Adventures in cross-sector collaboration: learning so far from the Museums Hack Day at Southampton Solent University on 16 June 2017

What a busy day we had on Friday! We had a fantastic turnout at our Museums Hack Day at Solent University. Representatives from over 20 digital businesses and all four of Hampshire’s universities took up the challenge: to come up with innovative, financially sustainable solutions to intriguing real-world challenges brought along by our six selected museums:

The event had been long in the making – in development since last year, as creating an experience that works for three very different communities (commercial businesses, non-profit, often mainly volunteer-run museums and universities) is not easy! First, we created a cross-sector working group of three: me from South East Museum Development Programme; Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Alex Reynolds from Southampton Solent University’s Research and Innovation team and technology innovator Chris Cooper, then Chair of Digital South. My collaborators were introduced to me by Charles Freeman, facilitator of Creative Network South, when I approached him for ideas about how to connect museums with the creative industries in a meaningful way that could create real added value for both. Creative Network South also put in a sum of money to add to our Arts Council England investment and Southampton Solent University generously provided venue facilities at its gorgeous new conference centre ’The Spark’ as an in-kind contribution.

The first meeting between me, Alex and Chris, back in Summer 2016, immediately flagged up that the ‘ideal’ event might look very different depending on whether you were a museum curator, a technology entrepreneur or an academic researcher. So we ran a stakeholder workshop last November with representatives of all three constituencies, to find out more about their distinctive needs – and where the common ground was. At the stakeholder workshop we shared key points from a key source of inspiration, the Culture Hack Toolkit and set out our initial ‘straw person’ design for an event where teams would develop develop technical and creative ideas and compete for a seed funding pot plus plus business planning support package.

We then ran some group discussions to get feedback and ideas from our stakeholders. Key things that we learned, and that influenced the plan for the main event:

  1. Businesses wanted a high quality museum problems to work on, and choice about which ones they addressed.
  2. Most of the interest from digital and creative stakeholders was in addressing audience-related challenges, rather than internally-focused ones purely about business management within the museum or collections management per se.
  3. We needed to use different language, marketing tools and delegate recruitment processes for each. This meant basically tripling the effort compared to a typical South East Museum Development Programme event targeted at museum people! It also meant that we needed a long run up to the main event, so we decided on a 6-month lead time. It was worth it to have such a great variety of players in the room.
  4. Several businesses also wanted the chance to present or pitch their ideas to the museums, and there was a tension between this and the collaborative idea development approach that some others favoured.
  5. Business stakeholders would be much more likely to engage if there was a financial incentive to take part. Many voiced experience of having been expected to ‘work for free’ by good causes and they emphasised that even with the best intentions, they can only do so much of this. A small business has to get some money in at some point to survive.
  6. From all three sectors there was an interest in using technology in the process somewhere.
  7. There was a very variable level of knowledge about what approaches have already been tried and tested, so that there was a real risk of duplication of effort, or reinventing the wheel. So we needed to create space within the event for people to share what they new about existing technologies and approaches, and to do further research.
  8. If there was a competitive element, they would want this to be judged by people with credible, relevant expertise.
  9. There were concerns about how effectively people would work together during the event, given the different working approaches and levels of experience in digital innovation.

All of these valuable learnings fed into the way we planned the main event on Friday:

  1. Before promoting the event to digital and creative businesses and academics, I ran a competitive ‘Expression of Interest’ call, inviting museums to apply for a place at the Museums Hack Day. We promoted this through our established South East Museum Development Programme communication channels. This call was heavily over subscribed and gave the working group plenty of scope to present the digital and creative businesses with six high quality museum problems to choose from. At the event, we gave the digital practitioners and academics a chance to decide which museum to team up with, using colour coded badges to make sure that every museum had a mixed team including at least one digital technologist, one creative, one business and one academic.
  2. The call specifically asked museum suggesting an audience-related (Museum Accreditation section 2) challenge that they would bring to the table.
  3. We then had some pro bono help from Ed Gould of creative agency Carswell Gould to write a ‘business-friendly’ promotional text, Barrie Robinson from Future Basics developed an appealing graphic to go with it and these formed the basis of our Eventbrite booking page. Meanwhile Alex drafted an email communication targeted towards to academics.
  4. Chris created a YouTube playlist for the event so that businesses signing up could upload a 1-minute showreel or promotional video. The link to this was shared via social media and the playlist also ran on a loop on a big screen throughout the event.
  5. We finalised the investment pot for the winning team at up to £2,000 (equivalent to the maximum annual allowance to a museum from out Development Grants) and also I researched other potential grant and investment opportunities, links to these were included in the delegates’ pack.
  6. As much as possible, the event management and promotion made use of digital: from the online booking portal, to the video playlist, the promotion of an event hashtag #DigiMus, the use of blogs and social media to promote the event and the Twitter list that I created to make it easy for attendees to network before, during and after the event.
  7. The day included an overview highlighting some latest good practice from Alex, technology entrepreneur Nikolaos Maniatis, founder of Museotechniki, contributed a case study of one of his projects and explained how the approach generated revenue for both museums and the business. Digital attendees were encouraged to bring wifi-enabled laptops or tablets, so that they could undertake research during the event
  8. We secured the involvement of a great panel. Initially this comprised: Stephen Brown, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship & Strategy at Southampton Solent University; Anra Kennedy, Content and Partnerships Director at Culture24; and Nikolaos Maniatis. As the event unfolded, it was also joined by Catherine Lee, Solent University’s Director of Reseach and Innovation and Ed Gould.
  9. Alex and I developed a ‘top tips’ guide for the teams, including a suggestion of steps to go through when working together; and Ed kicked off the group work with an energising call to action including an important reminder that when there are so many experts working together, listening to one another is key.

Sadly, Chris had to withdraw from the working group a few weeks before the event, and just as we were getting to the point where we were ready to recruit digital businesses. Alex and I got busy and pulled in all our networks. I spent a couple of busy evenings on Twitter, locating and approaching digital networks and this was very productive – for example, several members of the Eastleigh Tech hub responded, booking places and helping to spread the word to their contacts. Alex made great use of her Higher Education contacts to connect with faculty and postgraduate students across a range of digital and creative disciplines from Solent, Winchester, Southampton and Portsmouth Universities. Chris brought Ed and Nikolaos to the team and they both used social media, blogs and personal contacts to promote the event. Ed had been a key player in the Venturefest South event a few months ago and so had made connections with dozens of businesses with highly relevant capability.

