Canterbury tales

Partnership working, empowering staff and becoming more resilient are among the ways that Jo Jones hopes to take Canterbury's museums forward. Simon Stephens meets her
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Simon Stephens
Visitors to the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge witnessed an execution earlier this year, which certainly fitted in with Jo Jones’s aim of putting Canterbury Museums and Galleries on the cultural map.

The death in question was in fact portrayed in Edouard Manet’s painting The Execution of Maximilian, which was on display as part of the National Gallery Masterpiece Tour. The firing squad drew thousands of visitors to the museum during the show (17 January–16 March).

Jones has led an ambitious exhibition programme since becoming the director of museums and galleries at Canterbury City Council in 2011, which was just over a year before the Beaney reopened after a £14m redevelopment that extended and restored the building. It opened with a show of Henry Moore drawings and sculpture from the Arts Council Collection.

Working in partnership to raise the profile of Canterbury Museums and Galleries is an important part of Jones’s strategy.

Local, regional and national

“I’m really into collaborative working and being outward facing,” Jones says. “It’s about linking with those partners in the city, regionally and nationally and how the museum can contribute towards those broader agendas such as health and wellbeing, lifelong learning and tourism.”

Jones joined Canterbury from Sefton Council in north-west England where she was the museums and galleries manager.

Working with national and regional organisations has been an important part of her career for many years. She has carried out a variety of roles for the Museums Association (MA), including sitting on the board and acting as a representative for members in south-east England.

“It’s nice to contribute to organisations such as the MA and the North West Fed that are making such a difference for people across the country or region,” Jones says. “I have learned a huge amount from doing that and it has been really rewarding.”

Jones has been an MA mentor for other museum professionals and she is currently doing appraisals for the FMA.

“That is also really rewarding as you are helping people with professional development and seeing them grow.”

Staff development was also a priority when she joined Canterbury Museums and Galleries. Her role was a new one as the council had previously had a curator in charge who had been there for some time.

“The idea was the role would be much more strategic and it was also about change management, as you had a team that had been managed in a particular way,” Jones says.

“I like an empowering approach with the team because the way I see it everyone contributes and makes a difference, it can’t be just the director and the senior management.

"I know there has to be a structure and sometimes you have to be tough and say no but I like people to feel involved as I think you can achieve so much more if everyone is on board and they feel part of it.”

Career support

Jones says she has benefited from supportive people throughout her career and has had a number of mentors. While she was a taking a museum studies course in Manchester she did voluntary work at Birkenhead Museum.

Here, the curator let her curate a watercolours exhibition, which helped to convince her that she really wanted to work in a museum. Her first paid role was at Macclesfield Museums Trust.

“This was to do a complete redevelopment of Macclesfield’s West Park Museum, which had a fantastic Egyptology collection and local history and art,” she says.

“It was only a job for a year, but it was brilliant because you got to do each aspect of the museum and it was very much hands-on, shaping the new displays, the marketing, working with the designers – it was really exciting.”

Jones says this gave her a good grounding in the workings of a small museum and helped her get her next job, as an assistant keeper at Sefton Council.

She stayed at Sefton for the next 15 years, working her way up to become museums and galleries manager, with responsibility for the Atkinson Art Gallery and Botanic Gardens Museum, which were both in Southport.

She stayed at Sefton for so long because there were lots of exciting developments while she was there. Chief among these was a £17m capital project to create a regional cultural centre in the heart of Southport that combined the town’s gallery, museum, theatre and library.

The Atkinson Centre opened last year, although the museum element is yet to be completed.

In some ways, the Atkinson is similar to the Beaney project, which restored and extended a much-loved building to house a library, museum and a Visitor Information Centre.

“I think the project in Southport probably stood me in good stead to just get on with it in Canterbury,” Jones says.

As well as building a team and shaping the exhibition programme and the permanent displays at the Beaney, Jones also had to develop an overall strategy for Canterbury Museums and Galleries.

“There was no vision in place about where we are going, what the direction is and how everyone plays their part,” she says.

“Everyone is so passionate about the museum, not just about the collections but how we engage people and enable people to be part of that. Having that new vision, which the team helped create, is really important.”

The challenge is to sustain the success of the Beaney’s opening and move the whole organisation forward. The Beaney is the flagship museum, but Jones is also responsible for museums in Herne Bay, Whitstable, and another two in Canterbury.

Following cuts from central government Canterbury introduced seasonal opening for its museums in Herne Bay and Whitstable, as well as Canterbury Heritage Museum, from the start of this year.

Becoming resilient

“You see this happening at a number of museums – obviously it’s not always popular, but there are no easy choices,” Jones says.

“We did a really robust analysis of visitor numbers and we found that visits to those three museums were really low during the winter season so we are now driving footfall through the spring and summer.”

Becoming a resilient museum service is one of Canterbury’s four key aims. The others are related to learning, collections and audiences.

“Although we are a local authority we run the museums in a very entrepreneurial way, so the commercial side is very important,” says Jones, although she points out that the museum service is unable to access funds from some trusts and foundations because of its local authority status.

“There are lots of good ideas that we are progressing about how we can generate more income within our values and identity,” Jones says. “It is an interesting balance between the artistic and heritage side and the commercial but I think it can be done.”

Jones has also worked hard on audience development and to broaden the appeal of the Beaney. This has included the Happy Museum-funded Paper Apothecary, a participatory project designed to make visitors feel happier.

This has led to more work on how the museum can contribute to people’s health and wellbeing.

Jones is aware of the importance of developing audiences and support for the museum service through initiatives such as this. She has also introduced a membership scheme that offers a range of benefits.

“People go off and spread the word about the museum and that can be very powerful,” she says. “It is important that we build a community of support for the museums.”

Jo Jones at a glance

Jo Jones began her career in 1995 as curatorial assistant at Macclesfield Museums Trust. She then moved to Sefton Council as the assistant keeper of museums and galleries.

She spent the next 15 years at Sefton, most recently as the museums and galleries manager. She was the museum and gallery lead for the new Atkinson Centre in Southport.

Between 2008 and 2010 Jones was the chair of the NWFED.

She became the first director of Canterbury Museums and Galleries in June 2011.

Jones has performed a number of roles for the Museums Association (MA), including currently FMA appraiser and representative for south-east England, and previously MA board member and AMA mentor.

Canterbury Museums and Galleries at a glance

Canterbury Museums and Galleries comprises the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge; Canterbury Roman Museum; Canterbury Heritage Museum; Whitstable Museum and Gallery; and Herne Bay Museum and Gallery.

The Beaney unites under one roof an art gallery, museum, library and Visitor Information Centre and is a partnership between Canterbury City Council (museum and Visitor Information Centre) and Kent County Council (library).

It reopened in September 2012 following a £14m extension and restoration, which was funded by the two councils, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Homes and Communities Agency.

The Beaney was shortlisted for the Art Fund Prize for museum of the year in 2013 and has won a Sandford Award for Heritage Education and the Collections Trust’s Participatory Practice Award.

The museums and galleries service is run by Canterbury City Council and employs 68 people.

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