What does the public really want?

Sally Lewis, 12.08.2014
Report from South Western Fed conference
Over 90 delegates from all over the south west joined us last month at the American Museum in Britain, Bath, for our 2014 conference and annual general meeting, which had the theme: what does the public really want?

Piotr Bienkowski, our keynote speaker, told us about the Paul Hamlyn Foundation-funded Our Museum programme.

Informed by Whose cake is it anyway? a 2009 report by Bernadette Lynch looking at engagement and participation in 12 UK museums and galleries, the programme addressed issues such as public participants feeling they were beneficiaries rather than active agents, and looked at how improvement could be brought about by organisational (rather than project-based) change, to embed improved methods of working into the organisation.

Viable outcomes need to be rooted in local needs, the programme found, so that communities have real agency to develop capability and skills with open, trusting and honest conversations taking place.

Bienkowski highlighted common barriers to participation, starting with lack of leadership. No one solution would address all issues, he said, but lots of small changes can add up to a big improvement. If organisations have self-confidence in their role, then they are better placed to address what the public wants.

This led neatly into the next presentation by Alison Bevan, the director of the Royal West of England Academy, in which she described her experience with The Happy Museum Project. She emphasised that happiness is important to everyone as, quoting Tony Benn: “It’s not fluffy. It’s radical.”

The project had brought about fundamental change, she said - in staff, trustees, stakeholders and academicians’ morale and commitment to the institution and their shared vision for its future.

This improvement had measureable results in the form of higher visitor and patron numbers and consolidated friends’ groups.

She made the important point that it would be difficult for a dysfunctional organisation to fulfil its audience’s needs - if staff and volunteers are happy then they are in a better position to give the public what they want.

Then Dany Louise, an arts writer, gave us her perspective on communication in interpretation. Louise had “personal hates” but was keen to emphasise that good writing can resolve a lot of conflicts and barriers to communication.

She described working with organisations to look at their processes for producing writing, focusing on reflecting their identity and not trying to please everybody. The result is an organisational voice that truly conveys values everyone understands.

In the afternoon we heard seven quick-fire presentations from museums and galleries in the south west. These had a wide geographical spread, from Cirencester to St Ives, and included a presentation on Takeover Day (Kids in Museums) from its director Caroline Marcus. The variety gave delegates a taste of many ideas with the potential to inspire and entertain and covered many aspects of the theme that had been raised throughout the day.

The day finished with panel questions and a lively discussion chaired by our vice chairman, Michael Spender, focusing on how the sector could take things forward.

Sally Lewis is coordinator for the South Western Federation of Museums & Art Galleries. This piece was originally published on the federation's website.