With our combined efforts, we recruited an amazing diversity of digital and creative practitioners, including systems developers, 3D modellers, engineers, filmmakers, web designers, augmented reality specialists, games designers and digital artists. The range and depth of expertise in the academic attendees was amazing too, with researchers, lecturers and even professors in a plethora of digital, cultural and business disciplines.

It was a jam packed day of intensive activity, with our working groups spreading out and about in the breakout spaces of The Spark’s futuristic atrium and using a range of techniques to organise their group work and develop their ideas. Then after a working lunch, all reconvened in our main space, where the series of ‘3-minute pitches’ to the judging panel was scheduled to start.

At this point, one of the museums let us know that their dialogue with the digital practitioners had produced an unexpected result. They had been asked a series of challenging questions, as the businesses worked to develop a clear brief. This prompted reflection by the museum, and its representatives had a powerful moment of insight, realising that they needed to get some organisational and strategic thing in place to be properly ready to implement the kind of digital innovation that they had been thinking about. So they withdrew from the competition at this point, which was both sad and sensible.

So we had five pitches, each different and interesting. After each pitch, the judges asked questions, all thought-provoking and some of them were really quite challenging. The judges were clearly taking their responsibilities very seriously and were very thorough in testing each of the proposals against the success factors which have driven the project from the outset, to look for the idea that would best:

  • Showcase local digital and creative talent
  • Raise the profile of the South’s cultural offer
  • Address the key challenge expressed by museums
  • Advance best practice in the museums sector
  • Enable collaboration, sharing and economies of scale
  • Draw sustainable financial investment into the cultural sector

After the pitches, the judges were sent away for 45 minutes of deliberation, cogitation and decision. We used this time to help the digital practitioners and academics to network more widely, outside their working groups, with a specially adapted version of good old ‘People Bingo.’

When we reconvened, Culture24’s Anra Kennedy was an impressive chair and spokesperson on behalf of the judging Panel. Each team in turn was provided with clear and constructive feedback on their pitch – what the judges had been impressed by and what they felt were its key areas for improvement.

And then Anra announced the judges’ decision. The Lightbox team was announced the winner and a very well-deserved win it was. IBM Design Intern Chloe Poulter, Professor Graeme Earl of University of Southampton, commercial artist Sam Allen and Dave Slater, Managing Director of touchscreen specilists InfoAktiv worked as a highly effective team alongside The Lightbox’s Lauren Jones, Beth Hopper and Amy Plewis to propose a project titled #ThinkOutsideThe Lightbox. They created a persona – this is a valuable technique to take a customer-centred approach to developing a service, which coincidentally we are currently using in a review of our programme communications. Using the persona they pictured a young woman in the Lightbox’s target demographic, and explored her lifestyle, needs and motivations. This helped them to develop the concept of using an interactive multimedia booth in a high-footfall location in the town centre to reach out to the target audience and engage non-visitors. View the presentation from the winning team’s pitch

After congratulating the winning team, and confirming arrangemetns for them to access the support package and seed funding pot, we provided some suggestions of where the other teams could access support to take their ideas forward, too.

We closed the event with an invitation to everybody to use a ‘Good because…’ ‘Even better if..’ wall and sticky notes to give us some immediate feedback – we will be doing a more detailed feedback survey in a few weeks. Alex has taken all the sticky notes and I look forward to reading them when we meet shortly for a review meeting. We’ll be doing further evaluation down the line, including following the progress of The Lightbox’s project, so there may be more blogs to come. But in the meantime, what are my immediate reflections on the event?

  • With such a diverse group of attendees, some of the groups really soared in terms of their team work – but others definitely struggled. Our speakers, judges and Hampshire Solent MDO Jaane Rowehl, acted as roving experts during the group work, chipping in with support and challenge. If doing something similar again, I would probably deploy one or two ‘home team’ members as team facilitators, to help struggling teams to put a process in place.
  • When doing something new, especially when working in partnership, it’s worth putting the extra time and effort in. This event took many times more preparation than an equivalent-scaled South East Museum Development Programme Event and had a much higher level of planning documentation, but there were several times during the day when I was really grateful for the planning we had put in and the clarity that this provided.
  • Disproportionately, late cancellations and no-shows to events are from people who specify special dietary requirements. We’ve observed this phenomenon consistently over years of running events and Friday was no exception. Around 5% of attendees notified us of a special dietary need when registering, but 30% of the half a dozen no-shows were from this group. No idea why this happens, there’s a PhD in there somewhere, when I have the time.

We’d suggested that attendees who wanted to carry on networking should head up to Mettricks in Guildhall Square. After clearing up, I’m afraid the ‘home team’ was too exhausted to join them! But I understand that a good number did go, and spent an enjoyable evening, including playing Quirk! “a ridiculously silly game for awesomely fun people” a current Kickstarter project developed by one of the brilliant creatives who made our day so special, Emma May of Emmerse Studios. What a great way to end the day, so sorry I missed out.

‘Museum Hack’ is registered as a trademark in the US by Museum Hack, LLC, a company based in NYC that provides museum tours. This event was not affiliated with nor endorsed by Museum Hack, LLC.

Mission, Market, Money? Reflections from the SEMDP’s ‘Creative Commercial Collections’ Study Visit to the Netherlands May 2017 – Day 2: ZuiderZee Museum

After breakfast we walked through picturesque Enkhuizen to our first host institution: The ZuiderZee Museum. Netherlands ‘Museum of the Year’ 2013, this indoor-and-outdoor museum uses collaborations with artists and craftspeople throughout its displays to interpret the stories of people who lived and worked on the shores of the ZuiderZee before the Afsluitdijk (IJsselmeer Barrier Dam) changed the sea into the Ijsselmeer inland waterway in 1932.

