"Visitors truly bring Sheffield museums to life - and we are counting down to reopening"

We’re counting down the days – in mid-May, Sheffield’s museums will reopen for the first time in six months and we’re excited to welcome you back.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 6:00 am
Sheffield Museums can't wait to welcome people back

We, along with the nation’s gyms, cinemas and theatres, closed our doors for the second time in November and, apart from visitors to our pop-up makers’ shop in the run-up to Christmas, the only people on site since then have been colleagues continuing to care for the buildings and the collections.

This week I feel like I’ve rediscovered the museums. In spending time in all of them as we plan for our future as the newly established Sheffield Museums, I’ve been reminded that they’re amazing spaces brimming with extraordinary collections. That said, it’s abundantly clear that something is missing. As wonderful as they are, the museums can be solemn, even spooky places when they’re empty – and while everyone loves the Night at the Museum fantasy where the Woolly Rhino runs riot after the doors close, the reality is that it’s actually our visitors that truly bring the museums to life.

From seeing children wielding plastic swords and students discovering something for the first time, to grandparents sharing tales of Sheffield past, friends in deep conversation over a cup of tea and a slice of cake, or people telling one of the team how moved they’ve been by a story in the displays, we’re all looking forward to feeling that buzz and connection again.

Whilst we’ve been closed, colleagues have been hard at work curating, researching, cleaning and installing. At Kelham Island Museum, the mighty River Don engine is ready and waiting to reverse its 56-ton flywheel in the blink of an eye and the volunteers at the Ken Hawley Tool Collection are keen to share the stories of the families and communities whose names have adorned Sheffield knives over hundreds of years. Everyone who cares for the museums is keen to be back to doing what we do best; helping people understand the city’s past so we can learn how to build our collective futures.

At the Millennium Gallery, Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things will bring some welcome joy and glamour in a new photography exhibition direct from the National Portrait Gallery.

We’ll also debut an inspiring new exhibition created in partnership with the charity Koestler Arts and young people navigating the justice system, which demonstrates the power of creativity to change lives. At Weston Park Museum, we’re really pleased to welcome back The Sheffield Project: Photographs of a Changing City, which explores a pivotal chapter of the city’s story during the 80s and 90s and went on display just before we entered lockdown.

Museums love an anniversary – in the weeks to come we’ll be marking Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet’s 51st year as a museum, after the 50th anniversary celebrations were curtailed by the pandemic. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on the importance of this Scheduled Ancient Monument and consider what the future might hold. Built alongside the River Sheaf, the water-powered workshops on this site covered include every element of the scythe-making process, from the crucible furnace that produced the steel, to the tilt forge and grinding workshops that created the finished blade.

The Hamlet closed its doors as a works in 1933 and soon after it was bought for the city by the philanthropist J G Graves – it took another 30 years and thousands of hours of volunteer and specialist expertise before the site opened as a museum. Fifty-one years later and the Hamlet is as beautiful as ever, the dam is teeming with life and the waterwheels are restored, powerful and ready to drive.

The hamlet, the museums and the city’s collections are all markers of our history, but we need people and the experiences they’ve lived to make sense of them. When I visit, I see our heritage threaded through the fabric of these sites and it’s impossible not to be inspired by the possibilities. It’s our visitors who animate the museums, and the objects they house, through their memories and stories – history is a living, dynamic thing, it continues to unfold and reveal itself with every person who finds a connection with an exhibit or display, it shapes us and in turn, enables us to shape our futures.

In less than a month, we’ll reopen the museums and we can start exploring that history together once more. Next week we’ll be announcing our reopening dates and full plans of how we’ll be welcoming visitors back safely. Until then, we’ll keep counting down the days.