Sheffield Life & Times @ Weston Park Museum

by Kim Streets

During spring 2002, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £12.6m towards the redevelopment of Sheffield’s City Museum and Mappin Art Gallery.1 After years of campaigning, the job of revitalising one of the city’s oldest and much loved buildings finally began. The museum will house five main exhibitions exploring fine and decorative art, the natural and human history of the city and the region, and treasures from the collections. The Harold Cantor Gallery, a large and flexible space, will host a vibrant temporary exhibition programme. When the project began staff recognised this as a rare and exciting opportunity to revitalise the museum, to create new exhibitions, to breathe new life into the building. The Trust had already initiated a collective approach to exhibition development which, while primarily led by curators, included education and marketing staff in the delivery process. It was originally anticipated that the preparation of the Weston Park displays would be similar to any other exhibition but on a larger scale. In practice the project required a new way of working which placed the needs of the visitor at the core of every aspect of the redevelopment. This article discusses this organisational journey with specific reference to the use of the social history collections in the development of Sheffield Life & Times (one of the new exhibitions within the re-furbished museum). It demonstrates how community involvement programmes can shape exhibitions and displays and how this program has informed the development of a strategic approach to collecting for the medium and long term.

The Museum Project

Personal Treasures, Betty Smalley

Since 1875 Weston Park Museum has been a depository for artefacts made and used in Sheffield and the region. The collections include archaeology, ethnography and numismatics, natural history, decorative art and social history. While the museum has always attracted large numbers of visitors, in recent years the displays grew tired and dated no longer meeting the needs of modern audiences. The building was in desperate need of structural repair and the collections that it was built to house were being put at risk by the deterioration. Visitors to the museum on rainy days were equally appalled and amused by the motley collection of buckets placed at strategic points throughout the building and the look of resignation and frustration on the faces of front of house staff.

In March 2003, after almost 130 years of displays and exhibitions, enquiries and lectures, the doors of the museum were finally closed to visitors and work began on the transformation. Research conducted during July 2002 had shown that families and schools made up the biggest percentage of visitors to the museum.2 In order to further develop this audience and nurture visits from independent adults the displays and resources surely had to take their needs and expectations into account.

Displays had to be visually exciting and engaging, the language clear and accessible, the building welcoming and inclusive. The ambition was to offer interactive and multi-layered displays that would provide access to different amounts of information depending on the visitor’s own needs. The new museum was imagined as a place to discover the world around us, to create through exploration and interaction, to explore the collections and exhibitions and to enjoy a warm, welcoming and inspiring environment.

Social History Collections

At the heart of this vision sits Sheffield’s extensive collections covering many different disciplines. The remit of the social history collections, for example, is ‘to represent the everyday and exceptional lives of Sheffield’s people from 1500 to the present day’. The collections contain some 25,000 objects which play an important role in the official history and collective memory of life in Sheffield. They include costumes and textiles, domestic cleaning and food preparation equipment, musical instruments, office equipment, weights and measures, toys, material relating to war, work and education, and the interiors of a number of Sheffield shops. In the 1970s the emphasis shifted away from simply acquiring the typical towards collecting material that reflected the experiences of the working classes, objects that reflected the pattern of life on a day to day level in the home, at work and beyond. Curators began to collect the stories, photographs, anecdotes and ephemera that supported the object as well as the item itself. As a result the collections have the potential to tell a complex, intimate and real story of the city and its people. Like other major regional cities Sheffield has a huge and complicated history, the job of selecting which stories to tell, which stories to leave out was a major challenge.

The Mary. Presented by SHOUT! for contributions to the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities of Sheffield, 1997. © SHOUT!