Our host at the ZuiderZee Museum, Femke van Drongelen, Head of Education and Presentation, had arranged an absolutely packed day of exploration around the theme of Creative Commercial Collections. Our ‘base camp’ was the delightful Koffiehuis Hoorn, with its delightful tiled interior, one of the historic buildings transported to Enkhuizen as part of its collection. First curator André Groeneveld introduced the museum and its evolution over 50 years from inception for opening. André highlighted the role of leadership in shaping the way that contemporary creative practice had come to play such an important role in the museum’s interpretive approach with directors during the 2000s using this as a strategy to make the museum more outward looking and relevant. Head of Collections Kees Hendricks highlighted that whilst few of the objects in the collection are outstanding in their own right, the combination of objects, houses and art creates a unique experience.

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Next we headed out into the Outdoor museum, led by guide Anneke who gave us a fascinating insight into the range of interpretive techniques employed. Our primary focus was the Design Route – a trail of contemporary Dutch design objects in the outdoor museum related to ZuiderZee heritage, communities, trades and crafts. We also explored other interpretive approaches, including ‘in role’ costumed interpreters, hands-on demonstrations and more conventional museum displays and signage. Anneke’s background in anthropology came to the fore, as we explored the layers of interpretation and the way that the artistic interventions change the way that the past is brought to life for visitors. We also saw the range of retail units that are integrated into the outdoor museum. As well as a souvenir shop, there is a cheese warehouse, bakers shop and sweetshop, all in historic buildings brought from around the region. It was great to see the range on offer and get a general idea of the retail approach, but sadly none of the museum’s commercial or retail specialists were able to join us and so some of our group’s specific questions about the business decisions and results couldn’t be answered for us on the day. However we did get a general understanding that the museum is still significantly supported with public funding and, although it is being encouraged to widen its revenue streams, does not face the same level of financial imperative that most of the UK museums in the group are addressing as a matter of urgency.

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Back in the Koffiehuis Hoorn we were joined for lunch by the museum director Stefan and then were treated to a most fascinating presentation by Thomas Eyck, a leading figure in the Dutch design world. His unconventional retrospective ‘10 Years of Thomas Eyck’ is currently on show in the Indoor Museum. Thomas showed how a study of art history and deep fascination with the creative processes of the past have driven his vision as a curator and retailer of contemporary Dutch design. He gave numerous examples of how museum collections had inspired his own work and that of the designers whose work he sells. Thomas gave valuable pointers to making design retail work commercially: go high end and sell in galleries – the museum retail market is not sufficient, he says, you need the world to sell your products.

Guide Rita then led us on a tour of the ‘10 Years of Thomas Eyck’ exhibition and other aspects of the Indoor museum, including the shop. Startlingly different from the retail offer in the Outdoor museum, this features a contemporary Dutch design-led offer. Many of the items are highly priced and derived from specific collaborations between the museum and makers, inspired by objects and narratives from the collections. We learned that this shop is not primarily focused on revenue generation, rather it plays a role in repositioning the museum as a player in the art and design scene, both in the Netherlands and internationally. We saw some of the highly successful design products that had emerged from collaborations between the museum and designers represented by Thomas Eyck – such as Christien Meindertsma’s Flax Ottoman, selected as a gift to be given from the Dutch Government to President Obama. And we came to understand that while there are financial benefits to these collaborations, they accrue to the designers, makers and retailers, rather than to the museum.

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We returned to the Koffiehuis Hoorn to meet another Dutch designer who has conducted a series of fascinating collaborations with the ZuiderZee Museum and other museums. Jos Kranen is one half of renowned design studio Kranen/Gille. Jos took us through the fascinating creative process of creating a range of ZuiderZee lamps, an idea that started when curator Andre showed him behind the scenes in a store where the museum keeps reserve collection items for set dressing. Ceramic food storage jars became the basis of both individually crafted objects for museum display, and a production line of lamps that are sold with the museum’s logo on the base. We had a chance to discuss with Jos and the museum team some of the financial decisions that go into creating a saleable product based on a museum collaboration.

At the end of the day we headed to the museum’s Hindeloopen Café for a final chat and review. We discussed the financial model underpinning these collaborations and learned that whilst they are commercial, in that they are undertaken on a commercial basis by the design studio, they are not primarily commercial for the museum, which is actually an investor through commissions. The museum gains some income from items sold through its shop. However, income generation is not the primary motivation for the ZuiderZee Museum. It’s main goals in this kind of work are, firstly, to be a different way of delivering the museum’s mission – an innovative means to interpret the stories of people who lived and worked on the shores of the ZuiderZee – and to raise the profile of the museum with different audiences.

On the train on Day 1, Gwyneth had emphasised to the group the importance of deciding which of these goals was the priority in any creative commercial collections project at an early stage, as this will inform the kind of product developed, the design and commercial partners needed and the selection of distribution channels. Alistair captured these three factors, often in tension in a creative commercial collections project as ‘Mission, Money, Market’ and I present them for you here as a triangle of competing priorities to be balanced:

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The tensions between these factors, and the difference in priority between our Dutch host museum and the UK museums in the group provided ample discussion fodder for the evening. And the De Enkhuizer Visafslag restaurant, although they had initially mislaid our reservation, made a great service recovery and provided us with ample dinner fodder. Our learning highlights from Day Two were on pink postits:

Day 2: ZuiderZee Museum (pink)

  • Ensure the museum message is evident and relevant in the creative commercial activity product you are developing
  • Don’t be discouraged by others’ success – firstly they’re not perfect, secondly they’re not directly comparable
  • The contemporary use of collections in displays can tell a powerful story – how this translates commercially is more problematical.
  • Design Week may be worth a visit for potential partnerships.
  • None of them seemed to make any/much money from the collaborations. What is your reason for doing it?
  • Using contemporary artists in the interpretation of the museum/collections
  • Think about whether your key motive is mission, money or marketing and focus on that outcome.
  • Artist museum-inspired work will not sell to mass market visitors
  • There’s lots of ways to build a brand identity but be clear about what you are about and why you are doing it
  • A collaboration can be “commercial” but not accrue financial benefits to the museum – e.g. if designer/maker/retailer gets the money
  • Rolling programme of themes – every five years – worth investigating to bring variety to static exhibits.
  • Commercial activity can have a wider remit than traditional interpretations suggest – but tread carefully
  • Branding would enable you to make money when working with emerging artists. Making money is not always possible, depends on your requirements.

