2019 was a good year for Dr Jenner’s House, the Gloucestershire museum in the small village of Berkeley. More than 7,600 visitors walked through the door that once belonged to Edward Jenner, the man who created the first vaccine and revolutionised public health almost 225 years ago. The last time it welcomed similar visitor numbers was in 1989.
“We really felt 2019 was a turning point for us. We were significantly up on visitor numbers and income and were really starting to push out engagement,” says Owen Gower, manager of Dr Jenner’s House. “We were also working on a long-term-plan, and so we were going into 2020 with a plan, with a vision, and with a strategy to ensure the long-term future for Dr Jenner’s House.”
This should have signalled a turn of fortunes for Dr Jenner’s House, which had narrowly avoided closure the previously year after an international funding appeal. But in an unfortunate twist, Covid-19 put paid to the gains made by the museum.
Having closed its doors at the end of February, the museum has remained shut all year as the Jenner family home is too small to reopen and ensure social distancing.
“The irony of a museum about the history of vaccination being closed by an outbreak of an infectious disease for which there is no vaccine is hugely disheartening for us,” says Gower.
Like other museums, galleries and heritage sites, Dr Jenner’s House has been hugely affected by the sudden cessation of visitors, whose support it depends on for income.
“70% of our income comes from visitor admissions,” says Gower. The rest of the museum’s income is derived from hiring out the venue, and from donations. “The loss of a whole year of income would really be terminal.”
For the Jenner Trust, the independent charity tasked with preserving the house, the priority was to fundraise enough to see it through to the end of the financial year. By early June, it had raised almost £35,000 through crowdfunding, with support coming in from all over the world.
This enables the trust to see the year out but, Gower stresses, people shouldn’t assume that the museum is saved. It needs a constant stream of visitors to continue to remain viable, he says, and if people are still hesitant to visit next year, particularly as the house is not conducive to social distancing, the museum will continue to lurch from one financial crisis to the next.
While fundraising has been a priority, this year has also given Gower and the trustees space to reassess the museum’s relevance today. “This was really an opportunity to share Jenner’s story, to raise awareness of the museum and the role we wanted to play,” says Gower.
It seems to be working: its social media engagement has increased, with 40% more followers on Twitter now than a year ago. By the end of December 2019, the museum had 5,221 followers – it now has almost 7,500.
Building on this engagement, the museum has hosted two online Jenner Conversations, which placed the museum in the wider context of the pandemic and vaccination. These attracted speakers from the School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine, the Lancet and the Oxford Vaccine Group.
The museum was also put in the spotlight by columnist Jonathan Freedland’s BBC Radio 4 series The Long View, for which Gower provided research. And the institution is leading a Covid-19 project collecting diary entries throughout the pandemic, which have been shared on BBC Radio Gloucestershire.
The success of its social media engagement, online events and press coverage has brought the museum wider recognition, enabling it to think more ambitiously about where it wants to go in years to come.
Gower says: “We were very much a museum of Edward Jenner but, now that we’ve seen how people engage with the topic of public health, it’s given inspiration for the stories that we can tell and should tell.”
One of the main long-term challenges is “not just to survive going forwards but to thrive”, he says. But to cater to a more socially distanced world and deliver more ambitious programmes in the hope of attracting visitors, the museum requires a larger physical space and an increase in staff numbers. There is also concern for the future of the old building and the upkeep it involves. The trust is continuing to crowdfund to meet these ambitions.
Gower says: “This year has shown us that, as an organisation, as a museum and as a living hub celebrating one of the greatest public health achievements of all time, we know there is so much more that we can do but we need to secure the funding.”