How to Build a Museum from Scratch

by WordChazer

Ever wondered how a museum gets started? The Centre for Computing History's new location is due to open later this year and this series of articles will follow progress.

Volunteers at the Centre for Computing History recently met to discuss the first steps in fitting out the charity's new premises in Cambridge, England. The founder and director, Jason Fitzpatrick, is a friend, so my husband and I had been 'voluntold' that we would be involved with the project from the ground up. This is the record of how a museum becomes a living, breathing, paying space from starting life as an empty warehouse with no electricity or heat.

Take One Warehouse

From empty warehouse to functioning museum in six months

There is a warehouse close to the railway line in Cambridge. Until recently it was empty, cold and unloved. No electricity, no heat, no people. The last tenants had left some time before.

The Centre for Computing History heard about the site and put in a bid some time back, but it was only a few weeks ago that they finalised the deal. They took possession soon after and asked for supporters to assist with the mountain of moving that would ensue. There are 17,000 items in hundreds of boxes, so it will be a lengthy process. The contents are all carefully indexed, as the boxes contain a mixture of assorted kit, paperwork and instruction manuals. The current storage facility a few miles away in Haverhill contains all manner of retro technical gear, just some of which will be on show at any one time. In March 2013, when the keys were handed over, the volunteers started to move just some of the hardware across to the new facility, along with various bits of promotional backing, sets and other items suitable to set up a few initial displays to tempt the paying public.

As we quickly discovered, every skill we possess will be used in the coming months. Tasks needing to be undertaken range from writing marketing and promotional material to painting, decorating, tea-making, shifting kit and connecting/debugging it. And that's just for starters. The warehouse needs some work before it is suitable to let visitors in, not to mention planning where everything should be sited, adhering to health and safety issues, fire regulations and other requirements for opening any location to the public.

Arcade games, anyone?
Arcade games, anyone?
Paula Thomas, March 2013

So, What Next?

Disabled toilets, fire escapes and maximum occupancy regulations

Firstly the team of founder volunteers were given a guided tour of the premises, together with a summary of the required health and safety regulations covering running a museum.

On entry, the paying customer will move into the foyer area. At present, this is envisaged to have arcade games strategically placed to entertain punters before entering the museum, a shop and cafe, and a card-controlled entry system to the museum area itself. Paid entry will be regulated by a receptionist/cashier volunteer. Annual passes allowing repeat visits free of charge will be available.

In this area there has to be a toilet suitable for use by wheelchair users and other disabled patrons, as specified in the UK laws. This may also be able to double as a baby-change location, allowing families to feel welcome too. The nearby shopping area at the Beehive Centre may pull in some visitors, especially dads and sons bored with mums and daughters wanting to spend time in retail therapy.

Depending on the location and number of fire escapes, the number of visitors can increase to around 150 at any time. The warehouse area can easily accommodate this number plus equipment, so space is not a problem.

The foyer divides neatly into the reception space and a further area near the museum's planned entrance. This is earmarked for a classroom-style environment for around 30 pupils, where they will learn about the history of computing, try out basic coding and immerse themselves in the experience of writing simple computer games.

The warehouse space
The warehouse space
Paula Thomas, March 2013

The Mezzanine Floor

Upstairs in the roof space, where the staff go

The foyer area has a mezzanine floor, accessible from both the foyer and the warehouse. This will be restricted access for staff only, and will be where the museum's administration and machine repairs are carried out. Presently it contains a stack of boxes, several large desks and plush chairs which, I am reliably informed, came from an old BBC building (not TV Centre, before you all ask!)

This area looks like becoming perhaps something of a refuge for the staff, a hub of behind-the-scenes activity and a place to hone existing computer repair skills, perhaps whilst learning something new too.

There we convened to discuss tactics:

  • How best to prepare the space for museum use
  • Use of paid experts vs volunteer knowledge
  • What repairs or renovations to carry out first
  • Initial ideas for publicity, places to advertise and how to spread the word
  • The challenges of charity fundraising (many crowdsource sites do not accept charities)
  • Involvement of the main software and computer-related firms and University departments
  • The all-important opening event  

There is an enormous list of tasks to be completed before the museum can open and an equally impressive list of ideas on how best to complete them. Some of the volunteers are specialists in one area, such as fundraising or computer repair. Others will turn their hand to many things, handling a paintbrush with as much ease as a screwdriver, for instance.

The requisite picture of a BBC Micro (well, in this writer's opinion, anyway).
The requisite picture of a BBC Micro ...
Paula Thomas, March 2013

Future Plans, Hopes and Dreams

Start small, build big

Some of the team is at Gadget Show Live this weekend, having been invited to exhibit by the organisers. Other volunteers are knuckling down to work on renovation plans, costs, rotas, publicity and all the million-and-one other things which we are rapidly finding go with the administration of a museum.

With patrons including Dr Hermann Hauser, the technology entrepreneur best known for his involvement with Acorn and ARM, the museum is already attracting attention. Items from its collection have regularly been seen in film and TV shows recreating the period, including The IT Crowd. The existing museum location in Haverhill has been used for filming by several companies, and it is hoped that the new museum in Cambridge will be even more enticing, with plans for digital arts parties, technology launches, corporate events and maybe even wedding receptions being discussed for the future.

But for now, the next task is probably going to involve becoming reacquainted with the joys of paint in my hair whilst helping the team spruce up the venue prior to setting up the first machines.

Updated: 10/09/2014, WordChazer
 
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Veronica on 04/01/2016

My ultimate pipe-dream would be to have a museum of local history here in Cheshire. I know it is unattainable fo me ...but there it is..... My dream.

BarbRad on 03/31/2016

What a job! It's amazing what you all have accomplished! It must be wonderful to look back and be proud of what you brought into being.

WordChazer on 07/22/2013

That's what I thought. Have a few more articles to submit in this series too, as there's been a lot of work ongoing lately and the big opening weekend is this coming Saturday. The preview went really well so I'm confident even if the founder is bricking himself!

MaggiePowell on 07/22/2013

Interesting.... Funny how it seems that museums are places that have always BEEN, interesting to see how they actually start.

WordChazer on 04/23/2013

That's what you'll get, Elias. I'm working on part 2 at the moment, part 3 to follow and hopefully fortnightly or so updates from there until opening and maybe even beyond ;-)

EliasZanetti on 04/23/2013

Well, I would be really interested to see how your story progress. Setting up a museum sounds like a very complex process and it would be really nice to be able to read a step by step guide.

WordChazer on 04/08/2013

Thanks Jo! I'm hoping the director will approve as he has yet to read the article - he was at Gadget Show Live all weekend and my husband and I both think there is nothing to cause him pause here (so far..he wait!)

It is very exciting to be in on the ground floor of such a startup adventure - and to have the chance to write about it too. Hope to see you there one day?

JoHarrington on 04/08/2013

This all sounds very exciting! What a thing to be involved in. And congratulations on your Editor's Choice Award!

WordChazer on 04/07/2013

Thanks Katie ;-) That's just the first article. I plan on writing more as we go through the process of decorating, outfitting, laying out exhibits and so on. It's a big bare, freezing cold warehouse with strip lighting and a pile of boxes in one corner at the moment. I became involved in event staffing last year with another techie friend (the guy organising Silicon Dreams) and was well bitten by the bug, so this is the natural progression, especially as the director of the charity is a friend of my husband.

katiem2 on 04/07/2013

How interesting, I had to read this about building a museum, I thought "what"? how can that be done, well now i know, very neat, love it.

Now I want to embark on a museum adventure. :)K

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