Brightlingsea Museum

Brightlingsea Museum, Essex

A small town with some big stories!
We look to re-define what a local museum can be.

Maltings Heritage have encouraged us to be ambitious and forward thinking, yet they have successfully managed to maintain the character and ethos of our community, themes and collections, always ensuring we were an essential part of the process.

(Curator, Brightlingsea Museum)

Brightlingsea is our first complete museum and we were exceptionally excited to win such an incredible opportunity. Although we have worked on many museum projects in the past, never before have we had the chance to create one from scratch. Their new premises was a blank canvas, 125 square metres of floor space with clean white walls! We assembled a team to tackle the whole project, working very closely with interpretive consultant and writer Carol Parr to begin the creative process and develop the stories.

From the very beginning, the creative team and client team were determined to re-define the concept of the ‘local museum’. Brightlingsea had a strong group of willing volunteers, and we were keen to ensure that their input encouraged a real sense of ownership rather than us simply delivering a completed museum. In addition, the massive contributions of all involved meant that they saved tens of thousands of pounds, ensuring their budget stretched a very long way.

Aside from community involvement, we felt we must impose rigorous quality control to ensure that every story and every idea fought hard to win their place in the museum. Typically, small local museums offer a room, or rooms, which visitors can enter and explore as they wish. The whole may look hugely impressive, but most of it is revealed instantly as people step inside. Instead, we wanted to create a narrative journey, controlling how each part of the displays was revealed. Our approach was more like a film or documentary, where we could place dwell points designed to provoke different human responses – intrigue, fun, interest, interaction and even quietly sombre moments of reflection. Above all we wanted to build in a real ‘wow’ factor, to surprise visitors to this small museum with both the stories and the way they are told. Memorable story zones include:

  • Our seaside themed Reception area, with Brightlingsea Beach Hut retail space, an ice cream trolley pay point, an ‘angry fisherman’ donations automaton, Punch and Judy information board and large town map

  • A gangplank leading to the main museum, setting the scene for their maritime stories.

  • History in Ten Objects corridor – and overview of the key stories in Brightlingsea’s history.

  • Shipbuilding – turning a corner from the History in Ten display, the sound of men at work begins and visitors enter the ‘Shipbuilding’ zone. A workshop with ‘Design a boat’ interactive and objects the public can handle, a large graphic display showing a timeline of the town’s amazing shipbuilding heritage and ‘From Line to Launch’, which details the many trades and skills required to build a large vessel. A ‘Talking Heads’ oral history plays on a loop, and in the workshop a ‘window’ shows many archive images of their shipbuilding heritage on a concealed monitor.

  • Fishing – exploring their sprat and oyster trades, including a fishing barrel interactive for children, display cases to discover concealed behind doors, and a replica fishing smack cabin with sound effects, oral histories and even a swinging lantern to complete the immersive experience.

  • Yachting – cases, objects, images, a knotting interactive and a signal flag interactive, plus the story of their America’s Cup glory days projected onto a sail!

  • Naval Base – Brightlingsea at war! Including many artefacts and a replica naval base HQ, complete with interactive games utilising a working radio, morse code key, and a real telephone! Be alert – even the enemy may call!

  • Alf Wakeling Gallery – A space for temporary curated exhibitions named after the museum founder and benefactor. This side room includes an activity table for younger visitors, and a fun ‘A-Z of Brightlingsea’ graphic around the wall which covers a range of interesting and surprising stories that could not be told elsewhere.

  • Message in a Bottle – as visitors leave, an opportunity to feedback, reflect and donate.

Despite this being our most recent major project – still ongoing – there is already a buzz about what has been achieved amongst some of the major heritage industry associations. ‘Museums and Heritage’ recently wrote an online article about our pioneering approach which can be found HERE. We are doing our best to spread the word about just how much can be achieved with imagination, ambition, drive, creativity and an enthusiastic and engaged client team. We believe that this could be a model for future small/local museums and heritage centres, and we will soon be putting together a resource for any groups with similar requirements. The PDF document will be available online and via email free of charge, and will include insights regarding process – how we move from inception meeting to opening day – and working together – how volunteer groups may contribute and save considerable costs. Watch this space!

Brightlingsea Museum, Essex
Brightlingsea Museum, Essex
Brightlingsea Museum, Essex
Brightlingsea Museum, Essex
Brightlingsea Museum, Essex
Brightlingsea Museum, Essex
Brightlingsea Museum, Essex