It is day 3 of the 2020 Museums Association (MA) Conference!

We would have been in Edinburgh – enjoying the conference, in person, in a beautiful city with ITP Fellows from around the world. This year though the conference is online via Zoom and the MA will be sharing talks, tours, discussions and debates all week on the theme of the World Turned Upside Down: Exploring the Future of Museums.

Each day we will sharing a roundup of the online sessions we have attended.
To see our experience of day 1 of the conference click here.
For day 2 of the conference click here.

Museum Tour – St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Today’s morning museum tour was of St Fagans National Museum of History, part of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. The museum was opened in 1948 as the UK’s first open air museum. On its opening the museum was considered radical for focusing on the lives of ordinary people. This has remained the ethos of the museum – every life matters and people, not institutions, are the carriers of culture.

Today St Fagans is still praised for its people-centred community engagement work and in 2019 it was announced as the Art Fund Museum of the Year. As part of today’s virtual tour, we had the chance to see highlights from the museum’s recent redevelopment and hear about some of the programmes and community projects they have led during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of their most pertinent projects St Fagans has undertaken was Collecting COVID. The museum devised an online questionnaire to hear from members of the public experiences and feelings of living in Wales during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. During the talk we heard that the museum have had over 1000 responses. This is actually Wales’ second mass observation project. The first took place in 1937, so the museum has been able to compare the responses of people from over 80 years ago to the modern day. You can read a selection of the Collecting COVID stories here.

St Fagans have also aimed to capture human experiences during the Black Lives Matter protests. The museum pledged to actively collect the histories, contemporary histories, material culture and art of black communities in Wales. The museum collected protest signs and placards from the Black Lives Matter movement. St Fagans also organised a programme of events to celebrate Somali Heritage Day.

Finally, the tour highlighted St Fagans efforts to work with young people at their institution. A Young Producers programmes for people aged 16-24 allows young people to work at the museum to design and create their own exhibitions, hosting debates, and taking over the museum’s social media accounts. There has also been a pack of online learning resources and activities for school age children. One particularly popular activity was the Minecraft Your Museum competition! Children aged 6-11 were challenged to build their dream museum in the videogame Minecraft.

A Black British Museum: a space for contemplation, reflection and joy


Sandra Shakespeare, Founder, Black British Museum Project 


Amani Simpson, Social Entrepreneur and Youth Leader 

Sharon Tomlin, Caribbean Genealogist and Family Historian 

Patrick Vernon, Social Commentator, Campaigner and Cultural Historian 

What would a Black British Museum look like?

This fascinating discussion centred around the idea of a museum where Black experience takes front and centre stage. The recent Black Lives Matter protests has focused the need for a permanent space to Black histories as the movement challenges system racial prejudices.

It has also forced museums and cultural institutions to address the colonial legacies of their collections and address the legacies of Britain’s imperial past.

The Black British Museum Project was launched as an online platform with the aim of creating Britain’s first museum dedicated to Black history and culture. There are around 2,500 museums in the UK . But surprisingly, there is no permanent museum dedicated to Black history, culture and art. 

Sharon Tomlin is a Caribbean Genealogist and Family Historian. She began the discussion by stating there is a lack of trust in systems and organisations among Black communities. People do not see themselves as represented in certain spaces. As a result African and African Caribbean history is very fragmented and deconstructed.

Sharon stressed an importance in organisations building trust with communities. In her own experience, Sharon found when interviewing families many could not name generations of relatives beyond their grandparents. It is often very difficult to paint a picture of family histories of black communities.  

Sharon Tomlin finished by saying a Black British Museum should be a place for contemplation.

Patrick Vernon OBE then spoke about what is happening currently in the museum world during Black History Month. Patrick highlighted that in the last 10-15 years there has been more of an effort from museums to have events and exhibitions around Black History Month.

The problem with this is that exhibitions of this kind are temporal – they may only last a few weeks or months. There is no permanent place in British museums for Black British history. There cannot be an ongoing dialogue with the audience when the exhibition inevitably finishes.

These temporal exhibitions miss key aspects of Black British history. There is a rich history of black civil rights in Britain which Patrick argues no institution has every fully explored. There is also the Black contribution to LGBT movements in Britain, to the NHS and to literature.

During his talk Patrick also told us about his podcast series called Museum of Grooves. Here Patrick imagines in the distant future of the year AD 2300, in a space station billions of miles away from Earth, there is finally a museum which will centre on Black experiences. Patrick is the curator of the Museum of Grooves and talks to different guests on his podcast about what this museum will contain. You can listen to Museum of Grooves here.

Patrick is also the author of 100 Great Black Britons, which you can find out more about here.

Finally we heard from Amani Simpson, youth leader and founder of digital media developer Aviard. Amani reflected on memories as child of visiting the V&A Museum of Childhood. Amani says he cannot remember ever feeling the same level of joy and excitement of visiting a museum than visiting the Museum of Childhood in his youth.

