Perfectly Placed

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Perfectly placed “ A museum is simply a place of inspiration and with this understanding, the museum as storehouse of objects and knowledge is obliterated, and re-emerges as the community itself.� Turning the Museum Inside Out

Difference, distinction, diversity: no two museums are completely alike, and in fact those that thrive are markedly unique and compelling. Too often overlooked, this appreciation of a diverse and varied museums sector leads to a second realisation: that here in the North West our museums, rooted in the cities, towns and neighbourhoods of our region, have a critical role in building a greater sense of place, a stronger local identity and a richer, more rewarding visitor experience. Museums are as diverse as the communities they serve and the audiences they connect with, period.

This is why successful museums command affection, pride and love. They represent and respond to the places in which they are located. In many cases they are guided, driven and funded by local partners, including local government. They have a level of accountability, a democratic and open communication with the populace. They are places and spaces for people. 1


As an enhanced level of localism guides our collective future, so the relevance of these rooted, representative institutions becomes all the greater. From place-based budgeting to a greater devolution of economic powers, through Local Economic Partnerships (Cumbria, City of Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Cheshire & Warrington), the future is increasingly local, and institutions that are strongly tied into, and helping to shape, local identity and prosperity will be valued and respected. This local shift will be pronounced, and is now set in the Localism Bill, introduced into Parliament in December 2010. The Bill aims to move power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils. In the words of the Department for Communities: “We are committed to this because over time central government has become too big, too interfering, too controlling and too bureaucratic.� In practical terms it sets out ways in which services will be delivered by individuals, accountable community groups and local institutions. Museums can play a prominent role in this new, localised future. A mandate exists for museums to play a bigger role in shaping places and experiences, not least because of their enduring and increasing popularity. They have seen, in recent years, a 42% increase in visitor numbers and specifically a 73% increase in visits by children. Visitor surveys reveal that 92% of visitors to museums across Britain leave satisfied or very satisfied with their visit.

Every year, over a million people visit the Merseyside Maritime Museum for example; several hundred thousand people walk through the doors of the Walker Art Gallery, Manchester Museum, the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston or the Lowry at Salford Quays. Little wonder then museums are crucial part of the package of experiences that has seen the visitor economy grow to play such a critical part in our wider regional economy, worth an estimated 2


£14.3 billion annually, supporting 220,000 jobs and with an estimated GVA of £5.7 billion. Museums are a vital part of the tourism mix. People are pulled towards these ‘cultural magnets’ for the stories they tell and for the experiences they offer. As the shopfronts for, and custodians of, our local and national heritage, museums not only underpin a vibrant and healthy tourism market but are also key to creating local distinctiveness:building local pride and connecting with local economies that attract the talented, the innovative, the pioneers. There are some examples where museums do more than simply underpin or enhance an area’s sense of place: in the North West there are a number of museums that have been critical to the reinvention of entire urban areas. Two perfect examples of transformational museum projects sit at either end of the Manchester Ship Canal and River Mersey. At Salford Quays in Greater Manchester, the Lowry arts complex recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, which marked eight million visitors, over 2,300 theatrical productions and 111 exhibitions, not to mention a community outreach and education programme that has brought thousands of local residents through its doors. Close on the heels of the Lowry came the Imperial War Museum North, again transformative in its impact, and which together with the Lowry looks out over the new MediaCityUK complex which will shortly be home to BBC North. Transformation – through culture, through museums.

Over a decade before, in Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum was the catalyst for the regeneration of the city’s historic but neglected Albert Dock complex in the 1980s, blazing a trail for other major institutions like the Tate and most recently the Museum of Liverpool to take their place on Liverpool’s World Heritage waterfront. Taken as a whole, the ambitious and continually successful National Museums Liverpool service (NML) leads visitors to spend at least £79 million in the city each year, supporting over 1,300 full time jobs or their equivalent. The Director of NML, 3


