by Miranda Rowlands, SHARED Enterprise
This year’s annual SHARE Conference was held at the National Trust’s stunningly beautiful Ickworth House in Suffolk.
With less than ten days before the publication of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, there was a definite sense of uncertainty about the future, or perhaps more accurately, about just how bad the news would be. But those concerns felt trivial in light of the dreadful events that had happened just three days earlier in Paris. We showed respect for the victims of those attacks with a minute’s silence. Following that moment of reflection, I couldn’t help but wonder, what difference can museums make if, as it seems, we haven’t learnt any lessons from history?
It feels important to share that context, because actually the question of museums’ relevance in society is one we need to ask ourselves, and more importantly our local communities, so that we can understand where we fit in the bigger picture, communicate it clearly to others, and use that knowledge to shape our aspirations for the future.
I’d like to share what were, for me, the top five SHARE Conference 2015 messages:
- Ask the ‘wicked questions’
Director of the Museums Association, Sharon Heal, urged us to ask ourselves the ‘wicked questions’ like, what use is a museum? Go ahead and ask it! Then think about how to answer it. She posed the particularly challenging question, what use is a museum in the refugee crisis? Should museums be doing something about it? Can we be any use at all? What are the limitations of our responsibilities? To begin to answer these questions, Sharon suggests we try ‘upside-down thinking’; that is to say, examining issues from different angles, to help discover new solutions. It’s a concept Sharon heard about from Mark Holmgren, Chief Executive of the Bissell Centre, an organisation that works to end poverty and homelessness. Holmgren suggests museums should be about the future, and helping to solve social problems, rather than focussing on the past. One museum’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis? To act as a collection point for people to bring donations to support the aid effort. There’s an excellent use for a museum in a refugee crisis!
- Talk to your visitors!
We all love museums. Of course we do, or we wouldn’t work in them. So do our visitors, or they wouldn’t come, but do we really know exactly what it is that people love? Katie Childs, Policy and Projects Manager at National Museum Directors’ Conference (NMDC) talked about the national ‘I Love Museums’ campaign, which is asking people to say why they love museums, with some extremely well-articulated views being expressed. Museums are unique, Katie said, in that they serve ‘public past, present and yet to be born’. The message that ‘Museums Matter’ has never been more important. We need to be having those conversations with our visitors, finding out what exactly it is that fuels their love for museums. Get a supply of ‘I Love Museums’ postcards and badges from NMDC to help you introduce the subject with visitors. We should also be telling influential people in our communities, like MPs, what we’re doing that’s so important. Preferably invite them to visit and see for themselves – Katie says the best day to get your local MP’s attention is a Friday – or better still, invite them to visit with their family at the weekend.
- Tell the world!
Go to the press with your ready-to-print story – don’t wait for them to come to you – and be the good news stories, no matter what challenges you might be facing behind the scenes. Tim Williams, Managing Editor for Archant Norfolk, brought practical advice on press releases. All sorts of things make good news stories, but look for the human angle. A new acquisition is very exciting, but what difference is it going to make to your community? Tell stories about special events, new exhibitions, winning awards, and always tell the stories of the people involved. Think about what the press office needs from you – a compelling story that’s NEWS (as in still current, not weeks old), quotes from people involved, good images and contact details of people for further information or extra quotes if needed. From personal experience, I can tell you that if you submit a well-written press release and images of a reasonable quality, you stand a good chance of getting your story published. And the more stories you have printed, the more likely you are to have future stories published too. Local papers love to have a reliable source of good news stories that they can return to, and building a good relationship with your local press is beneficial for both parties.
- Community engagement works both ways
We’re very used to communities engaging with us, whether it’s school groups, local history societies, parent and toddler clubs… it’s what we want, and the more diverse our audience the better. Through various types of outreach provision, we even go to them, which is great, but what other ways are there to engage with local communities? We heard from several museums in our region who are proactively putting themselves at the heart of their communities. I’d like to highlight two of the case studies shared at the conference –Stevenage Museum, and Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury.
Mark Bills, Director of Gainsborough’s House, talked about the importance of Thomas Gainsborough to the local area, and not only Gainsborough himself, but the Suffolk landscapes he made famous in his paintings. Mark has been particularly proactive in engaging with businesses in the local community, and with the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), who are working in partnership to develop and market Sudbury as a cultural tourism destination. It’s in everyone’s interests to attract more visitors to the town, and Mark is making a significant contribution in helping to achieve this. It’s not just about increased visitor numbers and how much money they spend in the town. By working in partnership with the business community, Mark has raised the profile of Gainsborough’s House and gained business partners who will help support the museum, whether acting as advocates or by other means. Gainsborough’s House has an excellent relationship with their neighbours, Vanners Silk Weavers, for example, and I’m delighted that SHARED Enterprise has been able to support Gainsborough’s House in exploring ways to develop this mutually beneficial relationship.
I was also particularly inspired by Stevenage Museum’s story. In July 2015, disaster struck. Torrential rain caused flooding, forcing the museum to close its doors. With visitors already booked to take part in summer events, they had two choices, Curator Jo Ward explained; they could turn people away, or they could invite them in to help. So that’s exactly what they did. Once the site was made safe and the extent of the damage had been assessed, people were invited to attend workshops where they were given training and then allowed to clean and repack objects in new boxes, supplied by neighbouring museums. Although not completely back to normal, the museum has reopened and plans to hold a party to thank their army of helpers. What impressed me most about this is that it’s such a resoundingly positive response to the situation. You could argue that there’s an element of risk in inviting members of the public to help with collections like this. Of course doing so would be inappropriate for objects requiring specialist care, and you’d probably think twice about rare or high-value objects, but apart from in those instances, why not? From the public point-of view, they could feel good about helping, and they had a unique opportunity to get hands on with the collections. From the museum’s point of view, the clean-up operation was finished far quicker than if they hadn’t had any help, and they were able to keep in touch with their audience whilst it was happening.
- Austerity is a time for creative responses
My final point comes from Ruth Battersby Tooke, Curator of Costume and Textiles at Norfolk Museums Service. Certainly austerity was a catalyst in inspiring ‘Pin Money’, a project developed by Ruth through the MA Transformers programme (and also partly supported by SHARED Enterprise). Tasked with becoming ‘more entrepreneurial’ and looking for a different angle on product development, Ruth came up with the idea of working with designers and makers to produce a bespoke, high-end range of desirable products based on the collections. Using collections as inspiration for students, Ruth has developed the idea further, in partnership with Norwich University of the Arts. In an age when everything, from shopping to salad to social media is curated, Ruth asks, what role do curators have? That sounds like a ‘wicked question’ to me, and Ruth has certainly been doing lots of ‘upside-down’ thinking to find her creative response.
These are challenging times, and without doubt there are many more challenges to come for museums of all types and sizes. There are no magic solutions, but there are ways we can help ourselves. Ask yourselves the questions. Examine them from a different angle. Think about ways of working in partnership within your communities, and ways to raise your profile. Raising the profile of museums in our communities is something we can all do, and we must. It can be as simple as talking to our visitors or telling your good news to the press. It can be about asking your community to help you. Best of all, it can be doing something to help your community.