How-to guides help banish that backlog

As part of a project to banish the backlog, Museum Officer Bronwen Simpson describes how creating a series of how-to guides was key to mobilising staff and volunteers at Stockport Museums.

Back in 2017 we found ourselves asking some big questions in challenging circumstances: how could we share our collections better, improve our collections care and tackle our backlog? This was against a backdrop of unprecedented change in roles within the service. The need to adapt quickly became apparent and we had to rethink who did what and how they did it. We desperately wanted to attain full Accreditation, something we hadn’t been able to do for some years, but knowing where to start felt like an impossible task.

We needed to arm ourselves with the knowledge and skills to sustain our museums. We needed to get Tooled Up, which is what we called the project (it’s a companion project to the Heads Up Project at Stockport’s Hat Works Museum, which you can read about here).

Encouraged by Kaye and Lynsey at Museum Development North West, I applied to Arts Council England’s Sustainable Improvement Fund 2018 to develop training for museum assistants/officers and volunteers. We are incredibly lucky to have a talented, knowledgeable workforce who are fiercely passionate about Stockport’s museums, and who want to learn more about the collection and how to look after it, so investing in this part of the organisation seemed like the best place to start.

We also needed some basic kit, including a digital SLR to improve the quality of the images in object records on our collections database and social media posts, and more Tinytag data logger licences, so that environmental monitoring could take place at each site, as well as some marking supplies.

Refining our training offer

I worked with volunteers and museum assistants to develop sessions in object handling, photographing objects, using the database and marking objects, all through hands-on tasks which gave plenty of opportunities for practice. This was a testing period in which I could try things out, get feedback and make changes.

We learned how to use our camera by photographing hats and other items from our backlog of donations within the hatting collection – the picture (left) is the product of museum assistants experimenting with the new piece of equipment. These objects were being accessioned and we used the opportunity to talk about what the backlog was, how it had been created and why it was important to reduce it. These discussions were delivered on a one-to-one basis through mini project briefs that I introduced and then people got on with on their own.

Most of the training was delivered in-house. I felt very strongly that this project should be about developing and sharing existing skills, using free software wherever possible. This helped me gain confidence in delivering training, it made the budget go further and it demonstrated that we don’t always have to rely on external delivery.

Developing our how-to guides

Building our skills together, as learners and enablers was essential, but it became apparent that we needed some how-to guides to accompany the training sessions. We identified environmental/pest monitoring and collection enquiries as areas of work that were falling by the wayside, and the guides help to bring our new procedures to life, provided context, and gave practical examples and activities. The image (left) shows our top tips on producing how-to guides.

As a result of the Tooled Up project, regular environmental monitoring and pest checks are taking place across our museums; we are developing more training opportunities in other areas, such as social media; and we have hi-res images for around 200 hats, which we can use in print and social media posts.

Some challenges

Getting everyone together can be really tricky and we needed a budget so museum assistants could attend training. People also need protected time to practice and carry out new tasks. When individuals move on it can be a challenge, too, but training a group of people has helped with this.

The changeover from Windows 7 to Windows 10 caused some problems with our collections database and these took a while to sort out. New PCs had to be ordered and we found the database slowed right down when people at multiple sites were logged in at the same time. I think this was to do with the bandwidth at each site. We are also still working to resolve some of the security issues, which is why we haven’t been able to fully share the role of answering collection enquiries yet, but we will get there!

Handling sensitive information came up as an issue as well, and we had to do lots of work around the level of access Modes users had and making sure people knew what kinds of information could be shared in response to enquiries.

Some nice surprises

I thought that it might be a hard to get people enthused about things like pest management, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. People are super-keen to learn new skills and get involved in more areas of museum work. Colleagues in other museums have been interested in what we’ve done and have requested copies of the how-to guides. which has come as a nice surprise.

You can find out more about the ongoing work at Stockport’s Hat Works Museum on its blog, and if you would like copies of the how-to guides mentioned, please email bronwen.simpson@stockport.gov.uk

Images from the top: experimenting with the new camera; top tips for how-to guides; examples of the how-to training manuals created in the online design tool, Canva (all © Stockport Museums).