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The Museum Workers’ Guide to Buying a Dalek

In 2018 Drone Dalek No. 4 arrived at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. The Dalek was to become part of the National Trust’s Museum of Childhood and its arrival signalled a significant change in the collections, and in how the museum works with audiences and partners.

This is the story of how the National Trust came to acquire a Dalek, and why.

Imagine, if you will, a typical National Trust country house, set in a sleepy estate village in the heart of the UK.

Photo credit: Liz Johnson

Imagine then a museum tucked into the 19th century servant’s wing; a museum established in the 1970s and then developed and expanded with investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund (as was) in the early 21st century.

If you’re imaging a place with confused, multiple identities, you’re on the right lines. If you’re imagining a place with multiple possible components of a visit, you’d be right. Visitors to Sudbury can experience the quintessential wonders of a country house – complete with Grinling Gibbons carving and 17th century room dressing- and retire afterwards for an all too traditional (nonetheless delicious)scone in the tea rooms.

Visitors can also experience lake views in the gardens, a natural outdoor play area nestled into the woodland and a museum stuffed full of stories and objects relating to childhood; they can reminisce about their school room experiences, share stories with each other about toys they had- or those they coveted. Seven year old Liz wanted a ‘My Little Pony’ lunchbox, and is hugely jealous that Nikki had one.

Photo credit: Ruth Bellamy

This is the place that Nikki became General Manager for late in 2017. Liz had joined the National Trust earlier the same year and was strategic lead for the £550,000 ‘Exploring Childhoods’ project, through which the museum was starting to talk to people about the collection and to acquire new objects for the museum. Together we realised we share the same dream; helping Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Childhood to reach its full potential as a purposeful, useful and inspiring place for people to enjoy.

But, the Dalek?

The Exploring Childhoods project has been going since 2015 and, thanks to the expertise of our project manager Ruth Bellamy and her virtual haunting of online auction houses, has acquired many interesting and valuable additions to the collection. The collecting themes were developed in consultation with audiences, who pointed out something we’d missed.

Nowhere in the museum was the impact of television on childhood evident.

It’s hard to think of a single invention that has changed the daily lived experience of childhood to such a degree in the last 100 years.

But how do you collect something which will tell that story? Particularly when you’re trying to collect some significant single items with presence (there is, sadly, a limit to how many My Little Pony lunchboxes it is practical to acquire).

So when an original, screen used Dalek came up for sale, we decided to try and acquire it: so many people have Dr Who experiences across the generations and so, for us it epitomised the impact of television in childhood.

Buying a Dalek sounds simple, right?

In fact, convincing the powers that be at the National Trust to buy a Dalek was by no means easy; we had to develop strong arguments in favour of an object which many regarded as simply a TV ‘prop’; we had to debate what makes an object ‘real’ and why this would have serious significance in the context of the Museum of Childhood. In the end it was the process we had used, of consulting with over 1200 people about what we should acquire and why that won the case for us. It came down to relevance; without new acquisitions the museum would struggle to be relevant to audiences of the future; without representing the impact of television on children’s lives over the last 60 years we were at risk of not telling the whole story of childhood as most of our visitors have experienced it.

The Museum Workers 10 step guide to buying a Dalek

  1. Establish the Dalek’s credentials and provenance
  2. Find out if the National Trust already has a similar item in the collection.
  3. Find out about the conservation needs, likely costs and ongoing requirements to care for it
  4. Get an independent assessment of the value of a Dalek
  5. Write an internal business case for the acquisition because the likely value exceeds our local buying power
  6. Argue the case for the acquisition of what many regarded as simply a stage prop.
  7. Gain internal approval
  8. Buy the Dalek
  9. Arrange for conservation: big decision- to replace the plunger or repair it?
  10. Arrange transportation and location of the Dalek, and display materials.

Photo credit Ruth Bellamy

That then is the story of how the National Trust came to acquire a Dalek.

Of course, what is really important is not the Dalek. Or the My Little Pony lunchbox. Or the Wonka Bar (another ‘real’ stage prop), or Raleigh Chopper bike. The really important work is that which wraps around the collecting- and that is what is facilitating and driving change in the museum and across the whole site; the work with different community groups to co-produce exhibitions such as Black Dolls; The Power of Representation and the work within our teams to expand skills.

What we’ve learnt so far

  • That it’s not objects which create or enable change, but what you do with them
  • That it takes time and many different people’s input to create change
  • That soft power and relationships are really important, as we learnt when we had to argue the case at an internal decision meeting; it was the informal conversations before the meeting which swayed the decision, rather than any of the representations we made on the day.

What’s next?

Inspired by our experiences so far, and our dream for Sudbury, we’re developing a whole new proposition for the site in consultation with audiences and stakeholders.

The new proposition puts what is important about all aspects of Sudbury at the centre of what we do – our place and our collections (in both the Hall and the Museum of Childhood).

But it is about developing a way of doing things that means that visitors are invited to ‘discover’ rather than ‘be told’.

And it does this through the lens of our values of childhood (this does not mean it’s exclusively for children).

Audiences and stakeholders tell us there are four aspects to what is important about Sudbury – the Craftsmanship of the interiors, the Creativity of George Vernon and the craftsmen and toymakers that created our collection, Nature which surrounds the hall and infuses the interiors and Childhood itself – we have one of the most important collections of childhood artefacts in the country – childhood should be proudly at the heart of what we do

But what makes Sudbury, perhaps, really different to other similar properties is what it can be for – exploring and discovering, with a childlike curiosity. And central to this approach will be that we are inclusive to a diverse range of audiences; at Sudbury everyone is welcome. At Sudbury it’s OK not to be an expert: it’s about discovery, asking questions and finding your own answers.

An approach the Doctor herself would approve of, don’t you think?

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