South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries

Conference blog: Lemons and lemonade - audience development during a building conservation project

In this blog post, Kevin Ward shares key points from Louise Donovan and Paula Clarke’s conference presentation ‘Lemons and lemonade: audience development during a building conservation project’. This is the latest in a series of posts that share knowledge from the South West Fed Conference ‘Inspiring Audiences: Home and Away’.

For six years the National Trust’s Castle Drogo has undergone a major building conservation project to make it watertight. In Their presentation, Louise Donovan and Paula Clarke explored how the upheaval of being a building site inspired new approaches to audience development, through growing repeat visits from core audiences, especially local Devon residents, to exploring opportunities to engage new audiences through collaborative community partnerships, working with artists, and creative programming. The presentation also reflected on the sea-change in the property team’s ways of working including new volunteer opportunities, co-curation and production, and working together for a more holistic approach.

Here are five of the key pieces of learning that I took away from their presentation:

1. Be brave and try new things – this is an excellent way to attract new audiences. It also helps to maintain enthusiasm and momentum in a long project. Have a mechanism to capture lessons learnt and apply it in future projects.

2. Don’t say ‘no’, ask ‘why not’? - A ‘no’ will close doors before exploring any ideas and can be seen as being uninterested in others ideas. Asking ‘why not’ does not commit but allows the exploration of ideas and an approach that seeks to challenge and find solutions. Again, apply learning to future projects.

3. Invite others to be part of the journey – This applies both internally to staff and volunteers as much as it does to working with external audiences. Projects can be richer for involving others in the journey and may also better reflect the audiences you are trying to engage.

4. Build Resilience, be flexible and make room to change direction – Audience engagement activities can be rewarding when they are set out to be flexible and respond to change or ideas that had not been foreseen. This is not always straightforward to plan for but allowing change in direction means you are responsive to need and opportunity. Resilience is not just about the future but how you will respond and manage change in the present.

5. Remember to have fun – A key ingredient of any project! Smile!

Kevin Ward is the Museum Development Manager of the Museum in the Park, Stroud and the outgoing Vice-Chair of the South West Fed (Twitter: @17Sep1944). Louise Donovan has been Creative Programme Manager at Castle Drogo for the past 6 years and responsible for delivering the interpretation plan and working with Creative Partners as part of the ‘Saving Castle Drogo’ building conservation project. With a background in Art History, Louise has worked in museums and galleries for the past 25 years across a variety of arts, exhibition, learning and engagement including roles at Bristol Culture, Centre for Visual Arts Cardiff, Southwark Arts Service and Coldharbour Mill Trust. Paula Clarke is the Community Engagement Officer at the National Trust Castle Drogo.