Autumn landscape view of Bourton on the Water in the Cotswolds with trees, river, blue sky, clouds and traditional stone building on the left.Rebuilding the Foundations was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, and led by South West Museum Development (SWMD).  The project team included two of SWMD’s specialist officers for volunteering and audiences, a Project and Partnerships Coordinator and four specialist consultants.

The project took place between May 2021 and March 2022. Five hundred hours of volunteer time were contributed to the project and meeting spaces were provided by Gloucestershire Heritage Hub, Museum in the Park in Stroud, The Dean Heritage Centre and The Museum of Gloucester.

The project aimed to support the participant museums to invigorate their approaches to volunteering and audiences. As the effects of COVID-19 continued to be felt across the sector, museums were looking for help to get ready to re-engage with audiences, particularly local communities. Museums also wanted help to re-think volunteering to enable them to attract a broader demographic to volunteering. New approaches in both these areas had the potential to rebuild resilience after a time of almost continuous change and disruption, which had deepened existing vulnerabilities.

What happened?

An initial diagnostic process using Museum Development England’s Health Check, supported by the Gloucestershire MDO and SWMD’s two specialist officers, identified key issues in audience development, volunteer involvement, safeguarding and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). The kinds of challenges faced by museums included the need to review and update policies and procedures to better support volunteer involvement or audience development; the need to develop ways of gathering and analysing audience data or to consult audiences to help understand and act on audience needs; and the need to develop an action plan for volunteer recruitment – including thinking about new and varied volunteer roles.

The Project and Partnerships Coordinator then helped to coordinate meetings between the four consultants and each of the ten museums, from which the consultants came up with draft recommendations for each museum. At the same time, the project team organized peer network meetings for museums to share, learn and be inspired together.

As the museums considered and prioritized their draft recommendations, they also attended skills training in the project’s four key areas, delivered by the specialist consultants. Museums were then ready to focus in on their priorities from the recommendations, and the final stage of the project saw consultants deliver further targeted support in these priority areas. At this point, the Project and Partnerships Coordinator, using the identified priorities, helped museums to map out an approach to developing partnerships to support them to look outwards to help them to achieve their aims.

What was the impact?

External evaluation has shown that, following the project, participant museums reported an improved ability to:

  • identify key or new audiences
  • target and meet existing and new audience needs
  • create volunteer roles that match audience needs
  • widen volunteer recruitment
  • implement best safeguarding practice
  • identify and deliver opportunities for equality, diversity and inclusion

Here are some of the museums’ own reflections on the impact of the project:

Now that we understand in a wider sense the types of diversity that might prevent people from enjoying our museum, we can now address barriers that we previously didn’t recognise. We can also engage with other local organisations that are doing EDI well and learn from them.

The consultant helped us, in a very targeted way, to improve our ability to recruit high quality, skilled trustees and those techniques will in turn help us to recruit suitable volunteers

We understand that an audit of our displays will help us to tell the stories that people want to hear, rather than just present a ‘cabinet of curiosities’.

[It was] really helpful to think of the overlaps between audience development, volunteer recruitment and EDI. This is not something I’ve really considered before and think it will prove very beneficial.

What Next?

We have developed a range of new resources that explore the skills and ideas that emerged from the project. The resources will be published on our website later this month.

These include:

  • Framework for Working in Partnership – encourages a planned and thoughtful approach to partnership development, to give the best chance of success for both partners.
  • Roadmap for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – helping you take a step by step approach to becoming a more inclusive organisation
  • Top Tips in Audience Development – with a focus on data gathering
  • Volunteering Checklist– helps you assess ‘where you are now’ with volunteer involvement
  • A Volunteer Recruitment Cycle – with EDI links explained
  • An Introduction to Safeguarding in museums – a handy explainer that covers the basics of safeguarding
  • Fitting it all together – a resource explaining how the four project themes are inter-dependent