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What does it take to run a meaningfully inclusive communications and marketing campaign?

The Cult of Beauty, Wellcome Collection, Ben Gilbert, 2023. Featuring ‘Perhaps We are All Fictions in the eye of the Beholder’, Xu Yang, 2021

Anna Cornelius is Head of Communications and Marketing for
Wellcome Collection – London’s free museum and library dedicated to health and human experience. She shared her team’s efforts to embed inclusion and accessibility at every stage of the museum’s campaigns.

By shining a spotlight on artists and creatives from all walks of life, the museum recently tackled ‘The Cult of Beauty’ as part of their work towards a world where everyone’s experience of health matters.

Having previously worked for University College London, Tate, the National Galleries of Scotland and Artichoke Trust, Anna Cornelius is also a trustee for Bishopsgate Institute and Headlong Theatre and volunteers with the mentoring charity Arts Emergency.

Leading Wellcome Collection’s Communications and Marketing team, Anna is responsible for creating campaigns and content that reflect the museum’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist and anti-ableist organisation. She supports the team to engage with the broadest possible audience – especially prioritising racially minoritised people and visitors with lived experience of health conditions such as disabled, D/deaf, and neurodivergent people.

The Cult of Beauty

These efforts to promote and practise inclusivity recently culminated in one of the museum’s five most popular exhibitions ever: The Cult of Beauty.

Running from 26th October 2023 to 28th April 2024, the exhibition saw an average of 840 visitors per day – over a third more than the original target. The exhibition featured over 200 items, including historical objects, artworks, films and new commissions, all chosen to question the morality, status, health, age, race and gender politics surrounding our notions of beauty throughout history. The exhibition invited viewers to question established norms and reflect on more inclusive definitions of beauty.

The Cult of Beauty, Wellcome Collection, Ben Gilbert, 2023. Featuring ‘It makes no sense being beautiful if no one is ugly’, Makeupbrutalism, 2023.

Initiating inclusion

Wellcome Collection has always expressed a strong commitment to inclusive and accessible programming. The museum is part of the wider Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation dedicated to improving health through research, which is working to become an anti-racist and anti-ableist organisation.

Anna says, “I want our communications and marketing to be as inherently inclusive and accessible as the projects we are promoting, down to the detail of each advert and individual social media post.”

The campaign for The Cult of Beauty was the result of many months’ research and experimentation by the team, which was rearranged to combine marketing, media and social media in 2021. Anna says,

“In our first year together, we did a lot of testing and trying things out, such as expanding our suppliers and working with influencers like Lucy Edwards. We didn’t always know what worked so we started off doing more bite-sized bits of projects for different campaigns.”

Echoing the approach of Wellcome Collection’s curators and events producers, the Communications and Marketing team also works with artists, creatives, and partners of different backgrounds and perspectives, using their platforms to amplify their stories. Recent collaborations have included the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, The Museum of Transology and the historian Subhadra Das. Anna says,

“We’ve benefitted so much from working with these partners, who have played a critical part in shaping our campaigns. And The Cult of Beauty provided an opportunity for the team to embed what we’d learned together into this clearly defined project. It set the standard for our work and now this approach is something we take forward into everything we do.”

The Cult of Beauty, Wellcome Collection, Tube Poster (Notting Hill Gate). Featuring ’12 Reasons You’re Tired All The Time’, Juno Calypso, 2013

Digital delights

The team have worked with collaborators like BBC Glow-Up’s Dominic Skinner, Vogue’s former Beauty Editor Funmi Fetto, and Philosophy Tube’s Abigail Thorn to bring new perspectives to the exhibition and broaden Wellcome Collection’s digital offer.

Anna says, “We’re working with incredible people, engaging with new audiences, and reaching new corners of the internet. Within our team, you can see a real confidence in this way of working.

“On YouTube, we have played with popular formulas, like Vogue’s ‘73 questions’ or ‘What’s in my bag?’ style videos, while featuring influencers, authors or TV celebrities with different lived experiences or areas of expertise. The videos have helped us work with and reach different audiences, trying out new formats while maintaining a very high quality.”

A success story

According to Anna, the responses from visitors so far has been “overwhelmingly positive”. She continues, “We hope all our visitors feel welcomed in our spaces and can see their experiences reflected in the stories we share. For example, one exhibition display featured Rihanna’s Fenty beauty line, which has been praised for its wide range of products for different skin tones. And we want them to feel the same way about their interactions with us online, through the people and stories we share.

“I couldn’t be more pleased that so many visitors in the building and on social media have told us how important Wellcome Collection is to them, and how the exhibition and online content have resonated with them personally.”

As a learning opportunity, The Cult of Beauty also provided the team with the experience and knowledge they needed to go into future projects with more confidence. Anna says,

“It set the blueprint for us to do even more next time. More collaborations with people with different lived experiences, more inclusive practice, and hopefully even more diverse audiences.”

Learning curves

Despite the success of The Cult of Beauty, Anna is the first to admit they didn’t get everything right first time. Trying lots of different ideas without a playbook to follow meant the team had to put a lot of faith in each other, practising patience and understanding.

“Not everything is always going to be right on the first attempt, and this process has involved a lot of trial and error. And the public nature of communications and marketing, combined with Wellcome Collection’s profile, means that our work is out there for the world to see.

“It was important to find ways to test ideas and work with colleagues and partners carefully, to make sure we had enough time to consult and if needed, consult again. That way we could get things right on the second or third try.”

Highlighting marginalised voices

Its diverse group of creative contributors is what made The Cult of Beauty so visionary and powerful. But Anna says that uplifting marginalised voices must be accompanied by an institutional commitment to safeguard these contributors:

“By using Wellcome Collection’s platform to amplify these voices, we may be putting them in a vulnerable position. For example, sharing someone’s story with thousands of people on our social media channels or their image in campaign material can bring intense and sometimes negative scrutiny from the public and the media, particularly if seen through a ‘culture wars’ lens.

“We have a responsibility to carefully balance our campaign ambitions with our obligations to artists and partners. Every potential collaboration requires that judgement call.

“We’ve introduced a step of asking artists whether or not they wish to be featured individually on our channels, and if they would prefer to be notified of any negative feedback. Some don’t want to know at all, to protect their peace of mind. Some want to know a bit, but don’t want to view it directly, and others want to see everything.

“It might sound simple, but it’s all part of building relationships and trust, so our artists know we’ve got their back.”

Advice for other museum professionals? Keep going

Anna says, “This has been some of the hardest but most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

“It was hard because as a team we were trying so many things for the first time, and working with collaborators who trusted us with their personal experiences, so the stakes couldn’t have been higher. It has been a privilege to share these stories through our campaign, and I’m incredibly grateful for each contributor’s openness, generosity and patience.

“When we were in the thick of developing the campaign, it was difficult not to focus on our missteps or where we hadn’t achieved everything we wanted to in terms of our inclusive practice. The main thing I am taking away from this work is to concentrate on where I and the rest of the team can make a difference through iterative change.

“We didn’t always get everything right, but by adding up each small decision or improvement, we were able to make things better overall. And there is no finish line, we just need to keep going to build on what we’ve achieved and learned so far.

With the “beauty” of hindsight, the exhibition’s success feels inevitable, but as Anna explains, that wasn’t always the case. For that reason, her advice to other teams incorporating inclusion into their communication would be to simply “just keep trying, keep going.”

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