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.

Greener freelancing

Last month Bridget McKenzie guest-hosted a Museum Freelance chat on Twitter on the topic of ‘green’ freelancing.

Bridget is the director of Flow Associates and founder of Climate Museum UK, a mobile museum creatively stirring response to climate emergency and Everyday Ecocide which exposes ecoblindness, erasure of other species and climate denial in media and culture.

We only scratched the surface in the 45 minutes on Twitter, but it felt like a good start to get a conversation going.

Some examples of green freelancing practice people raised were:

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End of project reflection

I recently completed a project working with the Science Museum Group to facilitate and capture staff feedback and reflections on their group-wide learning projects. This fed into a best practice guide and toolkit for the Group’s four museums to use in the future.

It was a fascinating project, and fantastic to see time being set aside for reflection and staff contributions being sought, valued and used.

It got me thinking about my own reflection and project evaluation when client projects come to an end. Whilst I always look back on them and think about them, this has never been a formalised or written-down process.

So I decided to create a simple reflection sheet that I now use at the end of each project, which:

  1. enables me to reflect in a more structured, constructive and consistent way;
  2. identifies lessons for future work to help me improve what I do, how I work, and mitigate similar future issues;
  3. ultimately feeds into business planning work, continually helping me to identify my strengths and preferences in terms of types of work and how I work.

If anyone is interested in having a look or using the sheet, you are welcome to download it as a Word or PDF document and I’d be really interested to hear what methods other freelancers and consultants use.

Train the Trainer: Train the Freelancer

I’ve recently returned from a two-day Train the Trainer course in London with the College of Public Speaking. Whilst I do a fair amount of learning from my office (reading, online network discussions, the odd webinar and online course), it reminded me how valuable it is to get out of the office, really dedicate time and focus on training and learn in a practical way with other participants.

The course:

  • provided plenty of strategies, models and ideas I can implement and use in my training;
  • forced me to step out of my comfort zone as we had to practise presenting in front of the group, watch the film back and be critiqued;
  • gave me the opportunity to take time away from the office to think and reflect.

As a bonus it also provided two professional trainer certifications (with The Institute of Leadership & Management and NCFE).

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5 things I’ve learnt about freelancing in my first 5 years as a freelancer

I’ve recently spent some time reflecting back on my first five years of freelancing. It’s been quite a ride and I’ve learnt A LOT. About business. About the cultural sector. About myself.

Here are 5 lessons I’ve learnt and tips I would give to newbie freelancers:

  1. Be assertive and proactive

Don’t spend hours desperately scrolling on social media hoping that opportunities will come to you. Hunt down tenders and briefs out there, make speculative approaches, get out and about, get involved in online and ‘real’ communities (e.g. #museumfreelance and #museumhour on Twitter), comment and have opinions, write a blog.

Make sure people know who you are, what you can do and how you can help them. Don’t be afraid to hustle and don’t be afraid to ask for testimonials and shout about your achievements – if you don’t, no one will and people aren’t mindreaders!

Learn how to say ‘no’, question things that don’t sound right or you think could be improved and don’t take rejection too personally. These are still a work in progress for me but I’ve found they get easier over time with experience. Learning to say ‘no’ was a theme from one of our 2017 Museum Freelance event speakers, business coach Anna Lundberg, and she has a guide on this that is worth checking out.

  1. Plan, evaluate and reflect

Treat your business as a client or project like any other. Schedule some time to look at your finances, do some marketing, identify your training needs, review how things are going and so on.

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“See research as the start of something”

Takeaways from the Museum Association’s MP seminar on Getting to Know You: Using Visitor Data Intelligently at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 20 September 2017.

Yesterday I spoke at this one-day conference which aimed to explore the different ways data can be used, from diversifying audiences and supporting fundraising to planning exhibitions and events.

My  topic was ‘Demystifying non-user consultation’, talking about how museums can undertake their own research with people and organisations who aren’t currently engaging with them or their services. My aim was to share practical tips and methods that cost very little and could be carried out by museum staff or volunteers. You can find links to links that I referred to in my presentation here.

Here are a few takeaways from some of the other presentations of the day, linked to Twitter accounts: Continue reading

Flintspiration inspiration

In 2015 the Norwich Historic Churches Trust (NHCT) committed to:

  • Playing a major role in Norwich’s tourism offer by presenting the Trust’s portfolio of churches and their architectural, historical and cultural significance in a way which is accessible, exciting and relevant;
  • Developing the Trust’s infrastructure and resources to enable it to deliver an extended programme of public benefits.

This led to a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant of £68,400 to devise and deliver what became Flintspiration, a long weekend of events for all ages celebrating Norwich’s outstanding collection of medieval churches, their role in the city over the centuries and their importance as heritage assets, community and cultural venues and places of worship today. It took place on Saturday 29 April to Bank Holiday Monday 1 May 2017.  Continue reading

Museum Freelance event success

I originally wrote this blog post about the first Museum Freelance event day for the London Museums Group. To find out more about the event it’s worth checking out the Storify capturing the day’s tweets that Marge Ainsley kindly did, and also her insightful reflections on the day.

Fellow freelancer Laura Crossley and I founded the Museum Freelance Network following a #museumhour chat I guest-hosted in the summer of 2016 on freelancing. It seemed there was an interest and demand for some kind of platform for freelancers working in and with museums to come together, learn from each other, share ideas, jobs and issues.

We began with the @MuseumFreelance Twitter account, #museumfreelance discussion hours on Twitter, a LinkedIn group (now with 350 members) and an orange logo with a teapot!

Fast forward 18 months and I’ve just run our first event, with 52 freelancers and people thinking of freelancing attending. Entitled Proactive, Empowered and Confident Freelancing, it aimed to plug a gap in the market by providing high quality, relevant and good value training and time for reflection, organised by freelancers for freelancers and covering some of the main topics that regularly come up in our Twitter discussions.  Continue reading

Audience development – learning from young children

I am lucky to work in a sector which I care deeply about, and with clients who I admire, respect, learn from and enjoy working with.

But now and again a very special project comes along, one which really goes to the core of why I love doing what I do. Still in the City is a project that has inspired me and opened my eyes to new possibilities. It has given me the chance to work with such creative people, so passionate and dedicated to their craft. And it has given me the chance to see an art form through the eyes of very young children.  Continue reading

Media Coverage: Is it really that important for your business?

I was asked to write a couple of guest blog posts about securing media coverage for digital marketing consultancy Crocus Communications, and thought I’d share them here too. This first post focusses on whether trying to get media coverage is worth it and looks and key advantages and disadvantages; next week’s follow-up will look at questions you can ask yourself to help plan your approach.

Media Coverage: Is it really that important for your business?  

One of the most common things I’ve heard clients and potential clients say to me, both as a freelancer and when I worked in a PR agency, is “We want to appear in the media” or variations of this. On the other hand, in the era of social media and digital communications, there are people who question the need for traditional media coverage at all, when there are so many other ways of communicating with your audiences, often more directly.  Continue reading