My takeaways from the SHARE Museums East conference

Last week I went to SHARE Museums East’s annual conference held at the stunning Firstsite gallery in Colchester, aimed at people working in and with museums in the East of England. The theme was ‘Embrace, Empower, Employ’.

I was there as a delegate and also as a representative of the Museum Freelance Network, presenting a break-out session on Working with Freelancers aimed at museums’ representatives and hosting a Museum Freelance stand with fellow consultant Claire Adler in the breaks. It’s great that SHARE recognises the importance of freelancers and consultants to our sector and provided a platform for us to develop relationships between the network and museums in the region.

As ever with cultural sector conferences, delegates’ and speakers’ passion, dedication and quest for learning and sharing really came across during the day.

Here are my four main takeaways from the day:

1.The need to matter to and resonate with people

Several speakers talked about the importance of being relevant and resonating with people, and not just thinking about current audiences, but a broad range of diversified audiences from across your local community and beyond.

Helen Wilkinson from the Association of Independent Museums began her presentation with an exercise that involved us talking to a neighbour about a cultural experience we haven’t done before,and why. Reasons subsequently shared included prohibitive costs, parking issues, looks boring or uninteresting, not having anyone to go with and not wanting to go on your own, and not feeling comfortable doing it.

This exercise is something I’ve done in workshops before too as I think it helps people empathise and think about how others may view museums. Whereas people who work in museums tend to love them and feel very comfortable in them, there are likely to be other cultural experiences which they don’t feel the same about, for example an art gallery, opera, contemporary dance, comedy gig. I think the exercise helped delegates to think more broadly about engagement, motivations and barriers to visiting. It linked with the Open Up Museums project AIM co-funded which has a useful guide to support museums in increasing the diversity of their visitors.

2. The need for collaboration and partnerships

We can’t do everything on our own or be experts in everything, so we need to consult with audiences, stakeholders and specialists.

For example Lauren Ephithite, assistant curator at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk talked about Gressenhall’s successful work to become an autism-friendly museum and their ‘Early Birds’ programme. Lauren emphasised the benefits of working with Autism Anglia and consulting guidance such as Vocal Eyes’ resources on the project.

Victoria Ryves from Heritage Doncaster echoed this and talked about partnerships that make real and measurable impacts and aren’t tokenistic.

3. The need to step outside your comfort zone

Several speakers touched on this, the idea of pushing beyond what is ‘safe’ and you are comfortable with. “Be brave” and “be open to opportunities” said Sarah Russell, director of The Norris Museum in Cambridgeshire.

Lauren reassured delegates that you can “start small” and “use the word ‘trial’” to help manage people’s expectations at the start of your journey.

And consultant Claire Adler talked about the need to challenge what you display and how you display it in an important taster talk on decolonising collections, referencing practice in the sector on this such as Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s The Past is Now exhibition and the Endeavour Galleries at the National Maritime Museum.

4. The importance of clear positioning and branding that resonates with audiences

Although there weren’t many (or maybe any) references to the words ‘positioning’ or ‘branding’, that’s what this takeaway boils down to.

A couple of examples:

Tim Bryan, head of collections and interpretation at the British Motor Museum in Warwickshire shared how prior to a recent HLF-funded refurbishment project which included a re-brand, many people thought the museum – then called the Heritage Motor Centre – was actually a garage, and that its appeal was rather limited.

As part of the project, they changed the name of the organisation to the British Motor Museum; started emphasising stories rather than just objects in the collection; changed the layout of the exhibitions with fresh and interactive interpretation; and started running programmes and activities for a broader range of people, interests and needs. An example is their new leaflet which is vibrant and showcases people and the experience people can expect from a visit, not just the cars.

Another example was given by Caroline Pantling, heritage service manager at The Scouts Heritage Collection: they used to talk about what Scouts do, but now they talk about why they do it. This is a classic marketing approach – highlighting the benefits of a product or service (the ‘what’s in it for me?’) rather than just a feature (a factual statement about what it is you do or provide).

I’m going to do a future blog post about positioning, features and benefits as they are something I’m really passionate about and think many organisations in the cultural sector still need to develop.

Steve Miller, head of Norfolk Museums Service, summed up the day as “energising, inspiring, uplifting, thought-provoking and enjoyable” and hopefully the sharing and conversations will continue throughout the year until SHARE’s next conference.

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