Amani stressed the importance of the emotional impact of museums. Museum exhibitions about about the Black experience are often sobering and ask audiences to reflect on traumas of the past. Amani would like to see museums move past this trauma narrative and focus on sparking the same joy he felt visiting museums as a child. A Black British Museum should show progress and resilience in their collections – reasons to be positive and celebrate the Black British experience.

Amani also says we should make these museums relevant to current generations. Place young people at the centre of the creative and decision making process.

Disability inclusion in museums


Richard Sandell, Director, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries and Professor of Museum Studies, University of Leicester 


Sam Bowen, Museum Development Officer, South East Museum Development Programme 

James Brandon, Diversity and Inclusion Manager, Tate 

This fascinating and enlightening session considered how museums can ensure that disability awareness doesn’t fall off the agenda during the current Coronavirus pandemic. Disabled visitors, staff and volunteers have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 so this session focussed on how can we centre disability access and inclusion at the core of all our work. How can we tackle discrimination and unconscious bias against disability head on and, in doing so, make museums more welcoming and inclusive for everyone? 

The session was chaired by Richard Sandell, Director, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries and Professor of Museum Studies, University of Leicester who started with a decade-old quote from Marcus Weisen which said “Discrimination against disabled people in museums is an unspoken practice of global proportions. The message given out to disabled people is clear: you don’t belong”.   

Richard acknowledged how over the last ten years there have been welcome and positive changes – fuller and better understanding of the issues; a legal framework; expert partners; support mechanisms and guidance.  He recommended the work of the Being Human Gallery at the Wellcome Collection which explores trust, identity and health in a changing world. 

But there is still work to be done and this is illustrated in the Vocaleyes Museum and Heritage Access Survey 2020 which is a helpful resource in a key moment of both challenge and opportunity. 

Sam Bowen, Museum Development Officer, South East Museum Development Programme spoke, very movingly from a personal perspective with experience of visiting museums and galleries as a parent of a daughter with special educational needs and disability (SEND). 

She reminded us that labelling hurts and misses the person, that it is dangerous as it groups people by type rather than their individual need.  This leads to so many places and experiences still being inaccessible to people with disabilities.   

Sam shared some interesting but unsettling statistics: 

In the UK 8% of children in the UK (and 10% of homes have a disabled child in the family) are disabled and when you add in their siblings and friends, 20% of children are affected by accessibility needs.   

43% of people say they don’t know anyone with a disability.  This leads to parents with disabled children feeling like decisions are made for or about them, rarely with them. 

87% of parents with disabled children felt judged by the public.  The more museums open-up and include SEND families, the more accepting society as a whole will be. 

Sam recommended the following resources and noted that if you don’t make your museum SEND friendly you miss out on the whole family visiting as families want to share experiences.   

Creating a Family Friendly Environment on Reopening Resources 

Special Schools and Museum Toolkit 

COVID-19 has hit SEND families particularly hard with support services being withdrawn and some families needing to shield.  As we move out of the pandemic (or at least try to live with it) towards a ‘new normal’ museums can help build confidence and positive wellbeing, provide respite and support and increase inclusion. 

Sam asked the question ‘why is there still an issue with inclusion?’ and feels that museums, in their programming, are reluctant to experiment and don’t fully understand sensory interaction saying there is a need to be less results focussed and less judgemental. 

Three things to do now!!! 

  1. Have the ‘conversation’ with ALL staff.  Ask who has lived experience of SEND and use their insights. 
  1. Check your website?  How welcoming is your message to SEND families? 
  1. Reach out and interact with SEND families and groups. 

Make the pledge today……’my museum can and should be for everyone and provide equal opportunities for meaningful engagement’. 

Finally we heard from James Brandon, Diversity and Inclusion Manager, Tate who assured us that disability inclusion in museums is not difficult but needs good analysis and systematic change.  He acknowledged that Tate isn’t getting this right every time but that they needed to – that we all need to recognise what we get wrong and change. 

James introduced the audience to the artwork by Olafur Eliasson, ‘Your Spiral View’ and it’s display in Tate Modern which caused considerable audience negative feedback due to the inaccessibility of the experience despite Tate Modern being in the Top 10 of the Accessible Tourism Report that same year.  

James sharing Tate’s definition of the Social Model of Disability which states the gallery recognises ‘that people are disabled by environments, attitude and stereotypes which prevents them from completing tasks or accessing resources in the same way a no-disabled individual would.  Tate uses the social model as a standard’.  He then listed what they are doing to ensure they comply with the statement fully: 

Exhibition guidelines – creating an easy-to-use checklist (from the full guidelines) to ensure they are asking the right questions and re-establishing minimum standards. 

Hearts and minds  bringing in the right structure and support to help staff get this right. 

Led by visitor experience  involve visitor experience teams and bring them in early – they have the feedback first-hand. 

Build capacity – bring in key partners and people to support access auditing. 

Include lived experience – working with disability networks to understand the visitor experience. 

Engage specialists – help identify the needs that aren’t being addressed.  

