Why the Royal Cornwall Museum needed a new leadership structure - Museums Association

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Why the Royal Cornwall Museum needed a new leadership structure

Creativity and ambition is vital, say Jonathan Morton and Bryony Robins
Leadership
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Jonathan Morton
Executive director, Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro
Bryony Robins
Artistic director, Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro

Since 1818, the Royal Cornwall Museum has acted as a beating cultural heart for Cornwall.  It is a place that connects us to the people, industries and practices  of the past, informs new research and discoveries, and sparks conversations about how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go. 

In our post-pandemic world, that role isn’t going away. But it is evolving. Amid  the huge uncertainty of our current lives – upended by a public health crisis, fraught with financial worries and overshadowed by a climate emergency – we believe the museum has a new and vital role to play in contemporary Cornish life. 

Our aim is to transform what the museum means for Cornwall and for the estimated five million people who visit the region every year. We see it not just as a place for people to come and look at the million or so historical objects in our collection, but as a venue where they can engage with Cornwall’s past, navigate the tensions of its present and take an active role in shaping its future. 

Supported by a visionary board of trustees, and drawing on our career experience both within and outside museums, our aim is to create a community-focused multi-arts venue that inspires engagement and fosters creative responses to social, cultural and environmental challenges.

This work isn’t just in the planning stage – it’s already under way. When our programmes focusing on the climate emergency collided ideologically with an exhibit on Cornwall’s Spaceport, we listened. We invited climate activists to express their concerns, and their responses created new interpretive narratives. 

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In Cornwall, there will always be tensions: between nostalgia for its mining past and anxiety about industrial despoliation in the present; between locals and holidaymakers; between wild, unspoilt landscapes and demand for housing and infrastructure; and between those who can afford to take their kids to the beach and those who – even here in Cornwall – cannot. 

As a museum, we want to be here for everyone, no matter who they are, where they’re from or where they stand on these and other issues. By providing a safe and inspiring space for discussion, engagement and creativity, we believe we can navigate these challenging times together. 

Achieving all of this means taking a new approach to leadership. Last April, the board approved our proposal to create a joint leadership structure, in which we share responsibilities equally, and – crucially in a sector in which the gender pay gap is still an unacceptable 17% – we are also equitably paid and ensure our team is too. 

Our joint leadership means we’re more ambitious and creative in our thinking. We can push and challenge ideas, and make bold decisions faster. When a historical event occurs or a new cultural movement arises, we can coordinate a response immediately.

Of course, we can do none of these things without funding. The museum has been experiencing critical funding challenges which, despite rising visitor numbers, placed us under threat of closure. While we remain in constructive talks with funding bodies, the experience has underscored 
the need to take a more radical approach to financial sustainability, including identifying and adopting successful models from outside the sector. 

As well as becoming a community-focused multi-arts venue, that means we must also become a major attraction for visitors to Cornwall. Achieving it all with the funding we have – and without compromising our values – will be a tough challenge. But it’s one we’re excited to be taking on.

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