Working Lives

Bringing the story of the Broads alive (1996-2019)

Location: Stalham

Nicola is the first curator at the museum of the Broads, part of her remit was to increase visitor numbers to the museum. Nicola introduced the highly successful Heritage Open Days and the museum puts on a special exhibition every year.  

Life before the Museum

I had a fairly nomadic childhood. I was born in Somerset in the 1960s, lived briefly in Bristol, moved to Ireland then actually grew up in Australia. I came back to the UK to do my A levels and took my first degree in Northampton where I majored in History with English. I then worked as an events organiser in Northamptonshire and following marriage I lived in London. Then when my children were very small we moved to Norfolk, where my husband was born, and I have lived here for the last 27 years.

I took a master’s degree in Heritage Management at the University of East Anglia and I did quite a bit of work experience as part of that degree. I worked at Voluntary Norfolk as an administrator and development worker, working with local community groups and charities. I then started work at the Museum of the Broads in January 2010, having worked as a volunteer in the documentation team beforehand.

Attraction to the Museum of the Broads

What attracted me to work at the museum was an interest in history and an interest in the local area.

The aim of the museum is to bring the story of the Broads alive. What fascinates me is the objects and the stories that we display in the museum of the people who lived and worked in this area, over the past few centuries up to the present day.

I’m interested in lots of things about the Broads but especially the lives of the people. Whether they were working on the land as marshmen or marsh women, because marsh women had a pretty isolated life as did their families. Or whether it’s the people who built, sailed or worked on boats. Or the people who were working as farmers or just living in the villages and working as shop keepers. I put on a special exhibition every year and that gives me the opportunity to find out even more stories about people

I’ve lived in the Broads area for 27 years, so I did have an interest in the Broads even before I started working at the museum. I think it’s a fascinating landscape. It’s Britain’s largest area of protected wetland and the whole area is manmade and managed by people which makes it unique. It’s also a haven for wildlife which is fascinating.

Working at the museum also allows me to work with a lot of different, interesting people. The museum employs 80 volunteers and they’re all here because they want to be. They all have skills and experiences different to mine and it’s a fascinating place to be.

Role as Curator

I’m the first curator at the Museum of the Broads so when I joined the role wasn’t really defined. Obviously, there was the administrative side that had to be dealt with, but my remit was to try and bring the number of visitors up.

One way that I have tried to do that is by putting on a special exhibition every year; we’ve covered lots of different topics and the whole idea is to look at stories not normally told at the museum. We have covered the First World War and the Second World War. We’ve also looked at beer and brewing, high streets, and this year we’re looking at the Lost Railway of the Broads.

The First World War exhibition was absolutely fascinating. We had a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and we worked with a film maker and local students at Stalham High School to record the stories of local families during the First World War and that then was thebasis for an exhibition which we put on 2014 and then again for 2018. That was a phenomenal project, it got a lot of publicity. A lot of local people were involved, and it was lovely to hear so many people’s stories about their families during the First World War.

Another way I wanted to improve, from working as a volunteer then as curator, was to make sure that our documentation procedure was absolutely as it should be. I also introduced Heritage Open Days, which have been a phenomenal success. We’re opening for the first time at both weekends this year, so that’s four days. It’s free entry, but we actually take more on those weekends than we would do on normal weekends. That’s because people tend to give donations, they buy items, they stay for light meals and that sort of thing. It’s really popular and it’s fantastic publicity for us because of course it’s nationwide.

We are an accredited museum and there are three areas we need to consider. One area is making sure we attract, and are looking after, our visitors because obviously we need visitors to keep solvent because we raise all our own funding. The second area is to look after our collection so that’s why documenting is so important, plus making sure we store and display things correctly. And the third area is looking after our staff, and our 80 volunteers are our staff. When I joined we had one paid staff member and now we have three, but we also have all these volunteers and we must make sure we look after them properly.

As Curator, I chair the team meeting of volunteers who have roles within the museum. For example they might be team leaders for reception or for the maintenance team or display, they might also have other roles and areas of expertise such as health and safety or operating the boats. We all come together every six weeks to discuss future plans, future direction and how the museum is operating on a day to day basis.

Our volunteers

Before I joined, the museum was operated entirely by volunteers, although it did have another professional from outside helping the museum to achieve its accreditation. Obviously with me in place that is no longer necessary, but the aims are still the same.

Our volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have military backgrounds; some were in the RAF for example; some were boat builders; others were teachers; others had more office-based jobs. But all of them have come here because they have a passion for the Broads and usually want to learn something new. They bring their skills to the museum, but they also want to learn new things and quite a lot just enjoy talking to our visitors about what the Broads are to them.

One of our volunteers, Mike Fuller, is a retired boat builder. He built our wherry cuddy in the museum and he has written a ‘how to build a wherry’ book which has now just been published in a really professional format. I also write booklets for each of the exhibitions plus we have booklets on Falcon and Maria as well.

We aim to be a community museum. Our volunteers come from the local community, I come from the local community and the museum tells the story of the whole of the area. Because of where we are at the northern end of the Broads a lot of our volunteers come from more locally, which means some of our stories are local to us.

We recruit volunteers through many different means. We now use social media, we put posters up, we do a lot of word of mouth, I give talks to various groups, and we were at the Royal Norfolk Show this week. Every way that we can we try to recruit volunteers and we could always do with more volunteers.

About the Museum

The museum opened in Potter Heigham in 1996 and I believe it was free entry  ‑  if not for the first year then for every year it was there, but it just wasn’t sustainable. We’ve charged for entry ever since we’ve been at this site in Stalham which is 1999.

The museum has four buildings. When I joined in 2009, as a volunteer, we still had a very small mortgage to buy the site. That was paid off in 2017 so the Trust owns the site’s four buildings. Since I’ve been here we’ve had a look at how the buildings display objects and how they tell the stories. Each building is now themed, the buildings are now all named after broads; Barton, Surlingham, Wroxham and Oulton.

The first building, Barton, is the building visitors come into, so it has the visitors’ services including the shop and the café. It looks at the story of the wherry and we have model wherries there. Then outside in Friends Way we have some large boats that are undercover but not in buildings, plus we have more objects from wherries. The second building’s Surlingham which looks at the management of the landscape through the work of marshmen and marsh women, it also looks at wildlife plus that’s where the temporary or special exhibition is housed. The third building, the Wroxham room, looks at the origins of the Broads and the origins of the holiday industry. And the final building, the Oulton boat shed, has some of the most iconic craft that ever sailed on the Broads, and those are the boats that are undercover. And around we have other boats and outside we operate our steamboat, Falcon.

We have links with local museums. We’ve worked closely with the Time and Tide Museum, we’ve borrowed items for two exhibitions plus we’ve lent items to them for special exhibitions as well. We have a good relationship with the Norfolk Museums Service particularly through a project they run called SHARE which aims to help local, smaller museums with expertise and with training that they couldn’t get normally. They get a massive grant from Arts Council England to achieve that. We also work closely with the Radar Museum at Neatishead as well.

Because we’re a charitable trust, we could not be part of the Norfolk Museum Service. For the last 10 years museums have been going through a very difficult period. Offering museums is not a statutory requirement for local government and many local government museums have been transferred into charitable trusts. Norfolk Museums Service is fairly unique in not having done that. Keeping its 10 museums there’s no way they would want to take on another museum and there’s no way we would want to be part of Norfolk Museums Service. We’re independent.

We raise our own funds mainly through admissions on the door. We sell items in the shop and the café, and we offer our boat trips as well. We sometimes have special events which we charge for but usually they’re free with entry. We also obtain grants from various sources. We’ve obtained one grant from the Heritage Lottery, but we currently have grants from Sheringham Shoal, from Love the Broads and from Leader which is European funding.

We’re the only Museum of the Broads. So it would be nice to have even more recognition from organisations such as the Broads Authority which is working with us at the moment to publicise our replica water bicycle. If people want to find out about the history of the Broads, the heritage of the Broads and what’s happening now, come to us.

History of the buildings

The two the brick buildings that are now Barton and Surlingham are around 200 years old. In fact the Barton building was actually built in 1820 so it will be its 200th anniversary next year. Both buildings were used as dry stores for wherries because we are situated on the Poor’s Staithe at Stalham. It’s an historic site and it’s the least changed staithe in the Broads, where wherries used to come and load and unload for the people of Stalham.

It’s called the Poor’s Staithe because it was owned by the Poor Commissioners who raised funds to look after the poor of the parish. The two brick buildings were both used as dry stores and latterly for storing coal. The other buildings on site, Wroxham and Oulton, were used for working on boats as boat sheds and the smaller one, Wroxham, was used as offices and was also used as a gym.

