'Experience Barnsley' - a museum and archives discovery centre

Effective community engagement has been key to the success of a new museum which celebrates Barnsley’s past, present and future. This case study forms part of the Value of culture - community engagement section of our online Culture Hub.

‘Experience Barnsley’ is a museum and archives discovery centre designed to share the stories of Barnsley and its people and create a sense of belonging through local history. Barnsley’s communities worked with councillors, officers and other partners for eight years to create the museum, which is located in the historic town hall. A new town square has also been created.  

Barnsley has faced major challenges over recent decades – in particular the demise of coalmining, which had sustained the borough for generations. Barnsley Council’s regeneration consultation revealed a clear demand for a local museum. There was strong political support, which was key during the negotiations with funders in terms of building relationships at the right level.

The project aimed to:  

  • inspire and motivate future generations
  • have a positive impact on the lives of communities
  • provide a place for all generations to spend time together
  • create a facility that would act as a showcase for Barnsley.

The total cost was £4.4 million, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£2.6 million), European Regional Development Fund (£1.5 million) and Barnsley Council (£300,000). Support from other partners and the community was also critical.

Impact of the project

Barnsley’s communities have historically had low engagement with cultural activity but there were high levels of interest, engagement and direct contribution to this project. More than 15,000 people took part in events and roadshows. A genuine sense of having been ‘created’ by the people of Barnsley emerged well before the museum opened. In 2014, Barnsley Council won the Local Government Chronicle award for community involvement.  

Sue Thiedeman, Head of Culture and Visitor Economy, said:

Local people really wanted this and were passionate about it. There was strong political support to do something which would clearly be a great source of local pride. The learning from the project, building key relationships and creating confidence has been pivotal in Barnsley’s improvement journey.

Footfall has exceeded expectations, with 150,000 visitors in the first year and around 75,000 a year since then (the projection was 50,000). Evaluation and surveys have demonstrated success in delivering on the initial aims. Many visitors say the museum has made them proud of their town or inspired by its stories; 96 per cent of those surveyed said they would return and 67 per cent were planning to visit other cultural venues.

Looking to the future 

Creating the museum within the town hall has led to a closer relationship between the council and community. The project has highlighted the value and impact of culture in changing people’s lives and driving economic improvement. As a result, the culture and visitor economy service is now valued more highly within the council, both through investment and encouragement to develop new ways of working. Visitor economy partners across the borough are working more closely together and taking forward a joint approach to developing the visitor offer.

The challenge of delivering the museum service with reduced resources remains, but a strong programme of engagement activities and exhibitions is maintaining interest. There is also greater engagement with the archive service: Barnsley’s archives are now the busiest in South Yorkshire with over 25,000 visitors each year.

Key learning points

  • Getting the right people around the table is critical, backed by strong leadership and political support to make things happen.
  • Effective community engagement should be in place from the start, and this includes reaching out to communities seen as disengaged from cultural activity. 
  • Activities that engender pride and interest in a place can help to raise the confidence and aspirations of its people. 

For further information contact Sue Thiedeman, Head of Culture and Visitor Economy, Barnsley Council: [email protected]


This case study has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England