Future Proof Museums; lessons for the countryside sector

Like museums, the countryside/ conservation sector can come across as nerdy, insular and irrelevant. The best organisations in both sectors are doing great, and tough, work to change that.

Like museums, the countryside/ conservation sector can be much-loved by their fans but come across as nerdy, insular and irrelevant to the wider public. The best organisations in both sectors are doing great, and tough, work to change that.

The countryside sector can learn a lot from museums. Those stimulating people at Morris Hargreaves McIntyre whose work on visitor segmentation I have enjoyed working with, have now produced ‘Future Proof Museums’, another provocative thinking tool. It is clearly aimed at museums, but contains several important pointers for other organisations who aim to communicate with a wider public.

The alluringly easy-to-read  ‘Future Proof Museums’ notebook arrived in my Museum’s Journal as a freebie. I clocked that it was a completely brilliant bit of content marketing.  That’s what I like about MHM, every contact with them makes me think.

Black, shiny and provocative - what more could we want?

Black, shiny and provocative – what more could we want?

‘Future Proof Museums’ is a training programme that sets out to help museums ‘explore how they will change, adapt, influence and remain relevant in an ever-changing world’. If I was a museum manager, I would be very interested indeed in that.

Our experience is that countryside organisations face the same challenges as museums, the same struggles to remain relevant, to prove their value and to attract new audiences and advocates. The best of them are embarking on the same journey as the best of museums. So, countryside managers with an interest in audience development and public engagement could well be interested in this too. I certainly am.

 Woodland interpretation panel

Like museums, countryside organisations need to consider how to ‘change, adapt, influence and remain relevant in an ever-changing world.’ (From the Secrets of the Sands Landscape Partnership Area).

The ideas in Future Proof Museums feel very appropriate to our Landscape Partnership Area clients working on project development plans for the Heritage Lottery FundThe Spectrum of Audience Engagement is particularly interesting in that context. It divides Audience Engagement into categories: Deliver, Inform, Involve Co-create and Empower. For each category it identifies what ‘we believe’ (for example ‘Museum knowledge and research underpin our civilisation’ for  Deliver or ‘Museums inspire curiosity and fire the imagination’ for Involve) and ‘The Museum is a …’ (‘centre for learning’ for Inform, ‘community builder’ for Co-create). There are seven other parameters in the matrix.

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The delight is in the detail  This Spectrum suggests words and a framework for conversations we are already having.

What I find interesting is what happens when I replace the museum with ‘our nature reserve’ or ‘our conservation work’. It resonated well. In our work with conservation organisations in general and particularly with Landscape Partnership Schemes, we spend a lot of time talking about ‘interpretation in its very widest sense’, ‘ engaging in dialogue’, ‘involving’, ‘co-creating’, ‘crowd-sourcing’, ‘increasing participation’ and the like. It all feels very digital, very sharing, very multi-vocal.

Over the last year we, in conjunction with out friends in Resources for Change, have been thinking hard about promoting public engagement and participation with landscape. It  is fascinating. We really do live in exciting times for communication. I am so delighted to be part of it. This Spectrum really chimes with me.

I suggest the Spectrum of Audience Engagement in Future Proof Museums has three key insights for the conservation and landscape organisations:

  1. Identify where you are on the spectrum and where you want to be

I read this spectrum Deliver – Inform – Involve – Co-create – Empower broadly as a progression. There will, of course, always be organisations and institutions that fit firmly into each category. But the most successful ones will be looking at how far they can extend their operations to include more of the spectrum.

Moving away from an over-reliance on what MHM calls ‘Deliver’ with the museum as ‘trusted expert’ and a storehouse of knowledge’ is direction of travel for both natural and cultural heritage, in the early 21st century. It is great to see that set out so clearly.

I like this too because it shows my professional autobiography. My first job was in a University Museum in the 1980s, where we were all about delivering information. Now, more than 30 years later, very little of my work is so knowledge-based. ‘Informing’ and ‘involving’ is our TellTale bread and butter. We constantly nudge our clients towards ‘co-creation’. ‘Empowerment’, with the ‘debate’, ‘discussion’ and ‘challenging ideas’ that (according to MHM) are inherent in that, is our aspiration.

This shift in me and in our business reflects an evolution in the profession and our belief in what is possible. Yes, this does seem aspirational at the moment – but then aspiration is a far better strategy than stagnation, especially in changing times.

2. Focus on the organisation not the visitor.

There is a clear focus on organisational development here. That is different from many audience development / engagement models I have seen and argued with (including those that we have invented and abandoned). It suggests that the key change is an internal one. That figures. I remember being told long ago, when I was a passionate and somewhat chaotic young women given to anguishing over relationships, that all I could ever change is me. That is extremely good advice: it has worked for me on numerous times since. It works too for organisations.

The good news is that if you really do shift your perspective and the way you behave and communicate, you do shift the dynamic. That means all sorts of things can, and usually do, change.

Our client organisations that are most committed to changing their engagement with the public are very often also going through organisational change. It is rather a chicken and egg thing.



  1.  Be prepared to work on organisational ‘personality’ and beliefs as part of improving public engagement.

The way we speak is an expression of who we are. I say regularly in my writing workshops that ‘writing is transparent’. So is the way we relate to our ‘visitors’, ‘customers’, ‘guests’ or ‘users’. Even the words we use for them reveal who we are, how we see our organisation, what it offers and the behaviours we expect and will tolerate from the folk who engage with us.

Changing the modes of engagement can feel like a loss of identity. That is usually threatening, uncomfortable and uncertain. It is not surprising therefore that shifting the way an organisation relates to the public is often deeply unsettling to both staff and supporters (hello there, numerous clients!). This is long-term, sustained work. Usually when we are working with an organisation on this sort of shift we are involved for three or four years or more. But it can be done, I have seen people do it, especially in museums (hello there, numerous clients).

Developing a clear, shared across-the-board clarity about ‘who we are’ and what ‘we are trying to do’ is hard enough. Evolving that personality and function to suit a fast-changing world is harder. It requires people to be at least as excited about the future as they are about the past. Maybe that is intrinsically harder for organisations whose raison d’être lies in heritage, conservation and preservation than for other businesses.

It is probably hardest in partnerships where member organisations share common objectives but different personalities.

The case studies in this notebook might seem a million miles away from restoring habitats, rebuilding walls, restoring hedges and celebrating local food. Nonetheless, the lessons in it are valuable for anyone who wants to engage a wider audience with the work they do.

This smallish notebook, and the Spectrum, also contains one very interesting great big red alert warning to heritage interpreters – which I will return to in my next post.



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