David Fleming, coined the term ‘Museums as Defibrillator’ to describe this role. Whether as catalyst for complete renewal of an area, or as a pivotal player in the creation of competitive local identity, museums have a significant part in delivering sense of place. The Living Places project, a partnership of a number of public agencies focused on the role of culture in our communities, has a vision which neatly encapsulates this: ‘The Living Places vision is of a country where all communities have the capacity to be culturally vibrant and reflect their distinctive identities. Diverse and tolerant places are essential to a strong community. ‘Every community, including the most disadvantaged, should expect to have access to cultural activities, opportunities for learning and self-expression, attractive and safe open spaces and a well-designed built environment that respects and enhances local character.’ This vision is a brief and a call to action for the museums sector; and one piece of evidence from Living Places shows that even those who do not regularly visit museums hold this to be true. A report commissioned for Living Places Partnership for Pennine Lancashire revealed that 75% of people who indicated that they did not visit museums said that they thought it was important that museums were available. They are valued as prerequisites; as a fundamental part of the civic infrastructure. Some museums are so entwined with their locations that they simply couldn’t exist anywhere else. A recent report prepared by consultants Metaphor, reveals a potential future for Pennine Lancashire’s industrial heritage that could fuse together place, personalities and experience. Further north, in Cumbria, the connectivity is just as profound. At the Wordsworth Trust the connection between the poetry, the man, the house and the environment is visible all around in the landscape. In Coniston, Ruskin and Campbell are resonant stories to be told around the lake. 4


On the Isle of Man, the Manx National Heritage agency has embraced wholeheartedly the role that culture and museums can play in delivering a strong and distinctive sense of place, a unique heritage, community identity and tourism economy. The story of the Manx community is told with pride and passion to both local people and visitors alike. The sense of place is tangible and MNH is a key part of this. In the world of place-marketing, ‘destination is king’ and there is only a handful of museums across the globe than can truly be afforded destination status. The majority, from nationals to small independents, have to accept that visitors and locals appreciate them primarily as part of a fulfilling day out. Successful ones will partner-up and promote themselves accordingly, they will understand their place in the mix, their point of difference and special appeal. As public funding cuts drive ever-harder efficiencies, there are major pressures on museums and on their collections. Question marks sit heavily above the very existence of some museums in the future: already some are under threat of closure, staff are being made redundant or redeployed, some collections are being sold. Surviving and thriving, whilst being relevant and true to the assets, collections and audiences that they represent, is the modern day mission for museums.

There is evidence aplenty of appreciative audiences, financial benefits, and the importance of heritage, but how can museums work even harder to ensure that they utilise their role in delivering sense of place, and unique visitor experiences, in this singular mission? 5


One. Gather your evidence.

Whether it is simply visitor numbers, or a more in depth understanding of how your museum connects with local heritage, local pride and local identity, gather up the information that you will need to ensure that you are seen as a key partner in developing the competitive identity – and sense of place – of your town, city or local area. Two. Connect to the place and the placemakers.

In each and every corner of the North West, there are agencies and organisations charged with creating a greater sense of place and of marketing that place to visitors, investors, incoming employees or, of course, local people themselves. These organisations could be marketing partnerships, tourist boards or local government; seek them out, meet them, and make your case. Three. Make the business case.

Add value to your proposition by connecting it to the fortunes of the private sector. Are there local businesses that rely on image and sense of place for their continued success? These enterprises have a stake in your continued success. What is the true value of your annual sweep of visitors? Where are they from, what do they spend, could this be enhanced or increased in the future? Four. Set out a route to a bolder future.

Any brand needs constant reinvention and places are no different. If your city or local area has future vision, what will its positioning and its sense of place have to be like to secure that future, and how can you as a museum play a part in creating that future brand? Five. Image is everything

Review your own image and identity as part of this process. Is your museum genuinely reflective of where the future lies for your town or city, or even of your current local sense of place? 6


If not, embark on your own process of reinvention as a precursor to becoming a pivotal partner in your area’s future. These are five steps to take – there are many more – to becoming a key player in creating a stronger sense of place in your local area. It pays to hold in mind the actual reason for seeking to build that sense of place. In some areas a sense of place is critical for emphasising the quality of life a place offers, so that individuals and families seek to locate here, settle and establish fulfilling lives; in some areas, our cities for example, sense of place is vital in making a ‘pitch’ to the talented and gifted, the people we need to join our knowledge economy and become part of our collective renaissance; and in other areas creating distinctive local identity is a very straightforward element in marketing the place as a destination for a vibrant tourism market that sustains jobs and businesses the length and breadth of the region.

Seeded question:

Vibrant distinctive museums are a vital part of a place’s identity and visitor ecology, but few have sufficient pulling power to draw in tourists in their own right. This makes a substantial difference to how museums should market themselves, programme collaboratively and forge local partnerships. What opportunities does this create and how might it help smaller museums, and those in areas with less immediate tourism appeal, help construct a distinctive and viable offer in their localities that works for residents and visitors?

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