Case study: regular donors

Javier Pes, Issue 42, p58, Summer 2008
A novel scheme run by Reading Museum Service gets local companies to become regular donors in return for being able to display museum artefacts in their offices
In business you do not get a second chance to make a good first impression, as the saying goes. The same is true for the "flying objects" from Reading Museum Service that grace the offices of its corporate members.

On loan from the museum, and housed in bespoke mobile showcases, the objects serve as talking points as well as tangible symbols of the companies' support for their local museum.

The objects range from a Victorian brass fireman's helmet to an Iron Age sword dredged from the nearby river Thames, along with a prehistoric pot and a decorative stone from the ruins of Reading Abbey.

There are 36 artefacts in total, illustrated on the museum's website. The variety is important as corporate members get to select a different one for their offices every six months in return for a fee of £1,000 a year.

The museum launched its membership scheme in 1998. A grant of £32,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund provided start-up money. A unique selling point is the fact that the money raised goes directly to fund the local authority-run museum's education work, which includes lending objects to schools, as opposed to disappearing into a general budget.

Ten years on, its six founder members are still signed up, making a total of 13 in total. They include law, property and accountancy firms. What attracts them? Bill Gornall-King, a partner of law firm Boyes Turner, says that it is a chance to put something back in to the community, and the museum's work with schoolchildren appealed in particular.

When it comes to choosing the objects, visual appeal is important. Age is less so; ancient is good, but not essential. Strong local associations count the most. "People look forward to the next one," says Gornall-King. For Boyes Turner, a fragment of Reading Abbey's cloisters was especially relevant because its offices stand on the site of the Norman church.

From a conservation point of view, metal, stone and ceramic objects are best as they are not light sensitive. They cannot be too heavy or fragile. The borrowers insure them, while the museum delivers.

Independent evaluation found that for the members, the objects symbolised the way the museum represented "the best of old Reading". Membership also confers a level of prestige. This appealed to both established firms and to businesses that had just arrived in town that were keen to start networking.

Publicity is also important - members want to be seen to be museum supporters. So a certificate accompanies the objects, along with a historical fact sheet. Extending the scheme beyond the company director by inviting staff to choose an object has worked well.

A PEOPLE BUSINESS

Although the objects are central, like any form of giving, the scheme is a "people business" at its heart. It was launched by the charismatic museum director, Karen Knight. And there has always been one point of contact for members within the museum: the personal assistant to the head of service.

As well as being on first name terms with the museum's senior staff, members appreciate the process of choosing an object (or a painting, if they prefer) and being invited to events at the museum. Networking events benefit everyone - they are a good way for the in-crowd to meet the in-crowd, and for all to confirm their local status.

(Image: late Iron Age pot in an office foyer, Reading Museum Service / Sam Frost)