It’s Showtown!

Seeking to bring together the best of museum and visitor attraction, Showtown celebrates Blackpool and its role in the development of British popular culture. We spoke to Learning and Engagement Manager, Kerry Vasiliou to find out more, and discover the challenges and opportunities of developing a new museum during the time of COVID.

Located on the first floor of a new five-star hotel on Blackpool’s bustling promenade, Showtown is helping rethink Blackpool for the future through exploring its past, and in particular its significant contribution to entertainment. Objects on display will include a rare bowler hat owned by Stan Laurel, and loans from the V&A, including Tommy Cooper’s ‘headtwister’ illusion magic trick and costumes worn by Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

The project is in its sixth year of development and will soon be managed through a charitable company limited by guarantee and operating at arm’s length from the council. Capital building work delayed because of COVID is due to start shortly with opening now
scheduled for 2022, offering a little more time to build on Showtown’s dynamic brand launch earlier this year.

That brand is built on the innovative idea that Showtown is a hybrid, bringing together the best of museums with the visitor attractions
the town is renowned for, says Kerry Vasiliou, Learning and Engagement Manager.

“We know through our market research that we are looking to reach a certain type of family audience, one that has been coming to
Blackpool year-on-year, but also those that already live here; we want the museum to be something that residents feel is theirs, that they take ownership and are proud of. We’re also aware that we have to compete in Blackpool’s tourism industry, so we have to be loud, we have to be populist in terms of our approach.”

The development’s business plan has benefited from the town’s visitor attractions generously sharing knowledge and knowhow, but a clear focus on museum ethics and the central importance of the collections underpins the project.

“We want to raise the profile and improve people’s understanding of Blackpool, and how significant it has been in the development of
British popular entertainment over the last 150 years so we’ll tell stories with integrity and help people learn about Blackpool, but visitors
will do it having fun and by being entertained through play with their families.“

Building a new museum brand is always a considerable undertaking but sustaining that development during the time of COVID-19 is a particular challenge. Showtown’s approach has involved bringing profile raising together with engagement activities, dialling up the
emphasis on each where most appropriate.

“When COVID started, we thought we had a year until we opened but obviously that’s now extended so we have a little while longer to build the brand. We’ve found building that brand and raising profile has been most successful when we draw on synergies between our engagement programme and our PR activities. For example, when we lowered a model of a baby elephant into the museum before the walls and the stairs went in, we knew this would be a great PR stunt.

But we were also keen to connect it to the town, so came up with the idea of children writing letters to the elephant to keep it company whilst in the museum, and that in turn became a time capsule project and an opportunity for us to work with schools. So, the synergy between the two, engagement and PR, made for a nice story and great coverage from BBC and ITV. It also fits really well with our values; to have fun and inspire, instil pride, to nurture, to transform, to celebrate, and to be open and have integrity – all values we want to highlight every time we use the brand.”

Despite the challenges COVID-19 has posed Kerry feels in a privileged position compared to many. So, what advice would she offer those
considering complex project development in these strangest of times?

“Museums having to adapt and change what they already had, is so much harder than starting afresh, and planning going forward. We’ve learned to be extremely resilient and patient and flexible, to take risks and try new things and to try and not become too attached to something that you have worked really hard on – that’s really difficult to do and we’ve had to redesign things so many times. But we must be as objective as we can, to make sure we make the right decisions going forward.”

Showtown is due to open to the public in 2022.

www.showtownblackpool.co.uk