Posts Tagged ‘heritage’

Celebrating rejection

In Museums on August 17, 2017 at 3:46 pm

The life of a consultant means regularly pitching for work.

My freelance CV over the last decade or so in the museum sector looks pretty good. But I don’t win every project I apply for and sometimes the news of an unsuccessful pitch can be a blow.

Rather than glossing over those projects that I didn’t win or hiding them away in the corner, I thought I’d share them, in the spirit of being open and honest.

Today, I stuck my rejection emails to my office door, in an act of celebrating my own failures.

Why am I doing this?
It’s partially in response to a twitter post by Nick Hopwood @NHopUTS and subsequent blog post sharing some of his rejections for academic papers and research projects.

He says:
“the effect of not sharing our rejections publicly is that we (often unintentionally) uphold the illusion of uncompromised success.”

And I think Nick is right.

Challenging perfection
There’s a belief held by some that we consultants are problem-solvers. We swan in, offer a solution to a problem and swan away again. Well yes, we do do that – especially the swanning.

That doesn’t mean we know all the answers, though. This might come as a surprise to some, but it turns out I’m actually not completely perfect.

By choosing not to explore our own vulnerabilities or failures we consultants are, I think, contributing to an idea that we’re actually any better than anyone else working in the heritage sector. Often, museum consultants simply have wider experience, not better experience, than their clients. We offer perspective and we try to share the best practice that we’ve gathered by moving around within the sector, but we certainly don’t know all the answers.

Being humble
I’d like to think that by sharing a list of projects that I didn’t manage to win, it shows I have at least an ounce of empathy for others when things don’t go quite to plan – your rejected exhibition proposal, your failed HLF bid, your disappointing visitor numbers or shop sales. Life’s a competition, and sometimes we don’t win. We have to learn to deal with that.

It’s also good to take a dose of humility sometimes, and to learn some compassion for when I have to let others down gently. Some of the recurring phrases in the feedback listed here are a rather trite and I’d like to think that in the future I’ll be conscious of how I present negative feedback to others.

Celebrating failure
It turns out there’s nothing new in taking time to reflect on our failures within the heritage sector. There’s even a twitter account already dedicated to museum gaffs. @Museum_Oops is well worth a visit. And, of course, the Museum of Failure is a lesson in eating humble pie.

Go on, have a gawp
For clients of mine, potential clients, and other museum consultants, this post is perhaps a moment to enjoy some schadenfreude while looking at the bids where I wasn’t successful – especially if you won some of these nice gigs. If you did, my wholehearted* congratulations.

If you want to know about my successes, it’s very easy to see. My CV is right here for anyone to view – a half-decent array of projects over the years, I think, and I’m justly proud of it.

But if you want to see the other side of it, then here are my rejections.

Celebrating rejection



Exploring indie arts in Manchester

In Museums on May 28, 2015 at 1:47 pm

I’ve recently relocated from London to Manchester. First stop for me, in any new city, is to check out the cultural life.

Think of Manchester and you’ll think of some great museums (IWM North, Museum of Science and Industry, People’s History Museum, Whitworth etc) as well as the Royal Exchange Theatre and the Halle at the Bridgewater Hall.

But I’m quickly finding that there’s more to Manchester than mainstream offerings. In just a couple of weeks I’ve come across a few independent gems already.

Nexus Art Café in the northern quarter is a charming spot to hang out. I’d previously thought of it as just a place for coffee, cake and a chat amongst mismatched tablecloths and organic tea. But then I was invited to see an exhibition there. BMC Art Collective is a group of students from Stockport who have displayed their work in the back room of this café. Taking music as a starting point, the artists have responded in different media – textiles, graphic art, illustration – and in a range of styles. And just to underline how non-mainstreatm they are, they’ve mounted this show in an underground zine library. An art collective in a zine library in a basement. It’s like a Russian doll of alternative culture.

Around the corner Manchester Craft and Design Centre is home to 30+ artists, working, displaying and selling their works in a converted Victorian market building. It’s fun to skulk around the place, watching artists and craftspeople paint, etch, carve and glaze products right in front of your eyes. Just be careful not to take too much spare cash, or you’ll be coming home with tote bags filled with canvasses, jewellery and ceramics. But do stop in at their café for some Guinness and Whisky cake.

Slightly more mainstream is the talk of the city’s cultural offering right now: HOME. Whatever the political wranglings over how it came to be, HOME is offering a range of artistic programming that is enticing audiences in and giving them much more than cinema blockbusters. I’ve already seen two pieces of world cinema and their opening theatre production The Funfair. The play is not only impressive as a performance, but also a sign that HOME intends not to play it safe when compiling a programme – it’s a bold and, some might say, daring first piece which has surprised audiences.

Here’s to more surprises in Manchester.

Audiences within audiences

In Museums on November 1, 2014 at 10:15 am

A large part of my work time is spent thinking about audiences.

We tend to think of audiences in terms of theatre-going audience, but in the wider heritage and cultural sector we use the word audience to mean anyone who interacts with an organisation – museum visitors, library users, participants in community arts projects etc.