Initially we considered the history of the city in two completely separate displays; the development of the city from an archaeological perspective followed by its social history from 1500 onwards. Lengthy discussions took place around the synergy between the two display areas, where the overlaps might be and how these would be addressed. The first display briefs explored similar themes at different points in history which seemed unwieldy and not necessarily the best use of space. We wanted to explore core themes such as home, work, landscape and community and to use artefacts from both collections in order to tell a story of Sheffield and its people in a wider context. Uniting the two collections within one display area could encourage visitors to make comparison and see a contemporary perspective on archaeological material and vice versa. It was an opportunity to present the history of the city in one span from the earliest settlers to the present day. While we were agreed that the collections could work to complement storylines and present a multi-layered interpretation of the history, the question was where to begin?

The curatorial team assessed the strengths and weakness of the collections and compiled lists of what they considered to be star items and must-haves. This process encouraged curators to present their aspirations for the gallery and proved a firm foundation on which to begin developing a history. Small teams were formed to work on each exhibition area across the site. These were made up of diverse groups of 4-5 people from across the organisation and included those who had a regular interface with visitors such as front of house, administrative and education staff. An audience advocate was appointed within each team to represent the visitor’s perspective and ensure that everyone was clear about who the museum was for, and why we were undertaking the project. The teams have worked on every element of the display from the storylines and the selection of objects and images, to planning for improved access, writing and editing the text, liaising with artists and photographers and participating in a wide range of community involvement activities.

This new way of working encouraged staff to open up their thinking and consider ideas for display content within the context of the visitor experience. The team were able to tussle with complex ideas within this framework and to use it as a sounding board and support structure for the development of the individual exhibitions. We were able to consider the possibilities in concrete terms, to find out more about the collections and to debate what could be used to tell ‘a history’ of the city. Irrespective of how long people had lived here or whether or not they would identify themselves as ‘a Sheffielder’, everyone had an opinion about what the exhibition should say about the city.

Abbeyfield Multi-Cultural Festival 2004 © Carl Rose

Sheffield has been described as a City of Villages – a place that, despite its size, has retained the feel of a series of interconnected villages making up the whole. Welcoming, a great place to live, the City of Steel, the cutlery capital of the world, its people were friendly, approachable, passionate, hard-working, innovative. The displays had to reflect the solid foundations of the city, the hard work and filth of industry as well as the clean, vibrant and prosperous city of the 21st century. The aspiration was to create a display celebrating the everyday and extraordinary things that have happened in Sheffield, capturing the life of the city and a lived history that people would relate to and in which they could find themselves.

Preliminary display briefs were debated across the team and discussed at length with designers and display teams. Summaries of all the development plans were then presented to a wide variety of potential visitors through an extensive consultation process led by Morris Hargreaves McIntyre.3 People were asked what they wanted from the museum – what they would like to see and do as well as how the spaces should feel. Participants greeted the idea of an exhibition devoted to Sheffield with enthusiasm and thought that it would be popular for family groups and adults, ‘somewhere where people can come and learn about their tradition and also take their children’.4 Visitors expressed an interest in displays that featured community history as well as an overview of the city as this adult attendee said:

within your own community you often think ‘why is that’, ‘why did that end up there’ ‘why have we got a Unitarian chapel’ and questions like that. Often you look at things and think ‘what is that there’ and that is part of the history of Sheffield because there is a reason why that is there and the reason is whatever.5

The knowledge that displays with strong personal stories would engage visitors, was at the heart of the detailed brief for the space. We knew also that the exhibition had to speak for the city at a political as well as a personal level and the development of the storylines and content became the subject of hot debate. Through regular consultation with the board of Trustees, councillors and other heritage organisations within the city we began to examine ways of presenting Sheffield in a wider context, as a vibrant base for international business and industry, as a regional centre for culture and education as well as home for over half a million people. As a result of this consultation the display briefs became more aspirational, articulating a dynamic history of Sheffield that pushed the boundaries of the displays beyond the micro history of the city.

Between autumn 2003 and summer 2004 the Trust embarked on a further extensive period of consultation where the more developed briefs for all the exhibitions were presented to people from across the city. We met with members of lunch clubs and history groups, representatives of religious and cultural groups, teachers, lecturers, librarians and curators from across the city. The feedback was positive and encouraging, many of the areas that visitors expressed an interest in featured in the storyline and at this point we realised that we had arrived at a practical and balanced framework for the displays.

