The October Study Day saw SEMFed members visit the recently reopened St Albans Museum and Gallery, with a day of talks and a look around their thought-provoking mix of historic courtroom and cells, original museum collection and gallery of contemporary art.
St Albans Museum and Gallery is perfectly situated in the centre of the town, in what was once the local government and magistrates building. Built in 1831, it was no longer used for its original purpose and left largely unused for years before the museum embarked on a six-year project to make it a new museum and gallery.
Through HLF and match-funding, it was not only a relocation but also a revamp of an existing site.
Opening in July this year it now houses a permanent gallery of key objects from the museum’s collection in the format of a timeline of St Alban’s history. A gallery space, funded by Garfield Weston, hence it’s name ‘The Weston Gallery’, which plans to host up to six temporary exhibitions a year. A café, including seating of which is in the courtroom making it one of the best café seating areas! A temporary exhibit gallery which proudly presents Arthur the lion (because he’s half a lion!) to visitors as they climb the staircase. The Assembly room which was available for hire and a Learning Studio, with an exciting programme of events and activities.
Introduced by Cat Newley, Audience Development Manager, the talks kicked off with a summary of the project and where the museum and gallery is today. Cat outlined that their aims are to be entertaining, to bring specialism through talks, activities and learning, to be a social space, to be provoking and unafraid of telling non-traditional museum stories, and to be entrepreneurial with their shop, café and venue hire.
The shop and café certainly dominate, situated either side of the visitor as they enter the building. The café seating occupying both the immediate vicinity of the museum entrance outside, and throughout the courtroom within. What also stood out throughout the day’s talks was that their aims to be entertaining, specialist and social which seemed to of been met through an active and varied programme of events, with something for all ages and interests.
Eleanor Payne, Learning and Interpretation Officer, discussed the variety of ways St Albans museum are interpreting their collection. Their schools programme is growing and evaluating on each session to refine their activities and by offering the learning studio for teachers to meet is a fantastic way to link up with schools. Families are a key audience in their HLF application and they have created a museum trail for young children as well as postcards, colouring sheets. One trail links the museum with other heritage sites and locations in St Albans and Eleanor described how they had worked with corporate sponsors in a way to gain funding and support locally. Using funding for the schools programme to create a ‘good news story’ for company, to the innovative discussions with local businesses agreeing locations visited on the trail around town.
The afternoon talks covered volunteering and exhibition partnerships. An impressive team of 140 volunteers work with St Albans Museum and Gallery. This had increased from the 24 who had worked with the original museum. Volunteers are involved with a number of public-facing roles, from gallery invigilation to giving ‘Spotlight Talks’ and running activities. They had also assisted with packing up the museum ready for its move, and the projects to keep the museum visible during its closure and transition to the new site. It looks like they have a fantastic team who highlight how invaluable volunteers are to the museum sector. Julia Good, Volunteer Coordinator, was able to impart useful advice about managing a large team, including enabling volunteers to have a ‘museum team’ identity with lanyards and t‑shirts and provide training and briefings for each volunteer.
St Albans’ exhibition partnership with the University of Hertfordshire is an exciting one, particularly as it has drastically shaped what the Museum and Gallery offer. With a three-year agreement, this collaborative partnership with UHArts has shaped an exhibition schedule which is currently featuring a touring show of international artists. Another vibrant aspect of their partnership work is the Artist in Residence programme, and Cat delivered some good advice on working in partnership to try and establish a shared language and common framework, and manage expectations to each stakeholder throughout.
Thank you to everyone at St Albans Museum and Gallery for an interesting and enjoyable day.
By Nina Glencross and Rebecca Tessier
To download the presentations delivered on the day, please follow the below links: