South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries

Conference blog: Reflecting on the keynote addresses

This blog post the latest in our series of posts that share knowledge from the recent South West Fed Conference. Here, Claire Dixon reflects on her learning from the keynote addresses of Stephen Bird and Victoria Rogers.

It was great to welcome Stephen Bird, MBE to open the 2019 conference. In his keynote address, ‘From B&NES to Beijing: meeting the needs of local and global audiences’, Stephen Bird looked at how the Council-run museums in Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) seek to strike a balance between the imperative of dealing with over one million visitors from around the world each year and the needs and expectation of 190,000 permanent local residents. He also discussed the challenges of catering for audiences with physical and / or learning disabilities.

Stephen’s experience in the sector and current work as Head of Heritage Services for Bath and North East Somerset Council provided some fantastic insights into the work being done for both local and visiting audiences. I was particularly struck by his use of a ‘tripod’ business model that highlighted the need to balance core priorities of curatorship, visitors and commerce, emphasising how over focus in any one area will compromise overall sustainability. I was also impressed with Stephen’s recognition that an organisation’s staff structure should reflect its values and the equal weighting placed on different teams was heartening.

A final take away for me, was the importance of accessibility and the emphasis placed on equal access to great visitor experience. In particular, the use of non-language based interpretation that could reach all audiences regardless of age, ability, knowledge base or origin was inspiring.

Victoria Rogers’ keynote, ‘Building and diversifying audiences - the Cardiff Story’, provided a great start to the second day of the conference. By establishing Wales’ capital’s first city history museum, its collection and its visitor and participant base from absolute scratch, the Cardiff Story Museum has built, and then diversified, its audience over the course of 12 years. Her keynote explored how they approached this, why it is crucial for museums to do so, and the things they learnt along the way.

Victoria set the challenge for all of us to play a more active civic role to ensure we represent our communities, whether local, national or global. I was excited by the extent to which the community is at the core of what the team do at the Museum of Cardiff and the wide, diverse range of audiences this included was impressive. I was also interested in the work the museum team do to ensure they retain a commitment to their core purpose, audiences and communities in the face of what has been a difficult period of austerity and capacity challenge. The way they approached this with such creativity and positivity was something to be very proud of and there was plenty for all of us to take away from this approach.

Finally, the way the team actively stand with their communities and support them, playing an active role alongside them also ensures the museum can continue to represent them and this was a new insight for me at the conference that I will be taking back to my professional colleagues and partners.

About the writer and presenters:

Claire Dixon is the Chair of the South West Fed, and Director of Museums at Bath Preservation Trust and Chair of Bath Museums Partnership. Previously, she has worked at the National Trust, Hampshire Museum Services (working alongside the British Museum and Mary Rose Trust), and The Tank Museum, where she was part of a major development project that led to the creation of a new museum.

Stephen Bird is Head of Heritage Services at Bath and North East Somerset Council, responsible for the Roman Baths & Pump Room, Fashion Museum & Assembly Rooms, Victoria Art Gallery and Bath Record Office. In 2005 he restructured the service as a business unit within the Council working to bespoke financial arrangements and a rolling 5-year business plan.

For many years Stephen played an active role in the region’s museums sector. He served the Federation as Hon. Secretary (1996-2000) and President (2000-2002) and sat on the boards of the Area Museums Council for the South West (1996-1998), South West Museums Council 1998-2003 and MLA South West (2003-2009). Nationally he is an AMA mentor and Fellowship assessor for the Museums Association. He also sits on the Advisory Board of the Alexander Keiller Museum Avebury, is a trustee of Glastonbury Abbey and Company Secretary of the Roman Baths Foundation. In 2018 Stephen was awarded an MBE for services to museums, heritage and tourism.

Victoria Rogers is the Manager of the Cardiff Story Museum. With 20 years’ experience of the sector she has worked for Coldharbour Mill Trust, Tyne and Wear Museums and the project to establish Cardiff’s first city history museum. She is also President of the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales.