Director aims for heritage museums reboot in Sheffield after a life in the arts

Helen Featherstone, the new director of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.
Helen Featherstone, the new director of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.

Widening the appeal of Sheffield’s heritage, increasing the number of visitors to the city’s historic sites from further afield and recruiting more volunteers are challenges Helen Featherstone is looking forward to tackling.

The newly-appointed director of the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust begins her job in less then two weeks, and has started mulling over where to channel her energies in a time of change at the organisation, which looks after Kelham Island Museum, the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, and the Shepherd Wheel on the Porter Brook.

“I want to do a lot of listening - to work with the staff, trustees, volunteers and visitors, and hopefully people who don’t visit as well, to find out what the museums mean to people now, and how they can mean more to them in the future.”

Helen admits she has a tough act to follow. Her predecessor, John Hamshere, stood down as chief executive after 23 years in June, and is credited with saving the River Don Engine at Kelham, steering the trust through tough cutbacks and pulling in hundreds of thousands of pounds in funding to pay for restoration work.

But she should have the pedigree to bring a fresh approach. While John was an industrial archaeologist, Helen’s background is in culture; she’s leaving a national role as senior manager for engagement and audiences at the Arts Council.

She grew up in Ecclesall, went to Dobcroft and Silverdale schools, and still lives in the same part of Sheffield. An MA in cultural policy and management at Sheffield Hallam University led to the start of her career, working for drama groups Dead Earnest and Vincent Dance Theatre. Helen later held the post of senior arts development officer at Kirklees Council, before moving to the Arts Council in 2009.

“I’ve always worked all over the country, so to work in Sheffield which I know really well feels quite nice, to bring those skills back to where I live. I loved art at school and visiting museums and heritage sites a child. I’ve got some really lovely memories of being with my grandad watching the River Don Engine. Running industrial museums wasn’t necessarily something I thought of immediately. But you find different paths. I saw this job and the more I thought about it, the more excited I got about it.”

Kelham has plenty of untapped potential, she believes. In Helen’s eyes, the museum could be more closely aligned with the ambition to create an ‘urban village’ in the surrounding area, as homes, workspaces and fashionable restaurants spring up rapidly.

“There are a lot of interesting housing developments, and it will have more footfall than it’s ever had before. It’s becoming really vibrant. In terms of arts and cultural audiences, there are some quite interesting groups that live in and around that area, so I’m really interested in linking more with very local residents, as well as those of the Sheffield City Region and beyond.”

She continues: “There are a lot of industrial heritage sites in South Yorkshire, and up into West Yorkshire, and as a collection they are potentially quite attractive to visitors. I’m interested in working in partnership with cultural partners within the city, and outside.”

Meanwhile, the trust will be teaming up more regularly with its counterpart, Museums Sheffield - custodian of the Graves and Millennium galleries, and Weston Park Museum - using an extra £800,000 in Arts Council funding over four years. The ambition is to assemble a unified programme ‘telling the city’s whole story’.

“Both sets of museums are interested in working more closely together, so we can share different specialisms and skills and provide a more co-ordinated offering.”

Helen accepts that money will be tight. The trust’s budget faces a five per cent cut this year, and the pressure is on to find new income sources, such as events.

Strengthening the volunteer base is vital, too. Helen is a trustee and former chair of Ignite Imaginations, a Sheffield-based charity that runs art classes, experience likely to stand her in good stead as she strives to connect with diverse communities.

“The sector term I suppose, which isn’t that friendly, is ‘audience development’ - that’s my background, working to connect people more clearly with arts and culture. That’s absolutely my specialism and what I intend to use to engage with people.”

Older people will be especially welcome on Helen’s watch. “If you’ve always been a passionate and avid visitor of museums, why should you not be able to visit them just because you’re older?”

Helen, 39, is married to Dr David James, director of Sheffield Hallam University’s centre for sports and engineering research. They have a ‘very arts, sports and cultural household’, she laughs.

“We’re either at the theatre, or cycling, or running.”

Clearly the directorship’s duties mirror Helen’s passions, an impression that’s reinforced as she muses on the merits of the Abbeydale hamlet. “It has a very different feel because of its heritage in farming, and making scythes. It’s almost 1,000 years old, it’s remarkable the crucible still exists there. And things are still being made there, with the blacksmiths and artists. A key thing will be how to maintain those traditional crafts and skills, passing them on to the next generation.”

Exciting times for Sheffield’s cultural identity

Sheffield is in the midst of a ‘really exciting time culturally’, Helen Featherstone says.

“I’ve lived here for a long time, so I’m in touch with the cultural scene in Sheffield, and I know a lot of the people who work in the different cultural organisations.

“I think the city has come a long way in the last few years.”

She cites Sheffield Theatres - which could have a West End hit on its hands with the imminent transfer of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, an in-house production - as a prime example.

“The theatres are really performing well at the minute. You’ve also got people like Professor Vanessa Toulmin, building the festivals circuit and networks, and then things like the Year of Making - I’m really interested in the legacy of that. There are a lot of cities that say ‘Made In’ as a brand, but Sheffield really does have an identity around ‘Made In Sheffield’.”