Mission, Market, Money? Reflections from the SEMDP’s ‘Creative Commercial Collections’ Study Visit to the Netherlands May 2017 – Day 1: the seminar on the train

As part of our previous (2012-15) programme, my predecessor as Cultural Partnerships Officer, Katerina Kremmida, supported a partnership of museums (Hampshire Cultural Trust, National Motor Museum and Jane Austen’s House Museum) to secure Arts Council England funding for a project ‘Kickstart: Creative Commercial Collections’ to develop commercial opportunities, connecting with the creative economy, working with creative practitioners and businesses from across Hampshire.

The project is now well underway and we agreed with Arts Council that as part of our 2015-18 provision, we would deliver an event to share the learning from this project with other museums. Linking this to our work to encourage museums to work internationally, rather than a conventional sharing seminar I developed an alternative model that would create a very different environment in which to share and discover inspiring practice. And so we offered a study visit to two very different museums in the Netherlands that have interesting practice in creative commercial collections: the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen.

The leads from the three ‘Kickstart: Creative Commercial Collections’ museums were key to making this a success, being the key points of knowledge their museums’ experimentation through the project. All had a strong commitment to sharing their learning to the benefit of the wider museums community and a curiosity to learn about practice elsewhere:

Andrea Bishop, Director of Collections at the National Motor Museum

Gwyneth Campling, Commercial Product Manager with Hampshire Cultural Trust

Ashleigh Stimpson Retail Manager Jane Austen’s House Museum

In addition, we invited applications for the study visit to museums across the South East and South West of England. Applicants had to demonstrate the willingness both the learn and to share. An energetic and enthusiastic group of 12 secured places on the study visit, from a diverse range of museums. We had a great mix, with curatorial, interpretation and commercial specialists:

Emma Ayling, Director of The Priest’s House Museum

Kirsty Bell, Collections Support Officer at Southampton Arts and Heritage

Anna Bowman, Archivist at HMS Warrior, a joint post with University of Portsmouth

Alistair Burtenshaw, Director of The Charleston Trust (Bloomsbury in Sussex)

Rosalyn Goulding, Collections & Engagement Manager, St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery

Paul Griffiths, Head of Operations (and Trading Company Managing Director) at the Mary Rose Museum

Valerie Mills, Commercial Director of Brooklands Museum

Louise Musgrove, Commercial Manager at The Lightbox

Sarah Newman, Programmes Officer at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

On our first day, Tuesday, we met at up at St Pancras International, got through check in, passport control and security (not without its challenges to someone as myopic as me as the new high tech face recognition system requires you to take off your glasses and then follow instructions on a screen which, without glasses, I couldn’t see). Then had half an hour prior to boarding Eurostar, a key opportunity to create connections in the group and help it to gel as a learning community, via a game of People Bingo. I don’t know who first had the idea of People Bingo but I am very grateful to them, it’s an extremely useful tool. In this case, I’d structured the game to focus on people’s Creative Commercial Collections experience, based on information from their applications:

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What a great group of people, who really rose to the challenge. Immediately the buzz of conversation and interaction was amazing. And to be frank, it never stopped from that point. Ashleigh was the first to complete her card, shout ‘Bingo’ and win the prize.

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Once on the train, after our (rather surprising on a lunchtime journey) Eurostar light meal of croissant and jam we started the first of our seminar sessions. Apart from one blooper, Eurostar’s advance booking team were pretty obliging in providing groups of table seats to make this work.

All participants had prepared for this element by bringing notes and visual materials to answer the following questions: What have been your museum’s aims in undertaking commercial, creative collaborations? What have you done so far? What have been the results? (Including financial/commercial results e.g. additional revenue generated/costs incurred to your museum) What partnerships have you developed so far? Where have you had support (e.g. funding, advice) from? What has been successful? What has not worked? What are your next steps? What would be your 3 ‘top tips’ for someone trying to do something similar? People used a range of media to make this a really interesting way to travel and learn, bringing flip books, tablets and actual products to show to one another. We revisited these questions 3 times during the trip, and everyone’s commitment to keeping on topic made the train travel very productive learning time. By clustering the ‘not Kickstart’ participants in 3 groups of 3, and circulating the ‘Kickstart’ project reps between them, everyone had a chance to gain from the Kickstart project learning from three different perspectives: Hampshire Cultural Trust, National Motor Museum and Jane Austen’s House Museum – and also to find out about practice in each other’s museums.

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Our train was a bit delayed so we missed our connection in Rotterdam, so it was late and dark by the time we got to Enkhuizen. By this time people were pretty tired after a full day of seminar-ing and changing trains, so the planned walking tour of the historic town was sacrificed in favour of checking in at the friendly Suider See Hotel and getting some dinner. The nearby Onder de Wester Restaurant did us proud on the limited budget I’d negotiated with them! Rather than have a detailed review of learning from the day, I have each person a green sticky note, to write a key learning point from the day on, for discussion at breakfast. This formed the first of 4 ‘leaves’ that would, by the end of the trip, make up each individual’s ‘mini learning log’ and would collectively create a record of the group’s reflections.

The following morning at breakfast, people looked at one another’s green sticky notes and compared key learning points from Tuesday. Here is the collated content of the green sticky notes:

Day 1: peer learning exchange on Eurostar (green)

  • Don’t jump into producing artist work. Get the price right
  • Ensure that the whole museum team especially the curators are involved and on board with the use of collections commercially
  • Licensing is time heavy – needs and takes time to set up. Trial and error with partners – and some won’t work out. Style guide.
  • The importance to sorting out all the legal and other details before rushing into a collaboration.
  • Planning for clear outcomes is essential. Research is never wasted. Collaboration is always a good idea.
  • I’ve learnt how vital commercial partnership is. No organisation will survive without skills across creative and commercial ways of working.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to explore all avenues.
  • Sources of help e.g. ACE Enterprises.
  • Decide your museum’s priorities first (income generation? profile/brand building? collections access/interpretation?) – this determines your approach, partners, products and distribution channels.
  • Just like you need to know your audience, you need to know your market, before producing goods.
  • Employing the right person in retail/commercial roles can impact quickly and very positively.
  • So many museums are without the right skills/experience to exploit the commercial potential of their collections.
  • Commissioning style guide for £3-5k – worth exploring?
  • Need for our new products to have a wider reach/market e.g. wholesale via other channels and using specialist expertise.

