Collections Trust Award: Experience Barnsley – in a new way

Steven Skelley, Community Heritage Curator, explains what was involved in, and achieved by, the Experience Barnsley 2020 redisplay, which was highly commended in this year’s Collections Trust Award.

Experience Barnsley is nine years old and houses the social history collection of the people of Barnsley. The museum has been a great success and has a collection of around 5000 objects and counting – where other museums are getting rid of things, Barnsley is still collecting.

Since opening, the team haven’t had the resources to fully deal with this success and the backlog of objects – people have arrived with full suitcases – or to display all the wonderful things collected in the museum. So the small team spent most of 2020 working tirelessly, collecting, researching, documenting and getting objects ready for a full redisplay of the whole museum.

The core aims of the redisplay were:

  • to document and display hundreds of new objects telling the epic story of the people of the borough;
  • to let local people see their own histories in their own voices;
  • to increase accessibility, including diverse content;
  • to create displays to the standard of a national museum;
  • to showcase objects of national significance never seen before; and
  • to keep the people at the core of the collection, because objects are people.

Largely thanks to Arts Council support the full redisplay project was able to go ahead with two part-time collections staff and a community curator. Due to other duties this only equated to 80% of one person’s full-time hours, although the project also included two volunteers and supported seven local freelancers with 472 hours of paid work. This shows the amount of work that was achieved as hundreds of objects were researched, accessioned, measured, photographed, mounted, displayed, lit and had labels written for them.

The Covid challenge

Blood, sweat and tears went into the redisplay during the pandemic. Shops were closed, supplies were short, contractors were sometimes isolating, and a Covid outbreak at the town hall, where the museum is housed, meant the install had to be stopped at the last minute. In total the redisplay was re-started three times and re-organised remotely, making it particularly challenging.

Most of the curating, research and design was done from home, with limited access to the store, using photographs, and imagining the spaces and how objects would fit into the large cases. Flexibility had to be built in to the displays, because from a distance it was difficult to plan exactly how objects would sit, work together or be lit. Often two versions of object labels were needed to compensate for the variables of curating at a distance.

The project was difficult, but it was also an amazing team achievement. For a relatively small amount of money and resource, Barnsley now has galleries full of awesome new objects. The collection is now more accessible. Interpretation is in larger print with more contrast and better lighting, and that interpretation is more personal and more Barnsley-centric. It includes Barnsley dialects and idiosyncrasies and most objects have someone’s name on the label.

New and diverse stories
The Barnsley culture redisplay at Experience Barnsley, including objects relating to poet Ian McMillan, Charlie Williams MBE, artist Abel Hold, the Kes collection and actress Kathrine Kelly

We are now able to tell many new and diverse stories. We have new objects relating to disability, including rare images of Victorian wheelchair users; items with an international flavour, such as an El Salvadorian hat, and a pestle and mortar from Cape Verde; and a collection relating to Charlie Williams MBE, the first famous black comedian on British TV.

Because of the age of the collection many treasures are held at other museums and the project included developing collections related to local cultural highlights such as the very Barnsley A Kestrel for a Nave, filmed as Kes, or Miners’ Strike objects more often found elsewhere.

The main galleries hadn’t changed since the original opening and, to be honest, as much as the museum is loved, we did hear a few negative comments, such as ‘I’ve seen it before’ or ‘I can’t see the label.’ However, when we can open again – which we now hope will happen this summer – the people of Barnsley will have a whole new museum.


Image courtesy of Barnsley Museums

Published 21 April 2021