Museum Makers: Josie Wall, Coffin Works

  • Published 2 September 2019

Birmingham Coffin Works' operations and volunteer assistant tells us about engaging the public with Victorian funerals, a mysterious donation in a bin bag and the importance of replenishing the biscuit tin.

Josie Wall, operations and volunteer assistant at Coffin Works, Birmingham

Josie Wall, operations and volunteer assistant at Coffin Works, Birmingham

The Coffin Works museum is a time capsule. Based in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, it preserves the Newman Brothers factory – where they made coffin fittings, like handles and nameplates, for over 100 years.

I often joke that my job is to keep the building and everyone in it happy. It’s a really varied role because in a small museum you end up doing some of everything, but working with the incredible volunteer team is definitely a big highlight for me.

Working at the museum is a dream job for me. It’s very relevant to my PhD studies focusing on Victorian cemeteries. Although I had been involved in this project before the museum opened, doing some background research, I didn’t become a volunteer tour guide until January 2016.

Volunteer recruitment and training are a big part of my role but I also do marketing, social media, community outreach, school tours, event planning, cleaning the loos… Throughout the day the volunteers can radio if I’m needed to help or cover, so some days I feel like a yo-yo!

If you want to guarantee that something will go urgently wrong in a museum, all you need to do is have the audacity to try to drink a cup of tea while it’s still hot. In my career so far I have learned that working in a museum is hugely rewarding, sometimes difficult, rarely glamorous but usually a lot of fun! I have learned to stay cool in a crisis, to think on my feet and to be creative with solutions.

I have learned so much about people; especially the volunteers. We have some of the most dedicated volunteers I have ever met and it’s a really diverse and dynamic group. I was also amazed to discover that the general public are just as fascinated by Victorian funerals as I am!

I couldn’t do the job without the office biscuit tin. Full tin = happy volunteers. Empty tin = crisis mode.

I love objects and buildings, but without people to bring them to life they wouldn’t be as special. Working in a small independent museum is an amazing way to grow your skills and experience because you get to help with so many projects that you might not be part of in a bigger organisation. Being a volunteer co-ordinator is sometimes seen as a ‘stepping stone’ role, but for me it’s become a real passion.

One day a visitor turned up to the museum with a bin bag which had been in the boot of their car for a year. Inside was a Victorian pall – a 12ft by 10ft black velvet cloth with gold trim and tassels around the edge which would be used to cover the coffin during the funeral procession. We were able to add this incredible object to our handling collection and it is used for special occasions like candlelit tours, and it’s always a hit with visitors.

Before we began using Art Tickets – Art Fund's ticket management system – it was never possible to book online for our guided tours, only for special events. Lots of visitors have commented that they really value being able to book online, and we have noticed that people book further in advance for tours and events now. Now that everything is integrated into Art Tickets it’s easy for visitors to book everything at the same time.

This year just over 35% of our visitors used Art Tickets to book before their visit to the Coffin Works! We are so glad we started using Art Tickets; it's allowed us to grow our visitor numbers and stabilise income which has been a real lifeline, ensuring that our future as a paid visitor attraction is secure.

Some days I joke that I’m here until I get carried out in a box with Gothic handles on it. I’m less than a year away from the end of my PhD and so thinking about the future is terror-inducing. At some point I have to hand in something that at least superficially resembles a thesis... Can I just hide instead please?

The Coffin Works uses Art Tickets, a free ticket management system offering museums and galleries the ability to sell tickets online. Find out more about Art Tickets.


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