Friday, 27 April 2012

Behind the scenes

Behind closed doors: Mines, Wax and Sir Richard Owen

© Natural History Museum

Rachel Mackay, Front of House Section Manager and LMG Share London Representative talks about her journey to the Natural History Museum.

Looking at my CV, my motivation for working in museums may seem obvious. I studied medieval history at university and I worked weekends in a visitor attraction. Combined result - a museum career. Actually, it wasn’t that well thought out.  I embarked on a career in museums accidentally, working weekends in a café in a small science museum in Dundee. Like all professional catering jobs, it was strenuous, but somewhere in-between the paninis and hotdogs, I discovered I loved being able to go behind the scenes of the museum.  When visitors were asked to leave at closing time, I had the privilege of being able to stay and enjoy the museum behind the closed doors.  It’s a very selfish reason for getting into a museum career and I’ve never found anyone who admits to having the same motivation.

With this passion for the private museum experience I volunteered for Historic Scotland at St. Andrews Castle. I wanted to wander about when nobody else was there. It appealed to all my senses; my love of history, the dangerous thrill of being in a spooky dungeon on my own and my innate sense of vanity that gets annoyed if I have to share my experience with the general public. Even now, I get annoyed if I go somewhere as a visitor and it’s busy; it feels unfair. This utter selfishness doesn’t go unpunished. One evening locking up at the Castle I was down the mine [see image] - incidentally the only example of a medieval mine and counter mine in Europe - and my boss mistakenly thought I’d left the site and turned all the lights out. It was terrifying being in the dark and alone!

The mine and counter-mine at St. Andrew's Castle, Fife. 
Image courtesy of Gazetteer for Scotland, 2011.
However, I’ve never lost that addiction to the unique experience you get when you work somewhere and you’re the last person to turn out the lights. At the Dundonian science museum, as a Duty Manager, the responsibility of being in charge of a museum, being a key holder, setting the alarms… it was right up my street!

Now, working in a major City work, is even more exciting.  It’s like being on a film set. It’s a privileged position and it never gets boring. My first job when I moved here was in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds [Merlin]. I was interested to see how this organisation operated, and I have to admit that being behind the scenes was a lot of fun - for about a day. You soon realise that you haven’t seen daylight for 8 hours and you’ve spent the majority of your time surrounded by wax serial killers and bloody heads. Not that the term ‘wax’ is in vogue at Madame Tussauds and, in fact, neither is the word ‘museum’. “This is not a museum,” we were told on day one. “Museums are boring.”  That’s when I knew I was looking for something more.

My colleagues at Madame Tussauds.  Image courtesy of Merlin. 
Shortly after that I moved to the Natural History Museum and haven’t looked back. My job in Visitor Services is sometimes crazy, often unexpected and never boring. But my favourite part of the job is still when everyone else leaves and I get to walk through the Central Hall on my own, surrounded by statues of Sir Richard Owen and Sir Charles Darwin. Being part of history is never boring.

A year ago, I started an AMA (Associateship of the Museums Association) and as well as learning all about aspects of the sector I would never normally come into contact with, I can indulge my passion for being behind the scenes taking part in AMA Support Group museum tours.  AMA run events every six weeks in various different venues, and one of the nicest things about it is being able to get out and about and see what is happening in London museums. I suppose the point of the AMA is that it literally does ‘open doors’ – into all the places I always wanted to see!

Tips and hints: open up your doors and Share

The AMA programme has opened up the door to become involved with the London Museums Group, and I recently I became the NHM representative for the excellent Share London scheme. When another museum opens its doors to me, I feel privileged, so I say why not all open our doors to each other and share all the great experience and skills we have!

For more information on LMG’s  Share London you can contact Rachel Mackay via

Green Museums Project

GREEN SHOOTS: energy efficiency and reducing costs.

Yvette Shepherd, Museum Development Officer, South & West London reports on the Museum of London’s Renaissance Green Museums Project.

Increasing energy costs have forced many museums to review their operations to maximise energy efficiency and reduce costs.  For many this has been complemented by increased awareness of their responsibilities to reduce the overall environmental impact of museum services and to increase awareness of environmental issues. 

The Museum of London’s Renaissance Green Museums Project provided membership of the Green Business Tourism Scheme (GBTS) to five of London’s smaller museums, Bexley Heritage Trust, Bruce Castle Museum, Kelmscott House, Little Holland House and the Whitechapel Gallery, to assist them in reviewing their current operations and assessing where improvements might be made.  From the resulting action plans each museum received a small grant towards its priority project.  Projects were completed within a four -month period after which museums received a follow up assessment from GBTS.

The Projects:

Bexley Heritage Trust’s Wildlife Corner project involved the creation of a new pond and bug hotel in a meadow area on the banks of the River Cray.  An old flower bed near the meadow has been turned into a lavender garden in order to attract butterflies and wildlife and the old nursery shop has been converted into a flexible dry space for teaching sessions and events.

