Survive & Thrive: Innovation at Partnership Working at Watford Museum

SEMFed paid a visit to the wonderful Watford Museum in March this year to find out more about how the museum is developing successful partnerships within its local community. Opened in 1981 and housed in a Grade II-listed Georgian Town House, the site is the previous home of Hertfordshire’s largest brewer, the Benskins Brewery. The museum is now home to over 30,000 items which chart the town’s history from prehistoric artefacts to Tudor paintings. Visitors can also view the internationally renowned Cassiobury collection of paintings as well as an impressive collection of costume, textiles, printing and sporting exhibits. Watford museum is also officially collecting on behalf of Watford Football Club (FC) and this innovative partnership has led to many important acquisitions for the museum and Watford FC fans, including the long term loan of two significant club trophies.


Sharing the stories within the museum to a wider audience and bringing Watford’s history to life for a new generation is the focus of a £2.4 million Heritage Lottery Fund re-development bid. Initial support of £175,000 for the project has been awarded and is supporting vital behind the scenes work in preparation for a full HLF bid in 2018. The re-development project will pave the way in modernising the museums exhibitions, improving access and ensuring the museum building is fit for purpose for the future. It will also ensure visitors can engage and interact with a wider range of the museum’s collections and enable the museum to build on its work within the local community.


SEMFed members were welcomed with cakes provided by The Little Gallery Tea-Room at Watford Museum, expertly prepared by museum staff, Naina Vadgama. New Connections, a creative dance group for the over 50s based at the museum, then displayed a series of moving dances inspired by the museum’s art and objects. Sarah Priestley, Watford Museum’s curator provided an expert tour of the site and outlined some of the plans for the proposed re-development in certain galleries. It’s safe to say that the museum is a veritable treasure trove of interesting displays (the history of printing in Watford is a favourite) and fascinating objects. The plans being put in place as part of the museum’s HLF bid will ensure these stories continue to be shared and enjoyed by future generations.


After a quick stop for a delicious lunch, which was prepared and served by catering students from museum partners, West Herts College, SEMFed members were treated to a series of presentations on the benefits of partnership working. Sarah Priestley outlined the approach taken at Watford Museum the key message of which was, think creatively and get your museum out there! The museum works with over 100 different partners in the course of a year and has taken the lead on local and national initiates in Watford such as the literary celebration, the Big Word Fest and Heritage Open Days for the town. As a member of the Watford Cultural Leaders (which includes Watford Football Club and the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studios), the museum works with many diverse groups from artists, mental health charities, Pope’s Yard Brewery and the Palace Theatre to name but a few. Sarah has also built a supportive working relationship with Watford Borough Council which has helped support the museum in the development phase of its HLF re-development bid. Sarah outlined how the museum has developed in recent years and how the ethos of partnership working has brought not only new ideas and expertise but supported a fresh approach to the ways in which the museum operates. Derrick Williams, Volunteering and Quality Assurance Officer at the Watford Community Sports and Education Trust, reiterated Sarah’s point on how partnership working can help build mutually beneficial relationships. Watford museum is the official collecting partner of Watford FC and this partnership is proving as asset to all involved. The heritage of the club is brought to life in the museum and supporters can interact and engage with objects from the history of the club. This not only provides a sense of pride and place (and a valuable home for these objects) but allows stories and achievements to be shared between generations. Derrick noted how partnership working has allowed new skills to flourish within the museum, a fact most ably demonstrated by the final session and award winning museum partners, Mew Lab, who provided an animation film making workshop for the group. The day concluded from Watford to Warner Bros and a touch of magic courtesy of the Head of Visitor Services at the Harry Potter Studio Tour. SEMFed members were joined by Watford Museum staff for a Twilight Tour of the iconic film location in Leavesden, a fantastic end to a brilliant day.


Through partnership working, the museum has been able to develop itself, it’s collections and its place within the local community. It has gained a new range of skills and expertise and with that new audiences. Sarah’s top tips for making those partnerships happen at your museum? Get to know your community, talk to people, and most importantly get involved. Many thanks for a wonderfully informative and fun day to everyone who took part. Special thanks go to Sarah Priestley, Naina Vadgama, Sonia Sagoo, Luke Clark, Hailey Baxter and Lewis Butler for their planning of the day and warm welcome.


Jenna Ingamells

Museum Project Officer — Suffolk County Council