It’s only when we truly understand who the audience for a cultural product is that we can create content that’s suitable for them. It might not be rocket science, but it’s really important. There’s little point an art gallery putting on an academic display if their main audience is mums and prams. Likewise there’s little point offering soft play if you’re audience is professors.

Those are rather extreme examples. And the kinds of organisations I work with tend not to have just one audience – that’s why we talk about audiences. Plural.

The trend over the last decade or so has been to carve the audience  up into audiences – something we might call an audience segmentation. This can be done in a variety of ways. You can sort your audience by gender; by age; by postcode. You can arrange by height order, if you like (not actually as silly as it might sound if you’re a theme park!)

Audience segmentations are generally arrived at in a more though way though. A motivational segmentation might look at why people come to your institution. A behavioural segmentation will respond to what they do when they are there. Or you could combine them both.

It’s only by doing audience research that we can arrive at these segments. And then we tend to give the individual segments hilarious titles such as ‘Cultural Explorers’, ‘Learning Families’ or ‘Inspiration Seekers’. Names aside, it’s a really useful way of thinking about who your audience – and audiences – is/are.

The majority of orgasniations I work with who use a bespoke segmentation might have, say half a dozen key groups that they look at. It means when they’re planning a project they can consider how each of the segments might behave, what their needs are, how they learn and what their expectations might be. Great stuff.

But at a conference this week I was introduced to the notion of micro-audiences. These are segments within segments – or even tiny groupings of people who move between segments. Dr Who fans. Electronic music fans. Great British Bake Off fans. Ex-pats. Diplomats. Red-heads. Transsexual wheelchair-users. Public transport fans from Oxfordshire. Weavers from Perthshire. Left-handers from Northern Ireland.  etc. (NB: at least two of these are audiences I have worked with recently.)

Now there are audiences within audiences, I’ve got a whole new working philsophy to get through. And it’s going to take some time. But if you’ve been playing with the notion of micro-audiences of late, I’d love to hear from you.

Watching visitors

In Museums on October 22, 2013 at 8:39 am

I’ve been doing quite a bit of visitor-watching recently.

As a cultural and heritage audience researcher I try to use as many different methodologies for understanding visitors. We do obvious things like interviews, focus groups, online surveys etc. But we also watch what people do – either by counting them, observing their behaviour or looking at CCTV. And recently I also did a day of participant observation, where I played the role of a visitor for an entire day and watched what people around me are doing.

Watching visitors is, of course, great fun. It’s legitamised snooping, really. But it also tells us so much about what visitors do and think. We might set out to find out which are the busiest areas of a building, or how long people dwell in one space. But we end up finding out things we didn’t expect to learn, which makes it all the more interesting and all the more fun.

When we put all this data together, along with some qualitative findings, we end up creating a sense of how a building operates, how people understand it, where the blockage points are and how they might be remedied. It’s a great health check for your building, to find out how people use it. So go and watch them and see what they’re doing!

“Visitors think …”

In Museums on June 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

You’d be surprised the number of times I hear that phrase.

Some curators I work with will happily tell me that visitors think x, y or z, or that they visitors expect to see certain objects on display. But how do they know what visitors really think? They’re locked away in their dusty storerooms, looking after collections, right? Wrong.

We know that the most successful exhibition content in museums and galleries is designed with the visitor in mind. And so, in recent years, it has become best practice for cultural institutions to undertake research with their visitors – members of the public, carefully selected to help us understand what’s going on in their minds when they are in museums.

Sometimes I help out museums, galleries or heritage bodies with this kind of research. We undertake front end testing – that is finding out what kinds of exhibitions or content people might like to see on display. This is a really useful – and important – process, informing what we plan for the future.

Once ideas are in progress and an exhibition is being developed we might do some formative testing – this is the point where we take ideas that are almost ready and show them to a representative sample of the public who we expect to visit. This is a chance to fine-tune the exhibition and make sure it’s suited to the audience’s needs.

And once the exhibition is open we can also undertake summative evaluation. This involves finding out what people who have seen the display think of it. It’s great when they say they liked it, but if they do, then why? And if not, why not?

It’s all with the aim of making better exhibitions in the future. We find out what doesn’t work and change it. We find out what works and try to replicate more of that.

We do it through a load of different techniques – from traditional focus groups and exit surveys (the person loitering with a clipboard – or nowadays iPad – at the exhibition exit) to telephone interviews and audience forums. We arrange for online questionnaires and sometimes even take part in focussed observations – legitamised snooping on visitors in exhibitions.

Taking part in research can be quite good fun – it gives people a chance to see behind-the-scenes in a cultural institution and sometimes to hear about exhibition well before they are made public. And importantly, it’s a chance to make sure that exhibitions are as relevant to the public as possible.

Ssssh, it’s a secret …

In Museums, Uncategorized on April 23, 2013 at 9:53 am

What do you think about secrets?

There are some necessary secrets we all need to keep – your PIN and passwords; anything to do with the security of the nation; perhaps some personal medical information. But after that I get a bit nervous about keeping secrets.

Someone told me a secret recently. I felt honoured to be told it. And then found myself wondering what I’m supposed to do with that information – apart from keep it secret, of course. But if they’ve told me the secret already, then is it still a secret any more? And does that mean that I’m allowed to share it??

