What we did during 2009-10

Today was the Museum Of East Anglian Life’s Annual General Meeting. Here is my summary of the most important bits of MEAL’s  work over the last twelve months

The years 2009/10 marked a coming of age for the Museum of East Anglian Life. It garnered a slew of awards, formed new partnerships with a number of respected cultural organisations, increased the participation in its learning and social programmes and received confirmation of a stage 2 pass from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the £2.8m project to restore Abbot’s Hall.

The museum’s public activities are formed around its diverse events programme. Some like the Stowmarket free Day and the Beer Festival are rituals in the town’s social calendar. Other events are of a more specialist nature. Last year 15 students passed a steam driver training course during the steam and crafts weekend. Other cultural organisations have been inspired by the museum’s unique assets and have developed work in partnership. In September the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust held their ninth annual Traditional Music Day, among the performers was Jew’s harp maestro Michael Wright, bright young folk singer Sam Lee and the Boat Band from the Lake District. In July 2009 to celebrate the opening of the Dance House in Ipswich, Dance East mounted one of the spectacular Spiegel Tents in the grounds of Abbot’s Hall within which participants could try their hands at Latin, ballroom, salsa and hip hop.

During the winter the museum linked up with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) in Norwich to develop their Culture of the Countryside programme. Participants from the museum’s Work Based Learning Programme honed their craft and artistic skills by comparing prosaic material from MEAL’s collection such as hand tools, with practical and ritual objects from Polynesia and North America world art collection at the SCVA. In May 2010 four rural Suffolk primary schools worked with London Sinfonietta, the UK’s foremost contemporary classical music orchestra  to compose and perform music inspired by the museums site and collections

The museum has been recognized for the high standards of stewardship for its collections of 15 historic buildings,  40,000 objects and its natural landscape. It was awarded Acceditation under the Museums Libraries and Archives scheme and was give a special commendation for its work with the community. In the Spring of 2009 for its “exemplary and environmentally sensitive work to manage, protect or enhance the countryside” the museum was awarded the East Anglian Daily Times prize from the Suffolk Preservation Society (the local branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England).

The museum has more confidently articulated its status as a social enterprise. For many years the museum has carried out work to extend learning and develop social and volunteering opportunities for vulnerable people using the unique assets of historic landscape and collections. Since 2008 its Work Based Learning Programme has provided skills development for 130 people and contributed to nearly forty of them finding jobs. Learners participate in a range of activities from landscape conservation, animal care and construction. The museum has developed therapeutic and supported volunteering placements for learning disabled adults and through the Activities Unlimted Programme has developed volunteering programmes for young people. A very fruitful partnership has been established with the Suffolk Community Mental Health Trust who have tended the Abbot’s Hall Walled Garden.  All these activities extend the acce, develop social capital in the community and bring a new income stream to the museum. Once more, MEAL’s innovation has attracted plaudits as it was named Entrepreneurial Museum of the Year at 2010 Museums and Heritage Awardsa.

The social enterprise approach has encouraged the museum to think differently about how it interprets the past through its collections. The strong social networks  built across the museum inspired, it to look more broadly at historic well-being. In early 2009 it launched the When Were We Happy website which examined historic well-being in Stowupland using the New Economics Foundation’s happiness index. In June 2009 the museum held the Good Life event which encouraged visitors to enjoy simple pleasures such as composting, growing-your-own and  cooking . This was followed in 2010 by the Happy Days project with Lavenham primary school. Museum staff encouraged children to design a ‘happy day’ for them and an imaginary child from 1900 inspired by the museum’s collections. In July 2010 the museum launched an exhibition entitled Trust examining the ties which have historically bound communities in Suffolk. Both these exhibitions are currently on show in Great Moulton Chapel. Leading this work was Museum Learning Officer Jo Rooks who also won the prestigious Robert Logan Award in 2009 from  the British Association of Friends of Museums (BAFM) for her work on Museums and Sustainability.

Social enterprise and community well-being were also central to a partnership between MEAL, the British Museum and National Museums Kenya.  In May 2009 MEAL welcomed Mwanaima Salim the curator of Meru museum in the Central Highlands of Kenya for a fortnights exchange visit. The relationship will share expertise on community engagement and work to set up a social enterprise in Meru.

The museum is keen to explore how it can contribute to the well-being of communities and individuals. In 2009 Director Tony Butler was named a beneficiary of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Breakthrough Fund, which is designed to reward ‘exceptional cultural entrepreneurs’. The funding is worth between £150,000 and £200,000 is designed to deepen the museum’s engagement with its community. A proportion of the fund went towards the appointment of Participation Officer David Tolliday who is developing activities around volunteering for young people. The rest of the money is to be devoted setting up a Happiness network for museums which MEAL will lead.

Contributing greatly to the well-being of the museum is its phalanx of volunteers, numbering over 150 and providing nearly 30,000 hours each year. Whether it is looking after animals, helping behind the bar at the beer festival, working on the collections or demonstrating in the historic buildings, there are diverse opportunities to get involved with our activities. Volunteering provides an opportunity to make new friends, learn new things and give something back to the community. Volunteers add tremendous value to the museum as exemplified by John Michel (who is also a museum assistant) who picked up the prize for Outstanding Customer Service at the 2009 Tourism in Suffolk Awards.

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