Displays and Communities

The framework for the Sheffield Life & Times gallery comprises a number of thematic areas. In Green City, evidence of Bronze Age farming in the Peak District contrasts with more recent memories of Whit Sings held in the city’s parks during the 1950s to explore the way that people have used the landscape through time. By contrast Home City explores the experience of living in different parts of Sheffield. Displays created by parents and children explore the concept of home today, a reconstructed kitchen serves as a platform to discuss housing in the city and focuses on the changing fortunes of the Park Hill complex. There is no single chronology and material from both the archaeology and social history collections is often juxtaposed within the same themes.

Photo of Betty Smalley’s Badges © Clara Thomson

Inevitably some of the storylines were not supported by relevant collections and we recognised the need to develop a programme of collecting in order to illustrate the stories. Displays within City of Spirit, for example, examine the experiences of Sheffield’s people during periods of upheaval including the first and second world wars and the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. While there is a large collection relating to the impact of the war in Sheffield, the collections contained relatively little material about the steel and coal strikes. A public appeal launched through the project newsletter was very successful. One particular donation – a huge collection of campaign badges from the 1980s and 1990s documented Betty Smalley’s political life in the city. Badges from the picket lines, from Greenham Common, Grimesthorpe CND, rate-capping demonstrations and numerous other campaigns combine with her sharp recollection of the chants and anecdotes to make it an insightful record of a life of political struggle and activism. Another donor, Margaret Barraclough, was one of the Chuffinelles, a Sheffield based all-women band that performed at benefits and shows throughout the country in the 1980s. Their no-nonsense take on the politics of poverty and discrimination bore angry witness to the demise of the steel industry and the devastating impact upon its workforce. Her donation, a series of benefit posters and a poem about the closure of Attercliffe, the area at the heart of heavy industry in Sheffield, conjure a powerful picture of a city in transition.

The issue of how far to cover the industrial heritage of the city was problematic. Excellent new displays at Kelham Island Museum offer a thorough interpretation of the growth of the steel industry. The museum houses an extensive industrial collection that illustrates the story of both heavy industry and the light metal trades. At the Millennium Galleries, the Metalwork Gallery has a suite of displays dedicated to the manufacture and design of cutlery in Sheffield and showcases the newly purchased and remarkable Bill Brown collection of historic cutlery. The gut reaction was to avoid retelling the story of steel simply because it was done very well elsewhere. In an ‘official’ history of the city however, these elements are essential and we recognised that industry and product had to be a major part of the story.

In the initial public consultation people expressed an interest in knowing why and how the city came to be the place it is now. We decided to relate this question to the displays- looking specifically at why Sheffield evolved into an industrial city and how this meteoric growth had affected both people and place. In the Steel City displays, interpretation focuses upon the impact of industry on the people of Sheffield rather than what was made. Displays examine the experience of children working in industry and the appalling working conditions in the 19th century, they investigate the people who supported the industry and look at material excavated at the Riverside Exchange site at Millsands between 1999 and 2003 which revealed the structure of daily life in the steel industry.6 A reconstructed butcher’s shop from Attercliffe Common is used as a prompt for memory and as a vehicle to explore the impact of industrialisation upon the communities of Attercliffe. This village became the centre for steel manufacture in the nineteenth century and grew to accommodate tens of thousands of workers and their families. Excerpts of interviews with Mr and Mrs George Burton, who ran the shop throughout their entire working lives, document the changing fortunes of the area; the impact of the slum clearance programme from the 1950s-1970s, the massive redundancies of the 1980s and its regeneration as a centre for sport and leisure a decade later.

A large gateway display showcases a range of high quality products made in the city today. This display is designed to set the scene for the 21st century, to physically place the past behind the present and to celebrate the strengths of contemporary industry in the city. Material for these cases has been selected in liaison with leading manufacturers and makers and will change regularly to reflect ongoing development.

