Heather Lane: Volunteering at the Museum of North Craven Life

Heather Lane is Honorary Curator at the Museum of North Craven Life and Chair of Trustees of the North Craven Building Preservation Trust.  Here she explains the impact of volunteering on her and the organisation:

‘In September 2019, I answered an advert for a new Honorary Curator at the Museum of North Craven Life at the Folly in Settle and, after an initial meeting with the museum’s founder, Anne Read and trustee Steve Garland, was delighted to be offered the role. Anne had been in post in a voluntary capacity as curator since 1976 (an astonishing 43 years) and was hoping to step down. It quickly became apparent that the role would require rather more than the day a week that had been advertised, but I was intrigued by the quirks of this historic building and the breadth of the collections. Anne was extremely generous with her time, patiently answering my endless questions as I got to know the volunteers, staff and the museum’s holdings. I was hooked!

The Museum is owned and managed by a charity, the North Craven Building Preservation Trust. Having attended Board meetings as an observer, I could see that the organisation had real potential for growth, particularly if visitor numbers could be improved and better use made of its historic buildings to deliver its charitable objects. A February deadline for reaccreditation provided the stimulus to reassess the museum’s policies and plans. In November 2019, the Chairman decided to step down; I was asked by the trustees if I would consider taking on this role alongside my curatorial duties. Not one to be daunted by a challenge, Christmas was spent devising a new Forward Plan and I chaired my first meeting in January 2020. By March 2020, the museum and its coffee house were closed by the pandemic, but this proved to be a remarkable opportunity, allowing trustees and senior management the luxury of time to work together on a new strategic direction and enabling major building works to be undertaken during the enforced closure.

Why did I volunteer? I had moved to North Yorkshire in 2015 after 30 years working in senior management in libraries and museums in the University of Cambridge and was still busy with consultancy work. However, I hadn’t really had time to find a new social circle and I was already thinking ahead to the need to keep myself occupied in retirement. The opportunity to use the skills I had gained throughout my career in the service of my local museum was very appealing, partly as a way of giving back to my community and partly because, during those first visits to The Folly, I immediately knew that I had found ‘my tribe’. Quite apart from the warmth of the welcome, everyone involved in the museum had a shared interest in seeing it thrive. I knew that I could put my experience in fundraising and project management to good use and I continue to derive a sense of purpose from finding funding for the Trust’s wide range of arts and heritage projects.

At an organisational level, the Trust benefits from my professional skills and experience. Effectively acting as an unpaid (albeit part-time) CEO, I have been able to address some long-standing governance issues and have been fortunate in recruiting a new team of extraordinarily talented and committed trustees, staff and volunteers. I put in place a five-year business plan to improve our financial stability. Successful applications for Culture Recovery Funding from ACE, the Architectural Heritage Fund and a Heritage Emergency grant from NLHF, as well as numerous smaller grants from other funders, including Museum Development Yorkshire, enabled us to undertake urgent repairs to The Folly, install a new catering kitchen, build a new website, develop online learning resources and new family trails, and to employ a freelance volunteer coordinator to assess our volunteer strategy and keep existing volunteers engaged. Each grant included a sum for marketing, helping the Museum to raise its profile. The Trust now has a much more user-centred approach and increased donations enable us to maintain free entry to the museum. Since reopening, we have seen the museum’s visitor numbers rise from 3,000 to over 10,000 per year. Further building renovation works funded by a MEND grant from ACE are nearing completion and we have ambitious plans for new stores and galleries and for a community-led reinterpretation of our collections. Having the work of our coffee house team recognised by the Museum Café of the Year Award in 2023 has been a highlight, and we are now able to put the first phase of our masterplan for the museum into effect with support from the ACE Unlocking Collections and NLHF Dynamic Collections schemes.

On a personal level, I derive real satisfaction from seeing the museum flourish as part of a dynamic organisation. I enjoy having an outlet for my energies and the intellectual challenge of learning about the collection. As a volunteer, I have a more flexible ‘working’ environment, but one that still provides a structure to my working week. I love the chance to meet and chat to our visitors, artists and cultural partners and to share my excitement about The Folly through tours and talks. Working with younger colleagues keeps me on my toes, but I also like the sense that others may benefit from my lifetime of experience as I transition into retirement.

Thinking back, I can’t remember a time in my adult life when I haven’t volunteered in some capacity. From helping to run university societies to being on regional and national committees of professional bodies, volunteering has been an important part of my career and personal development, providing chances to learn from colleagues and copy best practice. Volunteering at different levels, whether it’s running a local toy library, organising a stall at the fete or chairing the village hall committee, also satisfies my need to feel like a useful member of my community, and gives me opportunities to meet new people. Over the years, it has improved my self-confidence and sense of self-esteem. Volunteering has rewarded me with some of my best friends and a deep sense of personal fulfilment. Above all, it’s fun.

(Photo:  Heather Lane in the audience as part of a tour of the museum during a Museum Development Yorkshire Forum)