Dance and museums: some works, some doesn’t and how ‘services management’ thinking can help

I’m currently contributing to work by a partnership of museums and dance agencies to develop a project that will test different models for dance residencies in museums. The idea is to compare the approaches that work in two very different localities and to embed good practice.

So, I’m putting some time into supporting the group to shape their project and secure investment in it, and this is prompting me to think about on the dance/museum collaborations I’ve had contact with recently and to reflect on what works and what doesn’t.

In the past year, via events, blog posts and social media, I have showcased a range of dance/museum collaborations in my work to encourage South East museums to work cross-culturally. At the Dance and Museums conversation in Southampton in June 2016 I attempted to classify some of the different opportunities:

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As an audience member I have greatly enjoyed the diversity of approaches. From figurative, accessible interpretation of collections personified by Made by Katie Green’s ‘Imagination Museum’ to more abstract creative responses to collections themes such as Bethan Peters’ and Stacie Lee Bennett’s National Maritime Museum dance film installation  ‘Who is the Land’ or more tangental relationships between museum collections and dance like Akram Khan’s Giselle Takeover of the Whitworth Art Gallery or the ballet Children of the Mantic Stain presented in conjunction with British Art Show 8.

And I loved all of it. In every case, I felt my own experience of the museum was improved and saw evidence of positive engagement from other audience members. I have been utterly convinced by the evidence of audience development benefits generated through museum-dance collaborations.

In short, I’d become a bit of a fanatic.

In my mind, I had framed my weekend visit last November to see the Dancing Museums residency at the National Gallery as a zenith of museum/dance experiences. This is, after all, a major international project of strategic significance. My expectations were high.

I had shared my excitement with others and persuaded family members S and B to come along with me. They are lifelong culture vultures, keen supporters of both museums and the performing arts, early investors in what is now one of the leading independent dance companies and former committee members of theatres and museums. So they were bound to love this – weren’t they?

As it turned out, not so much.   And so this Sunday visit to the National Gallery became one of the most valuable lessons in museum/dance partnership working that I’ve had this year.

What became clear to us during the visit was that we were not seeing activity aimed at the visiting museum audience but a piece of research in progress. S and B are intellectually curious (case in point: S’s current bedtime reading is ‘100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists’) and would probably have entered into the project of observing research being carried out with some enthusiasm, had they understood this to be the situation. However, the understanding that we were watching research, rather than performance, was hard come by.

The web information about the event stated: ‘Following a week of research and workshops at the National Gallery, the Dancing Museums artists share ideas developed during the residency in the gallery spaces.’  On arrival at the museum, on enquiring at the Information Desk staff gladly provided folding stools for S and B and we were helpfully signposted to Gallery 32.

Once there, we saw that there were three people dancing in the gallery. In every day dress, they moved around the space, always connected, one of them always looking at the paintings on the wall. They were discussing and developing the movements as they moved around.

S and B were keen to discern whether there was any link between the poses and shapes being created by the dancers and the paintings in the gallery. Sometimes they thought they saw an echo, sometimes not. I said not all dance/museum collaborations are about that, the approach could be something completely different. ‘Like what?’ asked S. I said I’d go and ask.

At this point, we bumped into C, a museum sector friend and admired colleague who knows her stuff. Also visiting with relatives. I was relieved to find that she was also unclear about what we were seeing. Her teenager was enjoying it very much, and of the opinion that not having context was fine. C was probably at the ‘curious and confused’ stage with me. B and S were beginning to get fed up. B was getting tangled up in his folding stool every time the action moved.

A number of Gallery staff in green tops were around. I asked one of them if there was any information about what was happening. ‘No,’ she said, ‘But there is an evaluation form, please can you fill it in?’ She offered me a pen. It seemed a little early to complete the form, given that I had only just arrived and didn’t know what I was looking at. So I offered to take 3 forms, one for each of us, and promised that we would return them later on.  S, B and I scrutinised the blank evaluation form for clues. There were four questions:

  • Why have you chosen to attend this event today?
  • Can you describe the event for us in three words (just words – not a sentence)?
  • Has the presence of dance artists in the Gallery today changed or enhanced your visit, and if so, how?
  • Do you think that choreography can offer an interesting alternative to written or verbal explanations as a means to engage with a painting?

Now, I know a bit about evaluation and one of the things that I know is that, if it’s done well, it will link strongly to the objectives of the activity being evaluated. This being the case, we considered that that we could take a hint from the form that the presence of dance artists in the Gallery today was intended to change or enhance the visit and to offer an interesting alternative to written or verbal explanations as a means to engage with a painting. Re-energised by this possibility, B and S continued to scrutinise the activity, looking for links to the paintings.

Then something happened that momentarily created a positive buzz. The three dancers moved alongside either side of the row of benches. their arms linked over the seated visitors. Adults and small children moved to accommodate the passing of the dancers, there was laughter.

Then that bit had finished. S was getting more vocal about her fedupness. Not finding the dance satisfying in itself, nor finding that it was shedding any light on the works in the gallery. Didn’t think all of the dancers were actually very good. ‘I think I’ve seen enough,’ she said.

At this point, I noticed that C was chatting to someone with an NG bag. Maybe she could help? We went over and were introduced – and indeed she could. It turned to that this was Gill Hart, the National Gallery’s Head of Education. Gill helpfully and cogently explained what we were watching. Not a performance designed to enrich our experience of the pictures but something more complex. Not a group of three professional dancers. One of the ‘dancers’ was actually a member of the public, she explained. By being involved in the dance, his position and perspective were being changed.

