AfCE Convention, Edinburgh 2017

This weeks’ guest blog comes from Sheridanne Reynolds, Retail and Garden Project Volunteer at the Higgins Museum and Art Gallery.

I volunteer at The Higgins Bedford and in February I was asked if I would be interested in attending the Association for Cultural Enterprises convention in March. I was lucky enough to receive a bursary from SHARE Museums East and off I went with a little trepidation of what was awaiting me and the weight of representing our museum and art gallery.

                                     The Higgins, Bedford

AfCE ” is an association of Members and Associate Members who are passionate about their work in the cultural and heritage sector” whose  “aim is to promote commercial best practice in the cultural and heritage sector by providing training and networking opportunities and facilitating the sharing of information and experience between members.” One of the many events they organise is the annual convention and trade fair which this year was to be held in Edinburgh.

In preparation I read the aims of the convention from the AfCE website, discussed what we as a museum wanted to get out of it and combined these aims after which I poured over the convention timetable to find the most appropriate sessions.

As a museum we are in the process of streamlining our retail products so that we reflect our permanent collections, ongoing exhibitions/projects and local area better and then to build cohesive ranges for each of those areas. This convention would be ideal for honing our ideas by:

  • Learning from those who know by attending sessions about developing product ranges
  • Sourcing products and services by meeting suppliers and seeing a wide variety of product ranges
  • Extending the network of influential contacts by meeting people from throughout the heritage and cultural sector
  • Providing inspiration. Edinburgh is a beautiful city and I arrived early enough to have a couple of hours to walk round and admire it and take some photos. I got back in time to change and make my way to The Fruitmarket Gallery for the drinks reception which was crowded noisy and buzzing with anticipation of an exciting convention ahead. I didn’t get to meet up with anyone I knew from SHARE but I did chat with some very friendly people and was able to raise a glass to Howard Hodgkin with everyone, one of whose pieces is in our current exhibition Picasso and the Masters of Print and which I knew would have really pleased the curator of that exhibition, Victoria. After lunch, sited in the middle of the trade fair, the afternoon was taken up with four more sessions of talks, each which had a choice of three. So many of them sounded interesting, but I kept to my aims of attending those relating to retail and developing product ranges.Wednesday had more time for visiting the trade show to hunt for suitable products and chat to suppliers who were all really helpful and friendly. There were three more sessions of talks to choose from plus a fourth session from the International Speaker, Stuart Hata, director of retail operations, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and president of the MSA, the Museum Stores Association. The Chair’s Summary wrapped up all the themes of the convention and bid everyone farewell until Brighton next year urging us to go out and be brave, provocative, risk-taking and aggressive as that’s what can bring about change for the good.The sessions I attended were
  • The overall feeling of the conference was one of friendliness combined with enthusiasm to get the most out of the two days. Regardless of status everyone was keen to share knowledge and answer questions. I had felt quite nervous about attending being only a volunteer, but everyone was so welcoming and eager to listen as well as to share that I gained one thing from attending this convention that I had not expected and that was confidence in my role.
  • After the sessions it was a rush to get back to the hotel to change and then walk across the city to the National Museum of Scotland where everyone was piped in to the drinks reception on the ground floor. The meal was upstairs under the high glass roof and it was a beautiful place for a dinner. The tables were mixed with people from other areas, but that was no barrier to conversation and everyone enjoyed the evening, which after the Best Product Awards were handed out, ended with music and dancing.
  • On Tuesday morning everyone descended on the Corn Exchange by bus, train or taxi which divided everyone up by their approach to life according to Caroline Brown, Chair of ACE, in her Welcome speech. The morning passed with registration, Fresher’s meeting, Welcome, “The Big Picture”, by Dr Bridget McConnell, chief executive of Glasgow Life, which made me want to visit Glasgow, coffee, a first foray into the trade show, Question time and an excited meeting up with other members from SHARE, including the other recipients of a bursary. Liz and Denise from Gainsborough House and Palace House were amazing, they were generous with their advice, offers of help and introductions and as much time from them as we wanted and their excitement and enjoyment of the whole thing was infectious.
  • Even the train journey up to Edinburgh was exciting and seeing iconic landmarks such as the Kilburn White Horse, Durham Cathedral, The Angel of the North, the Tyne bridge, Sage Gateshead and Holy Island with its scaffold encased castle and Lindisfarne Abbey infused the trip with heritage and culture before even reaching Edinburgh.
  • Exposed! The restored Mary Rose Shop is back , Paul Griffiths, The Mary Rose
  • The Secret Garden – RHS licensing rejuvenated, Cathy Snow, The RHS
  • Developing an artisan & craft range for the National Trust, Genevieve Sioka, The National Trust
  • Originality by design, Adam Throw, The Barbican
  • A Museum Store world, Stuart Hata
  • How to create a practical digital strategy, Simon Hopkins, Turner Hopkins
  • Visual Matters – unlocking the potential of your shop through visual merchandising, Lynda Murray, International Visual

