Robert Hulse is Director of The Brunel Museum, London which is run by volunteers and commemorates Brunel's first and last projects: the first metro and the first modern ocean liner. The Museum won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Work in 2010.
The utterly brilliant Professor Michael Faraday suffered from dementia towards the end of his life. ‘My worldly faculties are slipping away day by day’. He was an exceptional communicator and teacher - probably the world’s best - and set up the famous Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution. He also recommended ‘the keeping of a commonplace book to record facts and opinions that might otherwise be forgot’, and like the proper organised fellow that he was, he rigorously followed his own advice (actually it was Isaac Watts, the hymn writer). Many scientists say his great gift was not electricity, but the diaries that show us how he got there. Show us your workings. Or, to paraphrase Faraday: Write a Blog! And especially now - read on!
I am Director of The Brunel Museum in London, a very small Museum with a very big story. People think of Brunel as a Bristol man, but he always lived in London, where there is more Brunel than in Bristol. This is his First Project, the Thames Tunnel. The museum is staffed by a wonderful team of volunteers, and we have been celebrating Museums and Wellbeing Week, which has hundreds of events going on all over the country all the year round. Here at The Brunel Museum, some of our volunteers are between jobs, some are retired, some are looking for a career in museums, some are struggling after mishap or set back, but all of them are exceptional people. The museum owes them a huge debt of gratitude; this is not a staff team with volunteer helpers, this is a staff team of volunteers.
The museum has only two full time salaried staff and it could not run without them. The volunteers' output is impressive: last year they helped deliver 200 heritage walks, 60 school visits, 50 community garden events, 40 theatre and opera performances, 20 parties/celebrations, 10 music concerts, 8 film shoots, 6 cinema screenings, 3 record launches, 3 sculpture/art installations and a 2 week long summer playscheme or local children. The programme is coordinated by part time Volunteer/Events Coordinator generously funded by The Foyle Foundation.
The point is: if blogging is good for you, then so is volunteering. It was the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing, who set up Museums and Wellbeing Week: ‘Museum engagement leads to reduced social isolation, opportunities for learning and acquiring news skills, increased positive emotions, self-esteem and sense of identity, a positive distraction from clinical environments and increased communication between families, carers and health professionals" (Helen Chaterjee). In other words, museums are a vital community asset..
The National Alliance identifies many programmes in many museums, especially with older adults, and in particular people with dementia. But museums are also supporting working in hospitals with, for example, stroke survivors, or in Drop In Centres. And not just delivering public health education, but a variety of engaging and innovative programmes. The Brunel Museum is working with Blackfriars Settlement on 'A Nice Cup of Tea and a Slice of History’, which is a well-being project funded by The Foyle Foundation (and The Leathersellers’ Company Charitable Fund) where 85 women are using drama and storytelling to look at the changing roles of women from Victorian times to the present. And a nice cup of tea, of course.
Brunel’s 210th birthday is coming up 9th April, and - with our volunteers help - we are celebrating again with a heritage boat trip along the Thames (meet Embankment tube 10.45am). We also celebrate converting the huge underground chamber, where he narrowly escaped drowning, into an underground gallery and theatre. This has been a long long project, but it now means we can double the space for activities and events at the museum. The official opening is the 14th April. All this has been done thanks to an AIM Biffa Award, and some energetic fundraising from volunteers, and we are very very grateful.
Our website has detailed of programme: underground opera, theatre, concerts and sculpture events in a new concert space for London, seating capacity 140 people. Museums are not just a vital community asset, they are places to have fun. Museum means "House of the Muses" and there are nine muses and they are living in many big museums. But there were also nymphs, lesser deities who live in streams and underground spaces, and they are the ones to watch. We strive to inspire as well as help.
There is no evidence that Brunel had problems with mental health, except of course in almost everything he did! Like many extraordinary people, he was not only brilliant, but obsessive, often difficult, demanding, overbearing with staff and friends and prone to mood swings. Brunel did begin a diary but lacked Faraday's self-discipline and when work got busy the diary entries stopped. However some are interesting and disarmingly honest:
'My self conceit and love of glory or rather approbation vie with each other which shall govern me. The latter is so strong that even of a dark night riding home when I pass some unknown person who perhaps does not even look at me I catch myself trying to look big on my little pony. I often do the most silly useless things to appear to advantage before or attract the attention of those I shall never again see or whom I care nothing about.'
Ah yes, been there...
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