Innovation on the Isle of Wight

The Classic Boat Museum in Cowes was highly commended in this year’s Collections Trust Award, which recognised collections management projects with high levels of community participation and clearly identifiable outcomes. Trustee Rodney Ireland explains the thinking behind the museum’s Isle of Innovation scheme.

The Classic Boat Museum is entirely volunteer run and was founded in 1996 to collect, preserve and restore small marine craft and make them available to the wider public. The collection was subsequently broadened to cover the history of marine and maritime aviation industries on the island, and the museum now has over 70 iconic boats and thousands of artefacts, documents, books and photographs of historical significance.

In 2016, trustees decided, along with other local museums, to work towards a single Maritime Isle Museum telling the story of the island’s maritime heritage better and to a wider audience. The Isle of Innovation project was part of the Maritime Isle programme.

Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the project focused on the collections of the Classic Boat Museum, East Cowes Heritage Centre, Isle of Wight Council archive collections and the Cowes Hammerhead Crane Trust.

Access to the collections

The aims were to make our collections more easily accessible to a wider public through new displays, reinterpretation of existing displays and community involvement, particularly through partnerships with other local museums, heritage associations, cultural groups and local schools.

Classic Boat Museum volunteers use a model to plan the exhibitionVia a volunteer training programme, we wanted to develop new skills of interpretation, exhibition design and display. We also wanted create a culture of user- and volunteer-led presentations, and produce workshops and trail guides in conjunction with local schools.

A programme of visits to other museums and a volunteer training programme in research techniques, interpretation, display design and production was led by a consultant project director with input from other specialists. The consultancy team adopted a ‘bottom up’ approach to the training, designed to empower the volunteers.

Within the theme of the innovations that took place on the Isle of Wight in the early part of the 19th century, which led to the legacy of marine and maritime aviation industry on the island, the volunteers, working with the local community, determined the content and interpretation of the final exhibition.

Previously unseen models, media and documents were brought together for the first time. Volunteer students on work attachments from the Isle of Wight Studio School developed their own displays within the criteria and helped produce workshops and outreach talks for local primaries.

Following consultation with museum visitors and the local community, a family-friendly approach was taken to the project. A number of child-orientated activities were developed and evaluated by schools.

Innovations uncovered

Volunteers with an arts and cultural interest produced a working diorama and a wall hanging to interpret and display relevant themes. The development of shipbuilding and maritime aviation in Cowes is well documented, but the innovations in hull design, lightweight construction materials for flying boats and liquid fuel engines for warships is less well known. In the process of their research the volunteers also discovered the importance of the Osborne Naval College in the development of marine engineering.

All the outputs were scheduled to coincide with the World War One Armistice celebrations. The project also coincided with a major reorganisation of the museum, which included the creation of a new archive store and collections management unit, which will enable the future digitisation of the collection and online availability.

Revitalised volunteers

The most rewarding outcome was the revitalisation of existing volunteers. This exceeded all expectations and led to further new recruits. The sharing of collections and the new interpretation also revitalised the museum.

Visitor footfall increased significantly and was 12 times greater during the winter period compared with the same period last year. All primary schools in Cowes made at least one visit to the museum and the museum is now being used as a resource by art organisations on the island. The added publicity in the local and yachting media has generated new commercial sponsors and considerable national interest.

Empowering the volunteers has generated a new enthusiasm for improving collections care and management procedures. A sponsor is funding a new computer system and new younger volunteers from the community with digitalisation skills are now preparing to develop online access to the collection. The longer term aim of a single Maritime Isle Museum is much closer.

Image: Classic Boat Museum volunteers use a model to plan the exhibition.