National Museum of Scotland

I feel I gained more than just meeting our aims. The whole experience was motivating, inspiring and thought provoking and maybe I won’t be able to put many of the ideas into practice now, but I have been inspired and the ideas and processes will stay with me, developing and waiting for the time they can be used best.

The words and phrases that reverberate from the sessions I attended that I will keep with me are

Relevance, lighting, local connection, authenticity, pop-up shops, storytelling, UK, distinctive, style guide, customisation, social media, museum store Sunday, persona exercises, flow, user journey, title, focal points, colour, sense of place, own brand merchandising, artisan and products that reflect the place.

Thank you SHARE Museums East and The Higgins Bedford for giving me such an inspiring experience.

Sheridanne

Museum Mentoring: A Recipe for Success!

Museums are like cakes. Everybody has experienced one, and almost everybody has enjoyed one. Some eat cake all the time, others eat in moderation and some save it for a special treat. Some cakes are too rich, some are too plain; for some, the humble mince pie is just as gratifying as a three-tier iced wedding cake.

My name is Joe and I work for SHARE Museums East, the Arts Council-funded development team helping Accredited museums in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Befordshire through advice, training and financial support. In my role I see museums (and cakes) of all shapes and sizes, and my job is to assist them in improving. Museum development not only offers the perfect opportunity to witness museum growth, change and betterment, but also to speak to hundreds of people to share ideas and skills. Indeed, what makes our SHARE events so brilliant is that everybody benefits from speaking to one another face-to-face, regardless of museum size, governance or budget. This is usually done over coffee and cake…

Museums are like cakes!

Working in the eastern region is also a huge advantage. The differences between museum audiences in Watford, Sudbury and Sheringham for example, are massive, and they pose profound questions about museum visitors, a museums’ overall purpose, their stories and how they can be told. Their sheer range in size and scale is also something that fascinates me. The Imperial War Museum Duxford – a National museum that employs over a hundred staff – is one of my favourite museums in the region, a veritable four-tier Victoria sponge. In stiff competition with this, however, is the Little Hall in Lavenham, an entirely volunteer-led site and real gem in Suffolk; a perfectly crafted bakewell tart? The SHARE office, hosted by Norfolk Museums Service, falls somewhere in the middle.  We count our lucky stars to be based within a local authority setting in Norwich, and are acutely aware of the pros and cons of large, small and medium organisations.  Museum development, in short, is a great way to understand how museums operate across the sector. But this is not the only way…

Four months ago, I tentatively enquired about museum mentoring. Although I’ve never considered myself a professional expert, I certainly felt I could lend a helping hand to a smaller museum (if only through my SHARE connections). Mentoring is an Arts Council England scheme for museum professionals wishing to share their expertise with museums in the region. Mentors apply online and are assigned a museum, agreeing to attend meetings, offer guidance, compile reports and share ideas.

To my complete and utter delight, I am now co-mentoring the volunteer-run 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk. Based at the site of the control tower of the ‘Bloody Hundredth’ during the Second World War, it is quite possibly the most interesting museum in the region. I have met their dedicated trustees and many of their wonderful volunteers, all of whom are welcoming and willing to share ideas. I have written my first mentor report and I am eager to hear their thoughts for the future.

100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum, Thorpe Abbotts

I would recommend mentoring to any museum staff member who meets the criteria, particularly those from local authority museums who may not be used to organisations on a different scale. I have already learned things about museums that I would never have done otherwise, and have been inspired to think differently about sites like this. In truth, I have learned just as much from the trustees at Thorpe Abbots as they have from me.

Although working in museum development is not everybody’s cup of tea, with museum mentoring, you can have your cake and eat it!

For more information about museum mentoring in the region, email ruth.burwood@norfolk.gov.uk  

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