This was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me. I could now understand that what I was observing was an approach not yet captured on my tentative model, nor explored in any of the dance/museum collaborations I had previously showcased. For S, B and me, our position was not as audience members whose experience of the visit was being changed. Rather, we were observing an audience member for whom this was happening.   This was fascinating stuff for me.

And, had it been clear from the outset to S and B it probably would have been fascinating to them too.  But by this point, they had frankly lost the will. A sign was put in place interpreting a dance piece by Lucy Suggate, which she now performed in the gallery. I encouraged S and B to give it one last shot. S read the sign and harrumphed. Reluctantly, they unfolded their stools and sat down to watch. After a few minutes, B was fiddling with his mobile phone. B is not a teenager, he is 88. S said ‘I think I’ve had enough. Can we go now?’

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We walked through to another gallery where we sat down to complete the evaluation forms. ‘I’d rather not fill it in, I don’t want to be unkind to them,’ said S. ‘They are researching,’ I said. ‘It would be unkind not to respond to their request for feedback. Best to be honest.’   If any of the Dancing Museums team read this, please be aware that S is someone of strong opinions, not ashamed of the fact that in her professional life she was more than once referred to as The Dragon. I hope you had a cup of tea to hand when you read the form.

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So, what are my takeaways from this experience, relevant to shaping the residencies project I’m involved in now? Several.

Firstly, it’s reinforced and expanded my understanding that dance/museum collaborations can change perceptions in a range of ways. I’ve now added this one to my model. SEMDPmodel2At the outset of a collaboration, it’s worth the partners bottoming out which of these approaches – or others not yet captured here – are being talked about.

Secondly, that for our professional practice to move forward, we need bold experiments and that these will not be comfortable or enjoyable or interesting to everyone. So we need to consider the impact on other users. Not everybody will want to understand what is going on or to engage with it. But in the right circumstances, an experiment can benefit not just those involved in it, but others who happen to come across it.

Thirdly, that for such experiments to be effective, their interface with the visiting public needs to be carefully managed. The visitor has an active role to play, if only to provide the feedback that will be used in evaluation. The visitor can only play this role if their involvement is suitably structured and supported. When unexpected things are happening in your museum, it’s worth thinking about how these things are explained or illuminated for visitors who might not expect them. There are lots of practical things that museums can do to help visitors to have a positive experience of changes and experiments. Museums can signpost that there is a gallery closed for redevelopment, and provide helpful images or information about the change to come. Likewise, museums can helpfully guide the audience’s expectations of experiments, so that their visit is enhanced.

This third point rang a bell with me, and brought to mind insight from my business school days. To use the management jargon, a museum visit is a ‘Service experience’ – in contrast, for example, to a purchase of tangible goods. It has long been recognised in business schools that service experiences are the result of interactions between the customer and the service organisation, with customers frequently having an active contribution to the success of the interaction. This being the case, a museum should be thinking not just managing the ways that the displays/facilities/volunteers/staff contribute – but also managing the ways that visitors contribute. If you’d like to explore these ideas in more detail, you will find this International Journal of Service Industry Management article from 1997 a good place to start.

The Creative Case for Diversity

With fellow members of the South East Museum Development Team, I spend a most rewarding day in the inspiring setting of the Brighton Museum working with Arts Council England’s Ashai Nicholas on the Creative Case for Diversity. It was gorgeous weather out there but the quality of discussion meant we didn’t mind being indoors. And we had a great view of the museum’s gardens through the window.

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You’ve probably heard about Arts Council England’s work on the Creative Case – a re-imagining of the Arts Council’s approach to diversity and equality, setting out how these areas can and should enrich the arts for artists, audiences and our wider society. If not, these Heads Up short film portraits give you the flavour as a group of arts leaders discuss their individual interpretation of the Creative Case for Diversity.

The point of the Creative Case is that diversity shouldn’t be an add-on or box ticking exercise that museums and other arts organisations embrace from a moral duty or to access funding. Being truly inclusive brings intrinsic benefits to the arts and culture – the creation of better work that benefits and inspires more people.

In 2014, Arts Council Arts Council England’s Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette set out a new approach to this agenda:

“Diversity needs to go mainstream…. While we focus on increasing opportunities for people from protected characteristic groups, we are also challenging the barriers to participation and engagement across socioeconomic barriers and across geography. Public funding of arts and culture should be invested for the benefit of everyone. It should offer opportunity and draw on all talents.”

During our stimulating workshop with Ashai we worked to explore ways that more museums can benefit from embracing diversity. We discussed some of the great work that is already happening in the sector. Then we discussed what diversity is and what it isn’t. We agreed that it is about being open, reflecting our community in all its richness and letting external voices influence and change what we do. We agreed that it isn’t about measurement, tokenism or just about race which many discussions of diversity seem to focus on.

We explored some useful frameworks for thinking about diversity. For example, the Equality Act 2010 which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society provides a useful legal reference point and museums must ensure that they meet its standards. But to get the full benefit in terms of creativity, leadership and community support, organisations need to go further.

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For example, making ‘reasonable adjustments’ such as information about the museum’s services available in large print and audio guide for people with visual impairment is a start. Some people with visual impairment who come to the museum will be better able to access its offer. Involving people with visual impairment in decision making about the museum’s programming takes the relationship further: for example linking with a local support group of people with visual impairment to explore their suggestions about what would make the museum better for them. This approach moves the conversation from a transaction to a relationship, opening the door to further conversations and visits.

Two, interconnected fundamentals are key in this approach: Partnerships and leadership.

Partnerships expand a museums ability to refresh its relationships, audiences and talent pool. A museum that is well linked to other organisations in its community is likely to have a ready source of ideas, visitors and collaborators.

Leadership sets both the direction and the culture of a museum. If diversity is not embraced from the top, it is less likely to flourish in other parts of the organisation.

Having a diverse range of trustees helps to ensure that the museum reflects the diversity of the community it serves, increase public confidence and accountability. It helps to ensure that the Board has the full range of skills it needs and to ensure that fresh ideas are generated. Many museums lack sufficient Trustees to ensure the sustainability of their organisations. They find it difficult to recruit new Board members when someone retires from the Board. Many also lack diversity in their Trustee populations. The two issues are closely linked. When museums look for new Trustees from within their existing networks of contacts, both the number and range of potential Trustees are limited. Partnerships are a great way to expand networks and many great Trustees sit on the Boards of more than one organisation.

