Museums and cultural organisations are becoming more adept and increasingly creative when it comes to utilising their buildings and spaces. On 28 July 2016 we held a one-day conference to explore how museums and cultural organisations are developing their venue hire offer, experimenting with different uses for their buildings to generate income, and creating unusual, and often quirky places, to inspire and delight public and commercial audiences. The event had been designed to share and spark ideas and our speakers came from a diverse range of cultural organisations which gave a fantastic overview of the breadth of work taking place across the sector.
Laura Wakelin, Deputy Chief Executive (Communications & Marketing), at Black Country Living Museum opened the day for us with her keynote presentation. The Black Country Living Museum has been host to the hit BBC show Peaky Blinders for three years so Laura was able to offer us expert insight into the practicalities and realities of accommodating a large film crew and cast. Laura talked about the need to consider the resources available before accepting bookings as it is difficult to meet all requests. She stressed the need to look at each request on a case-by-case basis to ensure the product is the right context and fit for the museum. Laura pointed out that each museum will have its own opinions on what is appropriate for their site. She also stressed that although commercial activities can be lucrative things can go wrong and damage can occur. The negative aspects must always be weighed against the benefits commercial activities will bring.
The question of whether a museum should be closed to the public in order to take commercial bookings shouldn’t just be a financial consideration, but one that takes account of the core purpose and values of the museum as well as its responsibilities to the public. The Black Country Living Museum informs visitors when commercial activities are taking place in order to minimise impact and tries to use the filming as a form of visitor engagement. Laura’s top tips included understanding your organisational limits, tailoring your messages for different audiences, learn the right questions to ask commercial companies wanting to use your spaces and make sure your contracts cover all eventualities. To close, Laura suggested some strategic partnerships, which may be able to assist museums to develop their commercial offering including Creative England, Marketing Birmingham and Visit England.
Our next speaker was Chief Executive of Bexley Heritage Trust, Caroline Worthington. Caroline talked about the factors that can have a negative impact on income. These included bad weather, poor retail spaces, and funding cuts. But Caroline and her team mitigated these by rejuvenating their café and hire spaces and taking an innovative look at their exhibition areas. Caroline’s positive and proactive vision for reenergising Bexley Heritage Trust was for it to be viable, visible and vibrant!
Caroline introduced admission charges to Hall Place, kept the bottom level of the building clear for commercial events and top floor for exhibitions while working with the Craft Council and high profile artists such as Gavin Turk, Vivien Westwood and Damien Hirst to generate a new exhibitions programme to draw new and repeat audiences. In addition, a new partnership with the National Trust broadened their advertising reach through free marketing to NT members which in turn offers half price on entry.
Within the grounds, Bexley Heritage Trust has rented buildings to tenants, including renting their glasshouses to organisations running a butterfly house and an owl experience for paying visitors. Hiring out vacant meeting rooms has been another way to develop their commercial offer. Enhanced documentation of the collections has also brought a new income stream through licensing images
Ruthanne Baxter, Commercial & Visitor Services Manager, followed with her experiences at Edinburgh Museums and Galleries. They too have recently invested in refurbishment of some of their spaces in order to attract different types of income. One of their most successful income generators is as a Festival Friend. While not all sites are suitable for hosting festivals Ruthanne and her team have found being part of events such as the International Science Festival and the Student Arts Festival actually encourages repeat visits as well as bringing commercial benefits. Ruthanne explained how she felt that developing Edinburgh Museums and Galleries’ commercial offer was not all about generating income but that, particularly with their festival work, it helped in building audiences and ambassadors, increasing friends membership, developing partners, and supporting wider agendas.
After lunch, Janet Dugdale, Museum of Liverpool Director, delivered her keynote address. She presented National Museums Liverpool as a case study, explaining how they have chosen to establish a separate trading company to handle commercial activity across the eight museums and galleries. Attracting local, national and international tourists, the sites have an entrepreneurial outlook and aim to use their buildings innovatively to make connections within the community as well as meeting the requirements of a modern museum. One way they have done this is in becoming a performance venue during festivals. The desire to be responsive and flexible has led to creative projects that have been well-received by visitors, including the production of a dazzle ship which generated significant social media interest.
Stephen Allen then talked about his work as Head of Learning & Programmes at National Museums Scotland. The development of an after-hours programme and the improvement of public areas brought a change of demographics and strengthened relationships with local families. The learning spaces have been greatly improved and the grand gallery has been transformed allowing it to be used for a wider, and more diverse, range of activities and events.
Keeping to their objective of attracting young adults and raising the profile of the Museums, while generating income, the National Museums Scotland opened their doors to festivals and has become a fully-fledged Fringe venue. Stephen talked about how their marketing budget for events has remained small, focussing mainly on social media to spread the word about their events, and as a result they have received great digital and press coverage.
To take us up to the afternoon break Eve Haynes, Weddings and Events Coordinator, talked about her work at York Museums Trust. As at National Museums Liverpool, York Museums Trust established an enterprise department to generate income for the organisation which then ploughs back profits made into the Trust. The catalyst for this new way of working came through significant local authority funding cuts which meant the Trust had to find ways to be more self-sufficient.
York Museums Trust has five sites working as hire venues: The Hospitium is the main venue and required refurbishment to transform it into a useful commercial space. In addition to the Hospitium the Trust is also hires out spaces in the Yorkshire Museum, York Castle Museum, York Art Gallery, and York Museum Gardens.
Weddings now provide a significant income stream for York Museums Trust. Eve talked about how large events such as weddings require a team effort and collaboration across the museum. They spend little on marketing now having already built up a good brand as a wedding venue and have worked hard on selecting the right suppliers to work with to help develop and establish their offer.
Jessica Dowdell, Collections and Learning Curator, and Elisha Mason, Training Museum Trainee, from Colchester + Ipswich Museums closed the day for us. Museum trainees are the newest members of the team and Elisha talked about how the training programme has benefitted both the trainees and the museum, allowing the trainees to get involved in developing commercial events.
Colchester + Ipswich Museums run a wide range of events from paranormal evenings to sleepovers. Colchester Castle is their main wedding venue and revenue from this income stream has seen an increase each year. As with many of our case studies Jessica and Elisha highlighted the considerations that must be given to opening sites for commercial hire including the wear and tear on the building, the increased staffing requirements and the need for public access. The team try to host events that appeal to different audiences to widen appeal as much as possible. There is a conscious effort to see events as a means to diversify their audiences. For example, Ipswich Museum recently played host to a successful Harry Potter night targeted at 20-30 year olds. And a music event called I-AM Rap at Ipswich museum attracted a mostly male audience within the 18-24 age range.
Finally, Jessica and Elisha chaired a debate for delegates exploring how museums can balance the needs of opening venues for hire whilst maintaining their duty of care for collections. This was a great way to end the day and it was clear that collections remain at the heart of a museum’s core purpose but that the opportunity to open the buildings up to a variety of uses contributed to its place in the community, had the ability to make collections more accessible and supported the core work being carried out.