As well as exploring the relationship between industry and community, we wanted to examine how the ‘city of villages’ accolade translated into reality by exploring life in one community through the shops that serve it. For this display we were keen to understand the life of an area defined by the footfalls of its corner shops; the frequent comings and goings, the ubiquitous comments about the weather, the browsing, the ability to almost always find what you need, the dynamic between shopkeeper and customers. The display features a short film made by young people an after-school study support group based in Burngreave, an area one mile north of the city centre. Under the guidance of a team of film-makers from the Sheffield based South Yorkshire Film Network the group are researching shops in the area, contacting shopkeepers and writing scripts for a film that will combine a range of interview techniques and footage to capture a slice of city life. This project has a strong remit to encourage the participants to develop new skills and to encourage discussion about history and the representation of communities within museums.

Photo of signs of protest, Burngreave © Carl Rose

Photo of Burngreave Voices event, 2004 © Carl Rose

This is an opportunity to document the adaptation of corner shops in the city in terms of supermarket domination, what they stock, who they serve and their often multiple function as shop, internet café, bank and international call centre. Equally there is the potential to reposition Burngreave, currently midway through the government funded New Deal for Communities programme, within the history of the city and to challenge perceptions of the area and its young people. Burngreave Voices, a three year community history project funded by New Deal and managed by the Trust, began in 2004. The project is responsible for a range of community history displays and events and is working with Burngreave residents to document and research the area, gather oral histories, and to identify and collect material evidence as an embodiment of identity and experience. Photographs, objects and narratives gathered through the project will be displayed throughout Sheffield Life & Times and in the long term will be accessible via the social history and library collections.

Collecting for the future

Personal Treasures, Urshad Akbar, 2005 © Carl Rose.

The 20th century collections have proved an essential tool for connecting with a broad spectrum of audiences from Sheffield and beyond and for many years have been extensively used as part of the community involvement programme for Weston Park Museum. They play a fundamental role as prompts for memory and discussion in a range of activities and from a pragmatic perspective contain some of the most useful aspects of the social history collection. As a material record of period, people and place however, they often fall short of offering a comprehensive account of the 20th century. The gaps in the collections are extensive, material relating to the steel and coal strikes of the 1980s are just two examples. While appeals for specific material have been successful, there is a recognition that to continue to create new displays beyond the opening of Weston Park Museum we need to develop a realistic strategy for recording and collecting key aspects of the 20th and 21st century as a matter of urgency. This is a huge job and one that requires a reallocation of resources and objectives in order to identify the material, negotiate its collection, administer the process and accession and store all artefacts as they are acquired.

To undertake this process we are seeking advice from colleagues throughout the city and the region as well as representatives of the audiences we hope to develop. The Social History collections have immense potential to touch people’s lives, but this will only work well if we have a strong sense of who we are collecting for and why. The collections contain relatively little material specifically relevant to the city’s black and minority ethnic white working class communities and staff are critically aware of the omission. A number of very successful community involvement projects in the past decade, such as Ourselves Our Place and Memory Gems have worked towards enhancing representation through displays, activities and collections. Burngreave Voices also has a strong collecting remit and fundamentally addresses the need to redress the balance of the collections.

All projects have naturally prioritised the process, the benefits to participants and the learning outcomes. Inevitably only a small number of items made it to the collections. Collecting objects can appear a ruthless tag – a single-minded pursuit and one that many people are nervous of. While social history curators often collect the throw away items that both litter our lives and form the invisible threads of our past, there is the understandable perception of museums as buildings that contain only the rarest, oldest, finest objects. The phrase, ‘I haven’t got anything worth giving’ masks a fear of rejection, and the anxiety that one’s object might not make the grade. Even if an object is acquired one still has to contend with the scrutiny of the curator in search of provenance and anecdotal evidence. While community involvement projects may not produce instant collections, they are enormously important in terms of developing a broader understanding of community history, nurturing advocates for the service, and advising on the direction and focus of collecting into the future. Consultation with communities from across the city has informed the storyline and content of Sheffield Life & Times and further work is essential in order to ensure that the collections and displays continue to speak to the experiences and expectations of audiences.