At the South East Museum Development Programme we’ve been developing support opportunities to help museums to embrace diversity at the top and through the whole organisation and the expand partnerships.

The Mainstream Diversity project  will provide focused support for Boards to recruit, fill skills gaps and become more reflective of their communities. You can find out more about the customised support for available to your museum via our website and then talk to your MDO about how this important project can best help you.

The Arts Business Models project gives museums the opportunity to learn from some amazing arts organisations that have diversity at the core of their success. For example Graeae Theatre Company whose mission is Graeae is to be a force for change in world-class theatre, breaking down barriers, challenging preconceptions and boldly placing disabled artists centre stage. In their case study for our programme, Graeae have shared how their assumptions about working with non-arts partners have been challenged, and they have found the relationships rewarding and flexible enough to allow them to remain true to their vision. If you’d like to be partnered with Graeae or one of the other exceptional case study arts organisations, you still have time to apply.

Enabling a Culture of Innovation

Another day, another grand day out – this time to speak at the Risk and Reward: Enabling a Culture of Innovation conference organised by Oxford Museums Partnership at the glorious Pitt Rivers Museum/Museum of Natural History and to hear a fantastic suite of innovation stories, many involving Universities.

Having secured the after-coffee-mid-afternoon-graveyard slot it seemed sensible to ensure some energy in the room through a game of Better Business Bingo – and I’m delighted to say that the fabulous group of delegates came up with some brilliant ideas to improve our beloved (and entirely fictional) Bugsley Museum and secure a more sustainable future for its important collection of military widgets. The point being, of course, that creating an environment of playfulness and fun is one of the important things that leaders can do to create a culture of innovation in their organisations. It was a point that reverberated through several of the presentations.
I was also there to fly the flag for the South East Museum Development Programme and museum development generally – a valuable source of support, ideas and seed-funding for innovation that not all museums make the most of!
After a thoughtful opening message from convenor Lucy Shaw @LVShaw, first up was Paul Smith @museumsmithery, Director of our host Museum of Natural History, who shared his personal viewpoint as a leader, responsible for enabling a culture of innovation in a University museum. Paul shared a series of case studies from the delightful 2015 ‘Dodo Roadshow’ a successful profile-raising exercise that went from conception to completion in 22 days with a total budget of £3,000 – to a series of significant exhibitions experimenting with new ways of connecting contemporary science and society. Start small, make the most of the assets you already have (in their case a van, a dodo, enthusiastic staff and warm links with museums from Land’s End to John O’Groats) and don’t assume senior staff have all the best ideas. Be playful, to get ideas flowing but don’t neglect the need for serious, useable data to underpin decision making and evaluation. Paul’s personal leadership journey has required him to dig deep, to maintain energy and momentum, and to be resilient in resolving problems when experimentation goes wrong. Which it sometimes will if you are trying new still. Paul and his team try to keep these occasions to a minimum by identifying a ‘risk envelope’ – an area of unexplored potential for new activity but within manageable risk parameters. How do you identify that risk envelope? By knowing your operating environment really well – that calls on data, data, data again.
Next speaker was Liz Hide @themuseumofliz who shared a fascinating series of stories from her experience of facilitating the cross-disciplinary University of Cambridge museum consortium. Original support from the former MLA and more recently the carrot of MPM funding and encouragement from Arts Council England have created the environment for museums that in the past had minimal contact to work together at a strategic level to create a joined up cultural offer. This level of collaboration doesn’t just happen and Liz set out the menu of joint activities that have progressively deepened the partnership and enriched its outputs: joint programming; capacity building (e.g. creating shared posts); organisational development (creating networks and communication mechanisms; collective audience/non-user research; partnership and workforce development. Through this thought-through, strategic approach the museums now, together, have a much stronger voice in the locality’s cultural sector and are creating projects and opportunities that benefit a wider range of cultural partnerships. Lovely stuff.
We then had a great example of smart use of a national investment mechanism from outside the cultural sector to drive innovation. Alice Purkiss @alicepurk is a Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate, funded by AHRC to enable knowledge exchange between University of Oxford and the National Trust. Alice presented jointly with Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University. They gave examples of how partnership is helping to channel the deep understanding of academic research to be shared with staff, volunteers and visitors to historic properties and landscapes, enriching audience engagement and understanding. It was fascinating to hear how much work is involved in enabling the two disciplines of ‘academic’ and ‘curator’ to talk to one another. To the average museum visitor or non-visitor the academic historian and museum curator may appear much of a muchness. But Alice and Oliver have discovered, through their work with curators and academics, that these two groups often feel that they come from very different worlds and speak different languages. Fortunately, through initiatives like the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, Knowledge Exchange, Share AcademyOxford University Museum Partnership and a number of Museum Development-facilitated Higher Education/Museum link-ups there are plenty of valuable ‘Babel fish’ being created and shared to smooth communications. This was possibly the presentation that prompted the most heated discussion. How diverse are the perspectives when two not-so-dissimilar worlds meet? Do collaborations with people we get on with offer as much grit for our oysters as dialogues with people we don’t get on with? How can we expand the diversity of voices, to prompt more innovation?
After lunch, Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust’s Director of Operations Traci Dix-Williams @dix_traci gave a very real picture of the leadership graft involved in nurturing a culture in which volunteers and staff are empowered to innovate. In a gloriously visual presentation, The examples of workforce engagement initiatives Traci shared included: a project to involve people in making the organisation’s vision statement clearer and more concise; smart use of support from West Midlands Bridge organisation Arts Connect to bring creative practice into the organisation, communication days involving the whole workforce and campaigns raising the profile of customer service. Traci’s presentation showed just why it’s worth organisations investing in leadership development as she acknowledged the Oxford Cultural Leaders Programme as the source of many of the approaches and techniques that she has implemented with her teams.
Next up were Rachel MacFarlane @MacfRachel, Projects Development Officer at Colchester and Ipswich Museums and Scott Collins, Museum Trainee, talking about the Arts Council England Museum Resilience-funded Training Museum. What a great way to invest in a future workforce more representative of the community the museum serves. As well as learning a strong range of skills (both museum-specific and transferable) the trainees are clearly making strong networks, contributing valuable capability, capacity and insight to the museums and having a great time. Many of the trainees had not previously considered museums as a career. They are now actively involved in communicating the idea of working in the sector to school students, through meeting school groups in the museums and going back to their own schools to make presentations.
The next presentation was also about an exciting workforce development project, this time Jo-Anne Sutherland of Heritec Limited on the Erasmus+-funded Creative Museum involving partners in seven European countries in enriching museum practice by expanding professionals’ sphere of experience through links with other sectors – including creatives, universities, hackers, grassroots groups and makers. Making this kind of thing work well means: connecting activity strongly to your core purpose, says Jo-Anne – who are you doing it for and why?; opening up to explore new friendships, partnerships and funding streams; be brave and persistent; prototype and learn from mistakes. Discussion of the challenges of European funding bids that followed this presentation gave me a welcome opportunity to plug the useful EU funding ‘top tips’ and ‘jargon buster’ that we’ve recently commissioned through one of our projects.
After the break it was my turn and I was delighted to find that in spite of a very filling lunch the promise of chocolate worked its magic as an incentive to creativity. As well as introducing a creativity matrix as a simple tool to involve people in generating ideas that address a museum’s key challenges and maximise its assets and opportunities, through my session I showcased just a few of the great examples of how museums in the South East have used our support programmes as a springboard to experiment, innovate and take risk. I specifically mentioned the Hampshire Cultural Trust museums that took part in our Lean Systems Thinking project, the Mary Rose Museum’s current Young Museums Shapers project and the Bloxham Museum’s use of a Development Grant to introduce low energy LED lighting to its displays. Loads more case studies on our website. Of course I also took the opportunity to promote our Business Innovation Grants scheme, which museums to experiment and take risks to create new business services and products, drawing on learning from an approach developed at Oxford University Museums Partnership.
One of the innovation approaches I’d included in my creativity matrix was ‘fresh eyes’ and the final speaker, Elvin Turner of DPA, @elvinturner came from outside our museum/University bubble to share valuable approaches from the world of business, in particular the idea of ‘Minimal Viable Product’ drawn from the Lean Startup suite of methods. He showed how Sony has been using MVPs to test new ideas in low-cost experiments. Keeping the experiments quick and cheap and extracting the maximum learning from them means risk is reduced, senior decision maker confidence maximised and more staff are able to get involved in developing innovations. For Sony, low-cost means doing pilots that cost £500 instead of £50,000 but the same idea can be scaled for the skint museums sector – by asking yourself ‘what can you learn for £50?’Elvin also referenced the powerful Business Model Canvas by Osterwalder and Pigneur that also informs the very useful report by we’ve just published on how museums can learn from other arts organisations.
One of the recurring motifs was about evaluation. How can you measure the success of your innovations? So now I’m curious to see how the event organisers will evaluate this energising event? What new things will happen down the line, because we were part of this conversation?

