An Interview with the Guardian of the ‘Mighty Beasts’.

On a grey day in November, I visited Solent Sky Museum in Southampton. My mission was to interview the manager Steve Alcock to hear his experiences about running a museum and to gather advice that would be invaluable for anyone looking for clues on running their own museum or exhibition.
Photograph of one of the mighty beasts

Those of us who had arrived early had already enjoyed a coffee and browsed the gift shop where there was a display of cards, postcards, model cars and airplanes. While I sat at a café table under the aircraft exhibits, I thought about the sights we would see on the tour. This, I anticipated, would fill in the gaps in my knowledge of this museum’s stories, and bring these huge metal beasts to life.
We were greeted by a pleasantly cheerful and relaxed Steve Alcock, museum historian, for our tour of the Solent Sky Museum.Steve was a natural storyteller and the ‘cheeky chappy’ talk was reminiscent of the friendly banter I remember from Fords workers, or even my own grandfather, who liked to tell a tale or two to us enthralled grandchildren.
Steve Alcock at reception - illustration by Jackie Eksi

I wondered how many memories this place would induce in veterans who witnessed the war first hand, or those who had scanned through the grandparents’ faded sepia photos in dog-eared albums looking at planes, uniforms and bombed out wreckages of Southampton.
The tour was informative, and entertaining. I was impressed by the astronaut suit in the corner, and Steve’s name dropping of an astronaut he’d met - the conversations he’d had with heroes that we had heard of, and those we hadn’t.
The next place we were shown was the extensive book and archives library at the back. While our team of researchers set about the pages of information, I took the opportunity to find a quiet place to hold an interview with Steve covering his job as historian and curator of the museum.
I had set out a series of questions the night before, just for my own prompting. I wondered what skills does a social entrepreneur need to run museum? How do you get people to visit a museum tucked away from the busy public walk-ways of the city centre? How did this incredible museum get itself noticed?
Steve mentioned in several points during the interview the museum’s strong links with the city’s schools, colleges, and universities, and with the tourist agencies running tours from the cruise liners. A warm welcome is also extended to seniors from sheltered housing and veterans’ societies. I concluded that this diverse visitor base, with funding and grants attached, is the key to keeping the museum financially ticking over.

Steve stressed how important it is to know your museum or exhibit subject. Visitors will have questions and queries. It helps if you have really considered and found out as much about what you are exhibiting as possible - everything from the practical things like opening days and times, contact details of exhibitors, parking and bus routes, to the stories within the exhibits.

Observation and intuition are important qualities for Steve too; knowing that people come because they might have a story or connection of their own. For the visitor, there is nothing like getting the opportunity to share your own memories of a place, person, or event - being listened to makes the visit a rewarding and repeatable day out.

During the interview, Steve demonstrated his intuition in action. There were a couple of museum visitors who entered the photo gallery display room during the interview. They were unaware we were recording and were happily chatting away, Steve drew their attention to the fact the recorder was on but took the time to talk to them for a few minutes. This proved to be a very good insight to Steve’s skills of weighing up how much to interact with the visitors passing though and his excellent recall of the regiments and ranks these men were from when in service.

Interview in action -  illustration by Jackie Eksi

After the interview was concluded, I came to a few conclusions of my own; that indeed being a confident and personable individual is an advantage in the museum setting, so is a good knowledge of the subject of the museum or exhibition you are invigilating. I felt that being a good judge of body language is also useful. A closed body language might mean visitors want to browse quietly or reminisce on something personal. Not everyone wants their private thoughts interrupted. Others, however, might feel neglected if no attempt is made to talk to them. So, I think it’s important to observe and get a feel for the people’s mood when they walk in. I suspect this gets easier over time.
My overall experience of the museum was positive. The main hall was well laid out and roomy with well-lit exhibits, clearly labelled titles and interesting information. I am a very visual learner and I was keen to see how photographs were displayed and labelled. I particularly liked that the background boards themselves were blown up with large photographs of the same subject of the photos they contained. Clever that. And the mix of objects and planes in one room with a side room for photos made it easier in my case to take in smaller details without the bigger displays distracting my eye.  
One of the photographs on the story boards

Solent Sky Museum is well worth a visit. It is well set out with atmospheric displays and rich information about Southampton’s aviation heritage. It captures an era and dramatic events, but with the safety of a warm welcome and the staff’s knowledge and camaraderie. I plan to return with my partner and Grandchildren as there is plenty more to explore.

By Jackie Eksi, Transition project volunteer and artist

151 Albert Road South, Southampton. SO14 3FR.
Open 7 days a week, 10am – 5pm. Last entry 4pm.

Solent sky is an aviation museum housing sea planes, aircraft, helicopters, aeronautical memorabilia and a NASA astronaut suit. It tells the story of Southampton during WWII, including the fatal bombings of Woolston Supermarine and Cunliffe Owen where Spitfires and Seafires were made.


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