Prospering On:
West Cheshire Museums Reopening

There is no doubt that the past few months have been challenging for the cultural heritage sector across the UK. However, in the face of such adversity, the creativity that underpins the sector has also resulted in organisations persevering in connecting with their audiences in a plethora of innovative ways. Now that we see lockdown restrictions slowly lifting and organisations are opening their doors once again, a number of new challenges and opportunities lie ahead. To celebrate, we thought it would be great to catch up with some former Prosper North participants to see how they have managed to navigate these unusual times.

This week we spoke to Kate Harland (Senior Learning and Operations Officer) and Richard Hall (Development Officer, Cultural Services) from West Cheshire Museumscomprising of The Grosvenor Museum in Chester, Stretton Watermill, the Lion Salt Works and Weaver Hall in Northwich – which took part in the first edition of Prosper North. Kate and Richard share with us how the museums have worked throughout lockdown to continue sharing the fascinating history of the region and its rich cultural heritage, how the Black Lives Matter movement has informed their collections policy review, and how they have found reopening to the public.

It is fantastic news that you have been able to reopen your museums safely to the public. What has the response been like? 

The response has been great, and we are delighted that visitors are keen to visit our museums. In the lead up to reopening, we used our social media channels and the local media to let visitors know what changes we were putting in place to make their visit as safe as possible. We are constantly reviewing our safety measures and acting on feedback from staff and visitors. As a result of opening safely we have gradually been able to increase the days that each museum is open.

Throughout lockdown itself, did you find any benefits to promoting each museum’s online offerings? Has there been any change in the audience that you were able to reach? 

Before lockdown as part of developing a new museum plan we had been thinking about ways that we could extend our digital offer. During the last six months, we have achieved things online that we could not have imagined doing before lockdown. The key to this has been making the best of opportunities that have come our way and recognising and encouraging the skills and talents of our staff.

A benefit of lockdown has been that staff from our museums have pooled resources. For example, we are now delivering one digital offer for pre-schoolers across all museums. This has significantly increased the on-line audience for this age group and helped to sign-post visitors to other museums.  We are now looking at how we can build on this for the future.

Lockdown has enabled us to work creatively with colleagues from across the Council and with external partners. Recently via our social media channels, we have hosted films and documentaries celebrating the work of museums across Cheshire and as a part of a Young People’s Digital Festival work commissioned work from North West artists and filmmakers. This has brought us and our work to the attention of new audiences and going forward we need to ensure that future programming caters for these groups as well as our established audience.

Were there any learnings or challenges that you faced throughout lockdown, whether it be organisational or curatorial, that you will continue to address in the next phase of the museum re-opening? 

Like most organisations the initial challenge we faced was adapting to an unprecedented set of circumstances. In the first instance, it was a huge logistical challenge to keep in touch with over 50 members of staff, some of whom were shielding and required additional support. Over time we established systems to improve communication with staff and like everyone else have discovered the merits of using Teams and Zoom for online meetings. Before lockdown, some staff would travel great distances between museums to attend meetings and the last few months have shown us that we can often be more effective meeting online than in person. Prioritising where and how often staff need to visit sites is something that we will think about as well as considering where people are best placed to do their jobs.

Curatorially we have used lockdown to review our collections policy and especially in light of Black Lives Matter have started to think about the origins of some of our artefacts and how we can use these to inform our staff and visitors about some of the issues raised during the last few months. Prior to lockdown, we had started to consult with some of our community partners about reinterpreting our permanent collections and developing ideas for contemporary collecting. Covid 19 and BLM have brought about significant changes in these areas which we will continue to investigate long after the pandemic has come to an end. With our colleagues in the County’s Record Office we have been collecting everyday objects that will provide a permanent record of lockdown and how people responded to it.

Unfortunately, we know that lockdown measures lifting doesn’t mean the end of the uncertainty within the sector. What needs to be done on a local and governmental level to best support organisations such as yours?

At the present time, we are fortunate to receive the support of Cheshire West and Chester Council which is responsible for the upkeep of our four museums. Clearly, as a result of Covid 19, the Council will be looking to make additional cuts to balance its finances and the challenge for us is to continue to be relevant and vital for residents and visitors alike. We are always thinking about new ways to improve our offer and generate additional income to put these into practice. This is always challenging, and will no doubt be even more so in the months and years ahead.

We have always valued partnerships and believe that for the sector to survive that developing these at both a regional and national level has never been more important. Lockdown has trigged collaboration and innovation; we have seen many partnerships develop as a result of uncertainty and a genuine desire to share resources. In Cheshire we are lucky that there is already a great spirit of partnership in the area and we will do what we can to develop this and bring in partners from other sectors.

Were there any learnings from your time spent on the Prosper North programme that helped you to navigate this uncertain time? 

Being made aware of how other organisations work and have dealt with past crises has been extremely valuable, as has been able to draw on the experience of our business advisor when thinking about specific issues such as digital marketing and business planning. One of the first things that became clear from taking part in Prosper North was realising that organisations which can demonstrate adaptability and resilience are the most likely in the long term to survive and we will try and adopt a similar mindset as we face the challenges of an uncertain future.

You can find out more about the West Cheshire Museums here and more about the Prosper North programme here.