What can museums learn from other successful arts organisations’ business models?

We’ve long believed that there was much for museums to learn from looking at how other culture sector organisations do business. In particular, the idea that a cultural product should be offered to the public for free has persisted longer in the museums sector than in many other areas of the arts. People don’t expect to be given free theatre tickets, do they? But there is a widespread idea that museum entry should be free. Other art forms seem to have got a grip sooner on how to demonstrate value and generate income from consumers.

So last year we started shaping an intervention to help museums to learn from other successful arts business models through a peer-to-peer learning approach. By ‘business models’, we mean the model by which an arts organisation operates as a business, including its value proposition, sources of revenue, customer base, services or products, operating systems and processes, financial arrangements, relationships with suppliers and partners, workforce arrangements and organisational culture.

We realised pretty soon that to  make this work well, we would need to invest in some pretty robust groundwork.

We needed to make sure that our identification of ‘successful’ arts business models was up to date. The cultural economy is undergoing rapid change with many organisations under significant pressure. Reductions in public subsidy mean that some arts organisations considered beacons of effectiveness are now struggling. So ‘successful’ organisations we might have identified a couple of years ago might not be in that place now.

Additionally, reduced capacity means that some organisations once willing to commit time and effort to collaboration and to peer support via networks and mentoring are withdrawing from such activities in order to focus on internal core delivery.

We commissioned arts business experts Alchemy Research & Consultancy to undertake a significant piece of research to identify 6 case study arts organisations with successful business models, willing to share their learning with museums. And we asked them to do an important, up to date report answering some key questions:

  • Why are museums thinking about business models?
  • What do we mean by business models?
  • What are other cultural organisations doing?
  • What do museums need to do?

The results of their work have now been produced and they are very exciting. The case studies and reports are now available on our website and the opportunity for museums to bid to be partnered with a successful arts organisation for peer learning is now open, closing on 20 June.

Through the research project, six case studies have been written and warm contacts brokered with the case study organisations:

Alchemy’s powerful and insightful report is really important and timely, outlining key business models found in the cultural sector: what are established and new approaches, which models are emerging as ‘successful’ in the sense of enabling organisations to continue to deliver on their missions in a sustainable way? How can museums improve their own sustainability by learning from other arts organisations’ business models?

They demonstrate a really diverse range of approaches to success in the arts. But some key messages emerge. The arts organisations that have achieved continuous innovation have a range of characteristics: strong leadership; a clear vision; appropriate values; a dynamic board; strong teamwork; access to external resources; and active inter-organisational networks. Whilst museums face some specific challenges in implementing new business models, they also have a number of advantages over arts organisations that can be exploited, not least their collections which provide a rich source of content for creative work.

We are publishing this report to provide valuable learning to the wider museums sector, along with the case studies.

As the next stage of the project, we are now offering the opportunity for six museums to each be paired with one of the case study organisations, in order to embark on an 8-month partnership of peer learning. Details of how to apply are available here: http://southeastmuseums.org/arts-business-models.