CASE STUDY: How Walsall museum is cooler than Ben Stiller

In Ben Stiller’s  blockbuster ‘Night at the Musem’ exhibits burst to life when the public aren’t around.

Cowboys and Indians come alive and a giant dinosaur plays fetch with a bone.

Walsall museum stores aren’t quite on a par with Washington DC’s Smithsonian but one thing is the same: You’d be amazed what you can find.

Thousands of items are stored as only a fraction can be put on public display at one time.

So how would social media connect a museum stores with residents? Here’s how. In a way that is way cooler than Ben Stiller.


One Spring Saturday, photographers of the Walsall Flickr group were given special access all areas to take pictures at Walsall Council’s museum stores.

Street signs, an ARP helmet, and typewriters were just some of the treasure trove.

So were items of the nationally important Hodson Shop collection, a huge collection of working class clothes from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Eight photographers spent more than two hours poring over hundreds of artefacts.

What resulted in an amazing explosion of pictures of often rarely seen treasures. Take a look at some of the shots here.

More than 150 images were posted on Flickr in the days after and more than a dozen positive comments were posted on the group’s discussion board.


Why bother? Why arrange this?

It’s as simple as this: what’s not to like about pictures of Walsall artefacts taken by Walsall people?

Simple as the idea was, three months of planning led to the event itself.

Much praise needs to be given to talented photographer Steph Jennings (@essitam on Twitter) and the forward-thinking Walsall museum curator Jennifer Thomson supported by collections officer Catherine Clarke. Why praise? Because both parties started from different positions and arrived at not just a workable compromise but a groundbreaking piece of work that sets new standards.


At the heart of everything was copyright.

Museums traditionally are very careful to guard copyright of their artefacts.

On the flip side, photographers are very careful to guard their copyright too.

In the past, museums have allowed photographers to take shots only in highly controlled circumstances with copyright signed away.

The Walsall approach was different.

The compromise that was brokered was this: photographers retain copyright so long as they accepted that they wouldn’t be able to bring tripods to take saleable pro shots.

That was fine as the Walsall Flickr members didn’t want to sell images.

The group also agreed to limit the size of the shots they uploaded to 1MB and agreed to ask permission before they used the images.

Crucially, what made this process work was the genuine commitment to make the event work by both Steph and the museum team.

The compromise permission form can be found here.

When social media works well it sees a two way discussion. Brilliant things can happen.

An unexpectedly marvellous spin off led to the setting-up of a museum Flickr group to encourage people to submit images.


This isn’t just shots of the museum but a place where, as Steph suggested, pics can now be submitted for ‘shadow’ exhibitions. Planning an exhibition on seaside holidays? That shot of Great Aunt Maude paddling at Weston-super-Mare can be submitted and used as part of a revolving powerpoint of similar images. That’s something the whole family can go and see. Excellent.

This isn’t a Walsall Council success story, for my money. This is a Walsall success story. It was the coming together of museum staff, the communications unit and most of all the enthusiasm of the borough’s thriving and talented Flickr group that made this work.

What we found can work here can easily work anywhere.

Hosting a Flickr meet: Five benefits to the museum.

1. Connecting with non-traditional audience.

2. Showcasing exhibits and helping to find an online audience for heritage.

3. Art. Great pictures are just that. Art. What better way to showcase your artefacts?

4. A set of marketing pictures. At Flickr members’ suggestion the group were happy for their images to be used by the musem. Many amateurs are keen to get an audience for their work in return for a link to their Flickr page and a pic credit.

5. Pictures to link to via a Twitter stream.

Attending the Flickr meet: Four benefits to the photographer.

1. Rare behind-the-scenes access.

2. Being able to retain copyright of images.

3. A unique photographic challenge.

4. A chance – if you are happy to – to showcase your work through council marketing.

Thanks to: Jennifer Thomson and Catherine Clarke from Walsall museum. Steph Jennings and the members of the Walsall Flickr group who attended the session.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great to see something like this happening in Walsall, well done to all for being so open-minded and forward thinking….can’t wait to see what you come up with next 😉

    (P.S. The link to the google doc form is telling me I don’t have permission to view it!)

  2. Dan,

    Though it pains me to say it; I fundamentally disagree with you about this.

    The idea that a museum can prevent the reuse of visitors’ pictures of an ARP helmet, or a typewriter, or whatever, is ludicrous.

    People should be able to use their pictures – and they are some excellent pictures – in anyway they see fit, commercially or otherwise – and that includes making them available under a free licence, so that others may reuse them, too. It would be great to have such images added to, for example, Wikimedia Commons, so that the might be reused on Wikipedia.

    Compare the attitude taken by Walsall Museum, with that of Brooklyn Museum who recently upload many of /their own/ images to Wikimedia Commons:

  3. Andy,

    Thanks for taking the time to post your comment. It’s an interesting debate and one that has many perspectives.

    I’d always say it’s great to have global examples to aspire to. However, what works in New York may not work from day one elsewhere.

    The reality is that many museums and galleries are protective of copyright as they can be an income stream to help keep them open. That’s the reality of the world that we live in in 2010. If change comes anywhere it often comes by degrees and by taking steps.

    I’d argue that the Walsall museum initiative is a pretty sizable step and the Walsall Flickr group and museum staff who worked on it should be congratulated.

    When judging if any event is a success what truly should matter is if those who took part are happy and in this case they played a massive part in the direction and the amended consent form.

    The original document up for discussion came from a large council in the Midlands which proved not flexible enough for Walsall.

    The Walsall version worked in Walsall and succeeded in opening up stores to people who may not have seen them and to a wider audience through Flickr.

    It’s also led to constuctive conversations with the group and the council about other locations that could be opened up.

    By any yardstick that has to be a good thing.

  4. The venture between the two parties was amazing. Unfortently I could’nt attend this event but I did love all the output from it. Its a shame the venture is incapable of hosting all these amazing treasures at any one time.

    Nice Blog Dan

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