What an exciting prospect! So it seemed, being taken on as Chair of the Trustees of the Brunel Museum in January 2020. I’d not long got married at a wonderful celebration in France in late September and set up my consultancy business having spent well over 30 years in public sector transport infrastructure development, construction and management. Big tunnels, little bridges, LBGTQ+ traffic signals, potholes and bus stations, that’s the world I worked in. Now the museum… This gem of a museum had been so well nurtured over the years by a dedicated and very long serving team, what a great opportunity I thought…
All change 2020!
It was an eye opener, coming from a large corporate to a specific concern. For a couple of months at the beginning of 2020 I started to learn the ropes of the charity, of museums, the operations, and the work of the marvellous volunteers. More so, I began to understand how we could perhaps create an even better museum for wider and diverse audiences, greater community participation and a big bold future, with the help of the NLHF and may other donors. I started thinking about the future potential of the museum, it would be a lot of work but so very worthwhile – big investment in a little gem!The momentum and excitement was gathering – ‘Brunel Museum Reinvented’! And then in mid-March came the government’s reaction to the emerging pandemic and the instructions to shut down – sending us all into places completely unknown. Uncharted. Unenviable…
The shut down of course meant no visitors, no use of the space, or the venue for any cultural or social pursuits. And no income. And I must admit we were genuinely in crisis because our financial information was somewhat lacking and we couldn’t predict with any accuracy how long we could survive as an entity before shutdown became inevitable. What a dreadful prospect, three months in as Chair and I could have been considered the death knell, well not me, Covid, but I’d have been the ringer of the museum’s death knell…The dedicated group of trustees worked tirelessly and incessantly (weekly crisis board meetings for months on end to calculate our survival prospects) to get grants and reduce costs and keep our wonderful volunteers. I am so grateful to the Arts Council for the incredible support we were given. We did not intend to be defeated – not only did we secure grants for museum operations but we continued to develop our plans for ‘Brunel Reinvented’ – a new museum visitor centre and a huge activity plan for future public engagement and inspiring a great future for school pupils and locals. Through the pandemic we continued to focus on finessing the development phase of the project and managed to achieve NLHF and other organisations’ grant funding, planning permission, technical approvals etc. To be fair, this was hard work, but seemed more like the day job to me.
What has been so much more rewarding is the steady, measured and gradual way we have collectively risen from the ashes of Covid and the past.And in the face of adversity; reduction in visitors, rising costs, cost of living crisis, war in the Ukraine – we have developed and championed our amazing team of employees, volunteers and trustees to make some really good things happen. With the recruitment of a new Director in November 2020, 2021 saw new beginnings; the Director starting in January and five new trustees starting in the autumn of 2021 – this has been instrumental in the stability the museum finds itself in and the almost enviable position of great prospect.
We have many achievements, thanks to the dedication of staff, volunteers and trustees but these are some that I would like to note and applaud:
- £145k Arts Fund grants secured
- Tunnelling through time online Escape Room game
- Events bookings for the shaft
- Cultural and social events in the museum grounds
- Partnerships with STEMazing & Bank of England Museum
- Christmas with the Brunels video
- Arts Fund supported crowd funding for the Marc Brunel water colour display cabinets achieving 123% funds raised
- U3A research into the lives of the people who built the tunnel some 200 years ago
How the world has changed in 200 years and yet the tunnel is still a perfectly functioning tunnel transiting people through it in trains – not quite its original intention…
The museum is now poised to become a star future attraction and inspiration for those that visit, volunteer or work in it, fulfilling our charitable ambitions and creating a place where locals and far travelled people will utilise, appreciate and be inspired by the Brunels and their story.
On that note I share with you more of my story and why I am writing this blog – I am standing down as Chair of Trustees, and about to embark on a new phase of my life – retirement to France; the Dordogne. Actually, not so much retirement as change of direction – I will be creative with ceramics, poetry and pottery, take part in local amateur dramatics and play quite a lot of Bridge. I will engage with the local community and indulge in food, wine, family, friends and cryptic crosswords.
I am confident that I leave the museum on a sound post-Covid footing and with an excellent group of dependable, inspiring, and truly collaborative trustees and a committed and responsible director, supported by her effective and first rate staff and volunteers.
We have a new Chair in Richard Davies, who has been my Vice Chair for many months. Richard is Head of Collections Programmes at the British Library and I wish him every success.
We are about to recruit a number of new trustees – if you have a passion for the museum and its objectives I would encourage you to apply.
Dana Skelley OBE MBA BEng CEng MICE FCiHT