It’s not a hugely important one in the scheme of things – it’s about an exciting plan for an exhibition coming up in a few years. Of course I can’t give any clues as to where the exhibition might be or what it’s about – but I can tell you that it’s pretty darn exciting news in the world of museums and heritage. It’ll be all over the news when it comes to it.

Have I said too much already, I wonder?

No, it’s fine. I’ve just acknowledged that I know something you don’t (unless you’re the person who told me and you’re reading this) which is sort of showing off.

There’s a lot of that in the museum/gallery/heritage sector – people tend to think that the decisions they take in private are much more important than they really are. Some announcements to the press in recent years have supposed to be huge media splashes, but have of course ended up being a public outing of the best-known secret across the sector. Gossip and word-of-mouth are pretty powerful tools.

Perhaps I’ll just keep this post sitting here on my blog for a few years and then, when the mighty revelation comes, I’ll revisit this and see if the secret ended up being kept a secret or if it got blown in the meantime. Watch this space ….

Ups and Downs of museum development

In Uncategorized on February 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Museum and heritage development projects are a bit like roller coasters. There are ups and there are downs.

One minute you’re nervously awaiting a decision – the next you have your arms thrust in the air, screaming with excitement. And at the end of the process, while proud of your achievements, you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Nowhere is this analogy more relevant right now than in the Kent town of Margate, where plans are presently in progress to redevelop the site of an old theme park and turn it into a museum and heritage site.

Dreamland Margate will be the home of the nation’s first roller coaster and theme park museum, if you like. A with a roller coaster almost 100 years-old and a long and respected tradition of entertaining families by the seaside.

The town is on a high after the success of Turner Contemporary, which opened there last year.

But, alas, they are in a spot of bother at the moment as the people who own the land on which the site sits are contesting a compulsory purchase order. It’s going through a local inquiry now and they’ll know more in the summer, but in the meantime there’s a piece all about it on Museum [Insider], of course. For the moment though, this ride isn’t going anywhere.

I’m due to make a visit to Margate later this year, so see the Turner Contemporary again and to check out more of the towns, er, delights. I’ll report back on what I’ve found!

Cuts to cultural spending

In Museum [Insider], Museums, new content on October 21, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Another day of announcements about cuts to public sector spending in the UK, another article about the impact on the heritage sector.

Yesterday George Osborne announced where the cuts will come and broadly where the cuts will take hold in the museum industry. Speaking in the House of Commons, Osborne said:

“Britain’s arts, heritage and sport all have enormous value in their own right, but our rich and varied cultural life is also one of our country’s greatest economic assets. The resource budget for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will come down to £1.1 billion by 2014-15.

Administrative costs are being reduced by 41% and 19 quangos will be abolished or reformed. All that is being done so that we can limit four-year reductions to 15% in core programmes such as our national museums, the front-line funding provided to our arts and Sport England’s whole sport plans.

We will complete the new world-class building extensions for the Tate Gallery and the British Museum.

The Secretary of State will provide details of further projects shortly. I can also announce today that, in order for our nation’s culture and heritage to remain available to all, we will continue to fund free entry to museums and galleries. There is also ongoing provision of the £9.3 billion of public funding for a safe and successful Olympic and Paralympic games in London in 2012.”
Initial analysis in live now on on Museum [Insider]. We’ll be writing up a full analysis of the impact of the coalition Government’s actions and spending review in the coming weeks, together with more detailed information about the exact implications of the spending reductions.


In Museum [Insider], Museums, new content on October 15, 2010 at 8:17 am

We all know what a quango is now, right? (Quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation).What have they got to do with heritage?

Yesterday the coalition government announced its review of the 679 quangoes and 222 other stautory bodies as part of its huge cost-cutting exercise and in advance of the major overhaul of central Government spending, due out next week.

I took a look through the full list of organisations, bodies and committees to find out, firstly, how much of their work is related to the museums and heritage sector, and also to see how deep the cuts have been in this area. While there have had to be some cutbacks, it turns out that the reduction in Government spending in this area is perhaps not as bad as we anticipated.

Rumours had been circulating that the HLF and English Heritage would have to merge; that the Arts Council was going to be disbanded and that some of the smaller bodies and committees would be completely disbanded.

There have been casualties, but mostly they are in the field of advisory committees (libraries, national historic ships, government art collection, railway heritage). Visit England has also been told to modify its operation and customer focus.

The other big news is the disbanding of the MLA, which we’ve known about for a few months now. The exact effects of this decommissioning are yet to be fully digested by the sector, but the Culture Minister has said that Renaissance will be protected, which is great news for many of the nation’s smaller museums, especially those in the regions.

The great news is that most of the rest of the sector is safe (for the moment). The national museums, British Library, MoD museums, National Archives, Historic Royal Palaces, National Heritage Memorial Fund and Big Lottery Fund are all also safe, although the last of these is being transferred from DCMS to the Cabinet Office. Even Natural England survived, but only by the skin of its teeth.

There’s a fuller analysis of yesterday’s decisions on Museum [Insider] today and there will be more coming as a result of the spending review next week.