The Museum’s Association code of ethics for museums
The Museum’s Association is the largest association representing museums and galleries in the United Kingdom. As part of this, they have produced guidelines for best museum practice since 1977. At the end of April I attended the London launch of their new Code of Ethics for Museums at the Wellcome collection. One of the claimed benefits of the new code is that it is more accessible than previous versions. I would like to take this opportunity to recommend that anyone involved in museums should read it (it’s available online here: http://www.museumsassociation.org/ethics/code-of-ethics) and take some time to think about how it might affect them.
What is a Code of Ethics and why do museums need one? The code “sets out the key ethical principles and the supporting actions that museums should take”. There is lots that all museums do that deserve ethical reflection, but it is also clear that we must make meaningful decisions out of that reflection. The Code is set out on three key themes: Public engagement & public benefit; Stewardship of collections and Individual & institutional integrity.
The role of museums to work with the public was a key message, and I think that we at Chiltern Open Air Museum do a great job of this. Di Lees, Imperial War Museum Director who was on the discussion panel, talked of the responsibility of museum staff, volunteers and partners to be “public servants” and I like the image that this draws. We would be nothing without our audience!
The Museum Association’s director, Sharon Heal, championed “everyday ethics”. Ethics are not just for big decisions about whether to accept funding from oil companies or whether to purchase antiquities from war-torn countries. Ethics are about how we treat our Museum site, the buildings that we have erected and in storage, the artefacts that bring our buildings to life and anyone that we come into contact with while we are here.
However, as I quickly learnt, it is rare that there is a black and white ethical question, so knowing where to draw the line can be very tricky. While museums were encouraged to make pre-emptive policies, to prevent knee-jerk reactions to sticky ethical dilemmas which might polarise opinions, we must not be afraid to engage in debate. While I hope we won’t see protesters at COAM, I hope that some of what we do makes people stop and ask questions!
Visitor Services Team Leader
I have been fortunate enough to recently attend two timber framing courses. The first was at the Weald and Downland museum in West Sussex. It dealt with the primary timbers of a green oak timber frame, using historic methods and tools to mark out, cut and fit the timbers. The essential tools for creating the joints were the chisel, mallet, saw and T-auger.
On the second course, near Datchworth Hertfordshire, started on the construction of a three-bay barn, made of Elm from the local area, to show that this type of timber is worth still looking into despite Dutch Elms disease. Although we didn’t just use traditional tools on this project (it was refreshing to have a tape measure again!), the techniques employed were very similar and the principles were the same.
On both courses we dealt with one frame at a time, either a cross-frame that goes across the building or a side-frame that goes along, the timbers of which would be laid out horizontally on saw-horses to be worked on. Certain timbers like the posts and tie beams would be in both layouts. These are called the primary timbers and because they need to be correct in two planes they are the most important to get right.
The main type of joint used was the mortice and tenon joint – the protruding tenon slotting into the chiselled out mortice. It is useful here to be aware of the most important areas of the joint. The end of the tenon for example is not the most crucial part of the joint. It will be concealed in the mortice and isn’t supporting any weight. So as long as the length and thickness is about right, you needn’t get too hung up on the aesthetics of it. Though that’s not me making an excuse for lazy workmanship!
On the other hand, the shoulders of the tenon, the areas either side of the protruding part, will be taking the load and visible from the outside. It is therefore really important these surfaces are flat and level and well worth taking a bit of time over. You are rewarded for your careful chiselling and cutting with a satisfying thud when two well-fitting members slot together.
The mortice and tenon are then secured together with an oak peg being driven through. Here a clever technique called draw-boring is used to make a nice tight fit. Rather than making one long aligned peg-hole through both the mortice and the tenon, the peg hole through the tenon is offset by the width of a pound coin in the direction of the shoulders, relative to the mortice. When the peg is driven in, it has to bend in order to pass through and this pulls the mortice and tenon together. You can do this by eye, marking out the centre of the hole on the tenon and then offsetting it, or you can use the wonderfully named offset-pricker, a tool made for the job. Seeing them pull together when a pin is put through is almost as satisfying as the initial thud.
Me and the green oak frame (primary timbers completed) at the Weald and Downland Museum
The completed Elm Barn Cross Frame 1 laid out in the sun
HLF Buildings Trainee
Currently grazing on the green outside Leagrave Cottages can be seen a contented flock of Oxford Down sheep. These are the lambs born last year, now looking quite grown up.
I am quickly learning the amount of effort that goes into such a peaceful, quintessentially English scene! Some of the tasks I have helped with so far include twice-daily feeding, moving hay bales from the farmyard up to the main sheep fields every week, and separating the pregnant ewes away from the others out into the Cherry Orchard, to make it easier to increase their food – unborn lambs do a lot of growing in the last six weeks before birth and it’s important to keep up the condition of the ewes as much as possible prior to lambing.
One of the bigger jobs we have carried out this month in readiness for the new lambing season was to move the Lambing Fold, from where it has been down by the Prefab to a new position in the field behind Rossway Granary. Historically used as part of a traditional ‘fold’ system – where sheep were kept in a series of temporary pens and grazed on arable crops as part of a rotation, helping to manure the fields as they did so – the Lambing Fold is essentially a yard with small enclosures around two sides. The pregnant ewes are brought down to the yard area when close to lambing and any that give birth are moved into one of the pens. These ‘mothering pens’ provide the newborn lambs shelter for their first few days to help them build up strength, and a safe space to allow mother and lamb to bond so that they can find each other again when let out with the rest of the flock. As well as providing protection from the elements, the Lambing Fold enables the shepherd to keep a closer eye on things and deal more comfortably and quickly with any difficulties when they arise.
The Lambing Fold here at COAM is essentially a timber frame, roofed with thatched wooden hurdles. It is moved every two years to avoid a build-up of parasites and diseases, which could be disastrous to a new-born lamb. With the roof hurdles removed, the timber frames for each section of pens could be dug up and rolled one at a time onto a trailer, taken to the new site and rolled back off the trailer. Once each section had been moved into its new position, it was dug in to provide a good foundation, and then attached to its neighbours.
Next we had to get the roof hurdles back up and tied into position on the roof; this was a mucky job as some of the hurdles still had patches of the old, rotting, straw thatch on – slimy! Once the frame was secure, we could get out the ladders and start thatching with straw to make a good, waterproof roof.
Using a rough long-straw thatching technique which feels essentially like sewing bundles of straw in rows on to the hurdles, this is a lovely job when the sun’s shining, up on the roof with views across the farm and valley below. Before lambing is due to start we will finish the structure off with a thick wall made of hurdles and straw to keep out those chilly April winds.
HLF Site and Farm Trainee
Chiltern Open Air Museum has just welcomed three new members of staff under the ‘Skills for the Future’ programme, part of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). This year’s successful recruits are Heather Pike, who will be the Visitor Services Assistant learning about volunteer management and visitor services operations, Tom Pearce who will be working as Education Assistant focusing on running education programmes, and Henry Dyhouse who will be developing his skills in interpretation and events co-ordination as the Interpretation Assistant.
‘Skills for the Future’ offers work-based training in a wide range of skills that are needed to look after buildings, landscapes and museum and archive collections, as well as equipping people to lead education and outreach programmes and manage volunteers. Its focus is on vocational learning, helping meet the skills gaps identified by heritage bodies, and on encouraging potential trainees from all walks of life. Trainees learn how to engage families, schools and communities with their heritage, bringing heritage sites and collections alive for the next generation.
The Museum opens again on 29 March and the 2014 season runs until 31 October, with events most weekends. You can discover more about Heather, Tom and Henry’s experiences on their new blog.