Caroline Worthington, Chief Executive, Bexley Heritage Trust says  'Our new Gardens Interpretation Officer is already inundated with bookings for pond dipping and bug hunting sessions – good practice for the summer when families will be able to experience “Wet and Wild” week, an action packed safari around the pond [see image above].'

Bruce Castle Museum’s Greening the Castle for a Sustainable Future project
achieved improvements across a number of priority areas: energy consumption has been reduced by converting to LED lighting [see gallery image below]; ecologically made goods have been acquired for the shop [see pencil image below]; an educational programme of family activities has been developed highlighting green activities through historical themes; ‘green’ information has been added to the website and a Green Visitor Charter and Information File has been developed.

'We were thrilled to have two young visitors - who had taken part in 'How Green Were The Tudors' back in October 2011 - come back to the museum with 4 little oak saplings. They had heard about Henry VIII getting oak trees planted to ensure a good supply of timber for his ships,and were inspired to plant acorns to grow  their own oak trees. And their attempts were very successful - their acorns sprouted.  Only they couldn't grow the oak trees in their small garden so to ensure the saplings survived they brought them back to Bruce Castle to be replanted back in the park around the museum.' Deborah Hedgecock, Curator, Bruce Castle Museum.

Kelmscott House’s Environmental efficiency and promotion project focussed on replacement lighting within the listed building and printing fair trade cotton bags.  Promotion of environmental issues through walking tours and educational workshops for schools will be addressed when funds become available.

Whitechapel Gallery’s Increasing low energy lighting at Whitechapel Gallery project has been a catalyst for a major new sustainability programme for Whitechapel Gallery.  The grant has been used to fit LED lighting within a gallery space, with the permission of the artist Tobias Rehberger.

'With support from the Green Museums Project, we’ve been able to act on a direct recommendation from the Green Tourism Board, increasing the amount of low energy lighting we use at Whitechapel Gallery [see image above].

The project combined environmental expertise with the aesthetic considerations of a Grade II* listed building. For us the project achieved widespread support for bringing environmental practice to the heart of producing exhibitions, shown nowhere better than through Tobias Rehnberger’s agreement to feature low energy lighting in his 2008 work, Adaption 13, pictured.' Sophie Hayles, External Relations Officer, Whitechapel Gallery.

Little Holland House’s Project to upgrade the Energy Efficiency of Little Holland House provided improvements to energy efficiency by upgrading insulation in the roof and around the water system and replacement of lighting with low energy fittings.  Information was also provided for visitors regarding Sutton Museum and Heritage Service’s commitment to sustainability and what actions they can take to be green, via a Green Information file.

Findings from the initial advisory assessments by GBTS indicated that for all the museums communication is an issue where considerable improvements might be made and all of the participants have indicated a commitment to improvements in this area.  Most of the grant recipients viewed these projects as a starting point for a long term commitment towards environmental sustainability.

Further to the final GBTS assessments, on completion of these improvement projects, all five museums received an award through the scheme:

Bexley Heritage Trust
Bruce Castle Museum

Kelmscott House
Little Holland House
Whitechapel Gallery


It’s clear that aside from the energy savings made through these projects a key impact has been increased awareness and commitment from museum staff.

Bexley Heritage Trust noted that the project “has been a boost for the garden team” and “the organisation has embraced and is promoting sustainability”.  For example, the education team has now opted to send out all booking materials by email and has begun a challenge for schools to be the best at recycling lunch waste.  In addition pond dipping sessions will add another income stream for the Trust.

Bruce Castle Museum also noted an improvement in the awareness of staff. “Staff are now more aware of their own practices and are more conscious about the products they buy for consumption at work.” The project has provided an opportunity for the museum to review and highlight work it has carried out previously and to work with Friends of Bruce Castle and the Parks Service to plant trees and restore a kitchen garden.  Programming has also embraced sustainability with Vintage Fair events which will also assist in generating income.

The William Morris Society also reported an increase in general environmental awareness amongst staff and volunteers.  This is of particular relevance as ideas of environmental sustainability were reflected in William Morris’s own beliefs and writing.


The timetable for these projects was very tight and that resulted in knock-on pressures regarding procurement of suitable equipment and communication between relevant staff and technical experts.  In addition two local authority based museums were affected by Council cutbacks to parks and museum staff, which also impacted on projects.  Ideally museums undertaking environmental improvements should take into account the possibility of delays due to lack of available stock of suitable LED lighting.  It is also clear from the experience of participants that miscommunication can lead to increased costs and museums need to ensure sufficient time to brief/negotiate curatorial staff regarding options.


All four of the museums undertaking energy efficiency improvements as part of their projects are committed to monitoring energy usage and all will be able to compare future consumption with the baseline data from supplied as part of the preliminary GBTS assessment.

The degree to which awareness has been raised through this work will be measured through usage, media coverage, website hits and sales of ‘eco friendly’ shop goods.  The initial findings look promising.