The exhibitions

The Lost Railway of the Broads is the special exhibition for 2019. It commemorates the 60th anniversary of the closure of the M&GN line that ran from Great Yarmouth up to North Walsham, Melton Constable and beyond. The railway started in 1876 and it was so important to the development of tourism to the Broads. Without the railway, tourism wouldn’t have happened and gradually boat hire became really important from the 1880s in this part of the world. The railway also really opened up the seaside to people from the Midlands and London and that was when the holiday camps started as well on the coast and the exhibition tells the story of all of that. We worked closely with Barton House Railway this year and the M&GN Circle to get items out onto display.

We’ve got around 5,700 exhibits in the collection and it grows weekly because we’re always given more items. I had an offer this morning which I accepted of two taxidermy birds. Every week we get items, from small items such as family holiday photos which are phenomenal ‑ they’re just wonderful ‑ through to much larger items. Two people have offered us boats recently too.

Each item has to come in with some paperwork. The paperwork tells us how we’ve acquired it, usually it’s been a gift and the donor will sign that paperwork to sign over the item to us. Some items, very few, are on loan for a specified period of three years. Very rarely we buy other items but almost every single item has been donated to us. Once it’s been signed over to us we then have to enter it in two forms, that’s a requirement. One is on paper in a catalogue and the other is electronically on a database that we hold.

The database is currently not accessible to the public because it has donors’ names and addresses on. However, part of it can be made accessible and we would like to put that onto our website as well. The items are then labelled, either put on display or in store depending on how we are going to use them.

Publicising the museum

We publicise the museum in lots of different ways. We have posters and leaflets printed every year, we use social media, we use our website, we’re also on lots of other people’s websites. We’re in the Three Rivers Race booklets and we’re in lots of other magazines, for example we regularly get featured in the EDP and the Norfolk Magazine.

I also give talks to local groups and I’ve been interviewed for local radio stations most notably Radio Norfolk. We’ve done something for Mustard TV and, apart from Great Canal Journeys, I was being filmed yesterday as part of a Channel 5 programme, Walking Britain’s Lost Railways.


We get around 8,000 visitors annually. We’re open from the Easter holidays to the end of the October half term usually. The visitors come from all walks of life, all ages. When it’s not school holidays we mostly get couples sometimes local, sometimes on holiday, depending on the year. In the holidays, particularly the summer holidays, we almost exclusively get tourists although we do run events that attract in local visitors as well, particularly families.

We get some visitors on boats certainly. We’re at the end of the river here so many visitors will get on their boat particularly at Richardson’s and will ‘poodle’ off for a week and come back. Some will come here but not many.  We do get people from other boat yards who are just coming up here and like to stop over in Stalham overnight or just come and visit us briefly because we have mooring up outside the museum.

We do have a working relationship with Richardson’s and we do have a board up at Richardson’s. We also have a board up at Bakers, which is opposite Richardson’s, to tell people that we’re here plus of course the obligatory brown signs advertising us.

Our boats

Our steamboat, Falcon, came to us as an exhibit, and some of our volunteers were involved in getting her operational. She offers boat trips three days a week, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, for our visitors to go and really experience what the Broads are about. Our boat trips also provide the opportunity to spot some wildlife. Kingfishers and otters have been seen but it just is a lovely way to experience the Broads. In 2017 she was filmed as part of a Great Canal Journeys episode which was really lovely.

‘Falcon’ (Picture Museum of the Broads)

We’re in the process of getting a second boat, the Marsh Harrier, an electric boat which should be with us in the next few weeks. That will then extend our offer as she will be wheelchair accessible and we will run her all the days that Falcon doesn’t. So if you come here on any day you’ll be able to get out on the water and that’s really, really important.

However, we’re not just a boat museum. Obviously boats played a very important role in the economic development and the leisure industry of the Broads, but we have lots more items appertaining to the Broads history.

Future of the museum

We are in the process of expanding the museum. As of June 2019 we’re purchasing the Cooke’s Staithe site which is just immediately next door to us. That will give us a lot of opportunity to develop and to be able to display more of our collection than we can at present and tell different stories. At that point we will then be bordered on three sides by water and one side road, so if we want to do more I suppose we’ll have to move one day.

I am also currently working with a website designer to update and create a new website because being online is so important nowadays for people to find out about us. We do still remain a hidden gem. We have signs and we do all we can to publicise ourselves but obviously we’re not on the main thoroughfare, so we have to work to get people to come and visit us.

Nicola Hems , 2019

Nicola Hems talking to  WISEArchive at Stalham, Norfolk, 28th June 2019.

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