You’ve reopened, but what next?

graffiti Hong Kong 2020

Recovery and change: what are the first steps? Hilary McGowan and Piotr Bienkowski

Many museums will need to adapt and change to ensure they survive in the longer term. How do you prepare for what you need to do, what do you need to know, and how do you go about it?

Prior to introducing their Hallmarks in 2015, AIM research found the greatest risk to museums prospering was lack of clarity of purpose. Asked why their museum existed and what it did, staff, volunteers, directors and governing bodies all gave different answers. So establishing clarity of purpose became the first Hallmark of Prospering Museums*.

Now, more than ever, you need that clarity about why you are a museum and what you are about. This will build confidence in staff and volunteers and help kick-start recovery from the current crisis. To be effective at supporting recovery, there must be a shared vision for a common purpose.

Your starting point for identifying common purpose must be finding your ‘Why?’: why your museum exists and what it exists to do**. Your key to recovery should seek to place your museum in a position to fulfil your mission, whether this originates from its foundation or is a more recent articulation.

Finding your ‘Why?’ must involve everyone in the organisation, as every aspect of the museum’s work must feed into the outcome. This can be done through discussions, workshops, focus groups or action learning sets. An effective way is to use a Change Working or implementation Group which includes representatives of every aspect of the museum’s work.

This works best with a diagonal slice of staff/volunteers: this ensures all levels of staff/volunteers across different museum roles are included, and therefore ideally all viewpoints should be represented. Crucially, the diagonal element means that more junior staff are not present alongside their direct line managers, so should feel they can contribute more readily and honestly about potential impacts or problems. As long as the leader (Director/Chair/Curator) is prepared to listen and adapt, these different perspectives should make your recovery process more effective.

Finding a common purpose should ease your recovery process. Depending on how old your museum is, some of your stories may need telling in a radically different way, e.g. in industrial museums where the industry itself has disappeared.

For example, the Museum of East Anglian Life, originally founded to save the farming heritage of East Anglia, collaboratively developed a new strategic focus on food, exploring the issues and challenges of the past, present and future, giving it a new sense of purpose and relevance to modern audiences. Revisiting their mission through examining their ‘Why?’ led to a realisation that their collections could tell stories in different and more relevant ways.

Exercises such as these will give your museum a clearer understanding of your mission today and what changes are needed for the future. Then the whole organisation can sign up to the new mission, as it isn’t just the preserve of the Board and the senior leadership team.

Communication throughout this is key, especially currently, so consider how you may communicate recovery ideas and the outcome of these exercises in the coming weeks. You should take into account staff and volunteers who do not work full time Monday to Friday, and who may not be able to attend single briefings/staff discussions. You might need to repeat some briefings to include everyone. Consider introducing new methods of communication, a WhatsApp group for example, but, above all, ensure that your communications strategy is inclusive.

Achieving a shared understanding of recovery and change that everyone can support is crucial to ensuring that the change succeeds
and is sustainable.

Hilary McGowan works with museums, heritage and cultural organisations to help improve their leadership and governance. She has a background as a curator and was a director in York, Exeter and Bristol. For over 20 years, she has run her own business.

Piotr Bienkowski has worked in the museum and cultural sector for over 35 years, as curator, director, federation chair, university
professor and consultant. He focuses on organisational change and community participation.

Piotr and Hilary’s book Managing Change in Museums and Galleries: A Practical Guide will be published by Routledge in 2021.

*Read more about the AIM Hallmarks of Prospering Museums here. 


Pictured: ‘There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place’. Graffiti in Hong Kong during the 2020 pandemic.