Amy Washington explains how a dedicated team, a willingness to experiment and a can-do spirit enabled the Museum of Gloucester to find success in the most uncertain times during 2020. She recently chatted with MuseumNext to reflect on what she’s learnt over the last 12 months and how a small council-run museum begins to plan for the future after a year of experimentation and “winging it”.
“I’ve always loved the museum and heritage sector,” Amy says enthusiastically. “It’s my dream job really and I feel very lucky. Even through an uncertain period like this I enjoy the work I’m doing.”
“The Museum of Gloucester is located in a gorgeous old Victorian building that was donated to the city as a science and art institution. It’s council run and tucked away at the bottom of a busy city centre. Thanks to lottery funding, the museum underwent a refurbishment in 2011 and it features a really diverse range of collections and great interactive exhibits for children. We start from Prehistoric times, through the Stone age to the Roman empire, then on to the Tudors and more recent history. There is, of course, a strong focus and huge links to the Gloucester area in all of these collections. What makes us special is the objects found locally that tell the story of the city through the ages.”
Having joined the museum as Events and Marketing Officer in January 2019, Amy was motivated to help grow visitor numbers and engage the local community. Having been without a marketing presence for several years, her role was to bring some structure to the marketing efforts and get the fundamentals in place. From tidying up museum social media accounts to sorting Google and Tripadvisor listings, she describes 2019 as a year of “getting back to basics”.
By the end of 2019, Amy says that she and her colleagues were in a place to begin thinking about putting a cohesive museum marketing and communications strategy in place. Then, just as Amy was hitting a groove, she – like the rest of the museum world – had the rug pulled from under her plans.
“We went from being open on Friday 20th March to being shut on Monday 23rd March without any idea as to when lockdown would end. As it turned out, we didn’t open again until the 3rd September.
“In that time we had to get to grips with everything from adapting our IT provision and infrastructure for home working, to providing the actual front-of-house museum service. In the beginning we didn’t even know if that would be possible. We had to contend with intermittent home Wi-Fi issues, a lack of training with new technologies, the challenges of upheaval to staffing and resources. But the fact of the matter is that you just have to press on and make the best of what you have got.”
The immediate challenge for Amy and the wider museum team now became about maintaining some form of visitor engagement and keeping its services “current” in the eyes of their audience and user groups. Of course, the other issue was how to deal with the sudden and dramatic loss of income caused by a rapid lockdown.
Speaking candidly, Amy says that with little time to prepare, the harsh reality was that the team were underprepared for the extent of the problems caused by the pandemic. But she says, “Fortunately, we had a team of can-do people who quickly realised that we needed to provide an online offering and present a virtual museum experience for our visitors.”
What the museum team learnt on the job was that they now needed to be “supremely flexible” and not being afraid to change plans at short notice. For the Museum of Gloucester that included experimentation with outdoor events and trails, wellbeing packs for the community at home, virtual tours delivered via social media.
Amy says, “Our virtual tours stemmed from my colleague Nigel, who’s been with the museum for 30 years, performing regular building checks. He’d go to feed the fish and soon he was encouraged to provide little bits of information to camera.
“In essence, our digital offering spiralled from there and we ended up with over 40 videos with him. Other team members have also then supported this with their own visual content. Everything was a little raw and perhaps wasn’t storyboarded as we would have done with more time. But in actual fact I quite like that. And I think our audience has connected with the authenticity of what we’ve done.
The jewel in the crown of 2020’s efforts was an entire online exhibition entitled “A Life in Lockdown” (ALiL). In the absence of the traditional summer exhibition, the museum asked for the public submission of images, videos and audio clips to capture the reality of the lockdown experience for the local community. All of these could then be shared via the Museum of Gloucester’s website and social media channels.
“It’s been tough but we’ve had great fun doing it. And it’s given us something to build on. Perhaps our visual content hasn’t been great from an accessibility perspective – there were no subtitles or signing – but it’s a starting point. I don’t know that we would have made that leap in normal times. In fact, digital just wasn’t a high priority in 2019.
“We’ve also used this time to see what others are doing to drive engagement, whether it’s York museum’s #creepiestobject campaign or the hilarious tweets that are being put out by the MERL – Museum of English Rural Life.”
Reflecting on a pandemic job well done
Of course, it’s very difficult to measure success in a time of turmoil. Knowing which way is up and which way is down can be tricky when you have no way to get your bearings and no benchmarks in place. But asked to put her finger on the successes of the last 12 months, Amy says that she feels the Museum of Gloucester team can be proud of what they have achieved with limited resource and prior training:
“I believe we have succeeded in reaching and engaging with a new type of audience – predominantly via social media but also using our website. We’ve started to make use of our email newsletter and we’ve built lasting relationships with external organisations using our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. It’s difficult to quantify but we’ve also kept the museum ‘alive’ in people’s minds and given them some much-needed mental stimulation.
“As we’ve started to look towards life beyond the pandemic we’ve also been building our Museum Development Plan. We now have a bank of virtual tours, have facilitators wanting to work with us and have learnt a lot from our first virtual exhibition.
“Perhaps the two key successes, though, would be the funding we’ve secured – including from DCMS for our cultural recovery and Arts Council for our Audience Insights project – and the national recognition we’ve received through industry media.”
Amy also suggests that the anecdotal feedback she has received has been “overwhelmingly positive.” All this has encouraged her to try new things and be prepared to take further risks as she looks to build a robust marketing plan coming out of the pandemic. She says,
“Our focus now will be on providing a hybrid or blended offer that suits the needs of our audience. We still have work to do on our IT systems to support remote working and I think the public will now want us to split our delivery between virtual and in-person experiences.”
Asked what she is hoping to learn from the MuseumNext Digital Summit, Amy says, “I’m looking forward to finding out what’s coming next in digital trends and how we can utilise them. Of course, we’ll also have a keen eye on financial support and funding opportunities as we – like so many others – try to build towards the future. It will be fascinating to get the perspective of both big and small museums in the UK, as well as an international perspective from around the globe.”