Question, question, question – ask questions all the time.  Don’t assume you have all the answers. 

Finally, James shared the idea that accessibility is about adjustments to the visitor experience not additional services or learning interventions.  Embed it in everything.

In Practice: Retail in recovery

Chair – Jill Fenwick, CEO, Association for Cultural Enterprises 


Maxine Hellenkamp, Buying and Merchandising Manager, British Library 

Catherine McGoldrick, Head of Retail, National Museums Northern Ireland 

Matthew Williams, General Manager, Glasgow University Heritage Retail 

his panel addressed three things: 

Who is my customer? 

Who is selling now?  

What is the health of the business and how can I forecast for the foreseeable future and the COVID-19 pandemic as we know it? 

Matthew Williams starts by talking about customers and how they may have changed as a result of the current situation, saying that all shops are in changing situations in regards to customers – some of us, as of tomorrow or maybe today, will have nobody on the premises (UK shops go into a second lockdown from tomorrow). He hopes a lot of customers shift to spending money online if the store is closed.  

Customer demographic 

A lot of organisations spend time thinking about the visitor, why they are coming to the museum and which visitors come to the different temporary exhibitions on offer, and this is true for retail. The visitors are the retail customers. COVID-19 immediately halted international visitors arriving. Families are still visiting but with the new system of pre-booking a free museum ticket, you never know whether or not a visitor will turn up and all of this affects retail.

Matthew sees that older visitors are arriving in equal or greater numbers than before, which is great. Extra health and safety considerations must be put in place in retail such as the consideration of numbers of people in the rooms, entrance and exit points and carefully managed foot fall – at the shop at the Hunterian Art Gallery, one of the sites Matthew runs, the shop is so small they could only get one household in at a time and some people were not willing to wait and queue. It is worth moving displays around to create space. It is also worth looking at data on visitors to re-evaluate how the customers have shifted. 

Customer values  

Before going into lockdown, conversations with the Association for Cultural Enterprises were around how people were talking about sustainability, local buying, the carbon footprints of products, ethical making, good manufacturing values, traceability and lack of plastic and that has been accelerated by the crisis – customers are really interested in local products. Catherine McGoldrick – National Museum of Northern Ireland consists of a diverse group of museums which had a phased reopening throughout July and August. Catherine says they were worried that new rules in place such as social distancing and hand sanitising, would affect the feel of the shop and the experience, but they were surprised to find that actually, the retail was resilient. Visitors who did come to the museum spent more than usual with children’s products selling very well during summer and the more expensive items selling more than before the lockdown. She feels this was because customers looked forward to ‘the big day out feel’ where they wanted to spend money on special things and buy more meaningful and a more engaging gifts for the children as well, after being locked in. She agrees that locally made items have been very popular as people connected with the sites again.

The museum used hashtags online and cards to point out these items. There was in increase in card sales which seemed to show that people were interested in getting in touch with others in a non-digital, more personal way. Money was lost over the lockdown on perishable stock such as chocolate and sweets and so it was important to be careful with stock after that. Accessories didn’t sell well – Catherine believes this is because they had lost the tourist market. With winter arriving, and people staying at home, homewares and Christmas stock is starting to have an increase in sales. 

Maxine Hellenkamp explains that things work a bit differently for The British Library as they are not a traditional museum or gallery – they are very much a research library at the heart of what they do. Their shop’s targets were reduced by 80% which was welcome news as the only shop was closed from March to mid-May and there was no income coming in during that time. When they gradually opened it was with one member of staff on site, one day per week and they had a steady stream of orders – she says that customers were very understanding about things such as delays. They then added 400 products online to enhance the online shop and added a donations service to it and found that 75% of customers added a donation to their online basket.

They reopened in July and for reference, the daily average visitor numbers pre-lockdown was about 4,500 people and that is now 250 people – those people had tickets for the reading rooms as the whole purpose of the trip would be to use the reading rooms, not to shop. They’re now selling via social media as well, which improves sales and again, working with local makers to raise presence with ‘supplier spotlights’ which highlight these designer makers. She says although it is really hard right now in retail, they try to ‘celebrate every win’ and sale. 

Lessons learnt 

  • Speak to your teams and find out what talents they might have that you don’t know that they have so they can multitask such as, for example, photography for marketing campaigns if it is very quiet in the shop. 
  • Find out what your staff are passionate about and it will help you work quicker and hopefully facilitate all of the changes in a way that everybody feels happier about. 
  • Be open and ready for change – adapt. 
  • Keep staff motivated and make them feel valued. 
  • Making the team aware that it is not their fault if targets are not met right now but give incentives.  

Jill finishes with her thoughts on three things that will be the hallmarks of successful commercial operations, particularly retail operations. 

  1. When the shops are open, get them in order and organised as much as possible, including finances – see what you can cut out, what you could live without. 
  1. Think about how to monetise the collections and the building in new ways.  
  1. Your website is more important than ever – the global initiative called Museum Shop Sunday have a digital package on offer to market it with – museum shops from all over the world take part in it.