For all 5 participants to achieve an award during their first year in the GBTS scheme is a great achievement and I’m hopeful that armed with their improvement plans and the commitment and enthusiasm of their staff all of the museums will be able to build on this work for a sustainable future.

Guest author: Yvette Shepherd
Museum Development Officer, South & West London
Tel:  020 7001 9831

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Steel Cap Shoes

Nature and Nurture: leading the nation in sustainable heritage

Jade-Lauren Cawthray explains the significant moments in her life that led her to being the first ever trainee in the Sustainability of Heritage hosted by the Garden Museum.

Jade holding a gardener's flip knife
I was 11 years old when I moved from central Leeds to Richmond, North Yorkshire, the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales and, to me, one of the most beautiful towns in the country.  My brother and I went from not being allowed out of the front gate for fear of us being run over or kidnapped to being told by our mum ‘Get out in those fields, I don’t want to see you until dinner time’.  I was suddenly granted the freedom of the natural world and spent the next six years roaming through fields, climbing trees, wandering through woodland and wading in the River Swale.  The natural world set me free and brought me a profound degree of comfort and strength.

At 18, as I approached my A-Level exams, I was set to study biochemistry at University, but it suddenly occurred to me that I wouldn’t be satisfied with a laboratory based job and that I wanted to spend my time outdoors, in the natural world.  Searching for a solution, I spoke to staff at a local college, one of whom suggested I look into doing an Ecology degree.  Enthralled by the idea I gathered a shortlist of 10 institutions.  I picked up the phone to call the Anglia Ruskin University, in Cambridge, to find out more about their course 20 minutes later, I had been offered a place on a BSc in Ecology and Conservation.

The greatest thing my degree gave me was an ever growing awe and appreciation for the natural world.  It also introduced me to Roots & Shoots, an environment and humanitarian youth programme co-ordinated by the Jane Goodall Institute.  Passionately involved, I was selected to represent the UK at the Jane Goodall Global Youth Summit in Florida.  Here I met  two Nepalese delegates who invited me to come and work with them out in Nepal.  Three months after returning from Florida, I was on a plane to work with them on environmental and humanitarian projects.  I lived in Kathmandu with a Nepalese family for two months and fully engaged myself with the culture.  What I experienced and observed in Nepal put my own life and society into sharp contrast.  Until this point I had intended to work in International Development, but I saw the biggest problem was at home [UK] and that I needed to direct my energy into helping my own nation develop sustainably.

On leaving university I found myself making my way through a string of jobs.  Bored in a position as an administrative assistant, I stumbled upon an advertisement for a position as a Trainee in the Sustainability of Heritage.  I applied and within weeks was starting my first week at the Garden Museum.

I was fascinated by the concept of coupling sustainability and heritage and immediately recognised the opportunity to help the heritage sector ‘lead the nation in sustainable development’.  I believe that museums have an innate responsibility to be sustainable and to preserve and protect the environment and human communities because their collections represent the diversity and beauty of our environmental and cultural heritage.  For a museum to have a detrimental effect on the environment and on human communities is hypocritical.  Museums also attract visitors that are eager to learn and have a personal interest in the subject matter that the museum exhibits.  You don’t get a more receptive audience than that, which provides museums with the perfect opportunity to educate their visitors on sustainability through the narratives of their collection.

As I approach my last few weeks at the museum [March 2012], I am reflecting on what this traineeship has achieved; community relationships have been strengthened through skill sharing, communications internally and externally have been improved using newsletters and front of house narratives, the café has embarked on a food localisation project, our exhibitions are less wasteful.  But the legacy of the year has been the Zero Waste to Landfill project.  We installed a recycling system and trained staff how to use it. We visited a Materials Recovery Facility and an Energy from Waste Facility, but I felt a strange desire to see the role of the bin man, so I rang up our waste contractors and asked whether I could join a shift on the bins.  They were shocked by my request (apparently nobody had ever asked before) but kindly obliged, and so at 3.30am one September morning, I climbed into the cab of a 12 tonne truck [see image of the steel cap shoes I had to wear].  

Jade's steel cap toe boots
Read more at  As a result of this, we decided to arrange a new contract with our local council, so that our non-recyclable waste would go to an Energy from Waste Facility to produce energy, achieving our Zero Waste to Landfill target.

My year at the Garden Museum has given me the confidence and resolve to pursue a career in communicating sustainability.  To pursue this professionally I have been lucky enough to receive a position at the Natural History Museum as a Weekend Science Educator.  This is my next exciting step to improving my knowledge and gaining some specialist skills and experience, so that I can enthuse and inspire people about the wonders of the natural world and, in turn build a respect for it within our society.

Author: Jade-Lauren Cawthray

Jade has been instrumental in setting up Operation Green Museums, a sustainable museum group that meets to knowledge share and discuss and develop initiatives. If your museum would like to take part please contact Beatrice at: or via LMG’s Share London.