the guide. They should give you some more ideas about what works for you.
Museum or gallery