When this project began we optimistically imagined that whole swathes of the collections would be displayed but as in most museums only the tip of the ice berg will be visible at any one time. While the collections contain some remarkable material, in some areas they are not sufficiently comprehensive to enable us to rotate material. The ambition to create displays that are fresh and exciting, informative and stimulating means that the social history collections cannot stand still. We must continue to collect new material and new stories that reflect the changing experiences of the city and its people.

A new direction

Weston Park Museum will be accessible to visitors of all ages and cultural backgrounds. It is essential that we continue to build useful, inspiring and relevant collections that will support this aspiration into the future. The last three years have been a time of aspiration, reflection, coming up with new ideas and remembering old ones. The project presented the opportunity for the organisation to renew itself and to reaffirm its role at the heart of Sheffield’s many villages. To do this effectively we now need to work with colleagues and community representatives to create a strategic policy for collecting, and work in partnership with community participants to make it happen. Collecting by its nature is fundamentally flawed – we gather material we think is significant yet only though hindsight can we gauge whether we made the right choice. Inevitably there will be gaps in any contemporary collection yet consultation is the only viable solution if we are to create social history collections that are useful and representative for future enerations of museum visitors.

The opportunity to completely redevelop a museum in a large city is rare and this paper records some of the organisational routes and the theoretical debates that have informed this process. There is no stark division between these two areas – equally the aspiration to unite the archaeological and social history collections, the discussions about ‘how’ and ‘why’ are intimately linked. In practice, the development of ideas, the delivery of the new exhibitions and the connection between the theory and policy which underpin this work are seamless.

The process of redeveloping Weston Park Museum will have taken nearly five years and has been a tremendous adventure. Working with a broad team of people has encouraged a new way of seeing things and has given staff a clear understanding of why we do this job and who the collections and exhibitions are ultimately for. The challenge now is to ensure that this way of working impacts upon core activity across the organisation as a whole beyond the opening of Weston Park Museum.7

  1. The Weston Park Museum development is a £17.3m project funded by Heritage Lottery, Sheffield City Council, South Yorkshire Objective One, ERDF with further support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, The H&L Cantor Trust, Sheffield Town Trust, Freshgate Trust Foundation, Sheffield Church Burgesses and Holbeche Corfield Charitable Trust.
  2. The Manchester based consultancy and research firm Morris Hargreaves McIntyre were commissioned to undertake consultation about the initial plans for the museum in 2001.
    Weston Park Museum is being designed with families, schools and adult learning groups in mind. Displays will be interactive and multi-layered, and will offer visitors access to varying amounts of information depending on their own interest and requirements. Folders of more in-depth information will also be available for those who want to explore subjects in more detail.
    Guidelines for basic provision for the site were developed using models of good practice. We examined at the needs of different audiences and consulted a wide variety of current and potential visitors. Consultation for the family and schools spaces in the museum have been far more in depth and have involved children and families in their design from the outset.
  3. Keep Feeling Fascination, Visitor response to Development Plans for the Weston Park Site, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (2002).
  4. Adult attendee quoted in Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (2002)
  5. Adult attendee quoted in Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (2002)
  6. Excavation of the Millsands site was led by ARCUS, Archaeological Research & Consultancy, at the University of Sheffield. Material from this excavation is on loan to Weston Park Museum.
  7. Weston Park reopens during on October 14th 2006. The site will be open seven days a week and offers free admission for everyone. The project team comprise:
    Architects – Purcell Miller Tritton Display Designers – Redman Design Associates Project Management – Turner & Townsend Group Quantity Surveyors – Davis, Langdon and Everest Building Contractor – Mowlem PLC Structural Engineers, Mechanical and Electrical Engineers – Ove Arup