The Richard Jefferies Museum is a small, community-run museum in Swindon, set in the old farmhouse where Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies was born. As well as the museum dedicated to the work and life of Richard Jefferies, there are wonderful gardens with a nature trail, wooded picnic area, orchard, vegetable plots, and a thousand places for children to run about and hide. The museum is run by the Richard Jefferies Museum Trust and accredited by Arts Council England.
Zahida: Can you tell us about your digital activity before you joined Digital Heritage Lab?
Ann-Marie: We had a limited digital presence, and no real strategy or understanding of how to create one. Digital communication felt piecemeal and reactive. We knew we needed a strategy, so we could move away from just being reactive and have a more considered approach. As I wrote in my application to The Lab: “We are a very small museum with a big story to tell, and we desperately want to learn how to do it digitally”.
We are a very small museum with a big story to tell, and we desperately want to learn how to do it digitally.
Zahida: How did you start your digital journey?
Ann-Marie: We recognised that our social media messaging was often focused around sharing photos or advertising events, with very little mention of Richard Jefferies’ writings and thoughts, and as such it felt quite distant from the true mission of the Trust: “To create a unique environment of discovery that will enrich peoples’ lives and inspire adults and children through the home, writing and thoughts of Richard Jefferies”.
Reflecting on our social media content, we could see that the link with Richard Jefferies was weak. Much of the content was about family events which had no connection to Richard Jefferies. Somewhere along the way we’d lost our focus on Richard Jefferies on social media.
Zahida: It sounds like you had some work to do that was wider than just the digital strategy?
Ann-Marie: We did, and in fact we ended up revising our five year business plan, and enhancing how we put Richard Jefferies at the heart of what we do.
We recognised that one of our main priorities is to promote Richard Jefferies. Without that we’d not be meeting our vision as a museum. We have now become more conscious about integrating Richard Jefferies in everything we do. This is something we talked about before but the digital strategy helped us focus on this.
Zahida: How has this affected your programming?
Ann-Marie: We’ve completely overhauled our family programme. The events are all linked to Richard Jefferies, through nature, ecology or wildlife. We no longer have to make the choice between posting about either Richard Jefferies or our ticketed events, because they are now linked.
Zahida: Can you tell us about a couple of things you’ve been doing differently since developing your digital strategy?
Ann-Marie: We’ve been testing different types of social media content around Richard Jefferies and nature, to see what works best, eg book covers or quotes, as well as promoting the link between Richard Jefferies and the events programme, rather than shying away from mentioning him. Previously posts about Richard Jefferies didn’t get much interest, but that’s all changing as we integrate the message with our activity programme. We’ve also segmented our audiences and started speaking to them differently.
I also noticed that all our social channels had different images as their logo. A simple change like having the same logo across all channels means people can easily tell it’s the same organisation. Consistency is important to building a professional online presence.
Zahida: Has the digital strategy changed how you work as a team?
Ann-Marie: Yes, for sure. I had an idea of how I wanted to use social media, but it was held in my head. Creating a formal digital plan has really helped to clarify my thoughts, and to share my approach with other Trustees. This means other people can now take on some responsibility for social media posts as everyone understands where we are heading.
Zahida: Has there been any change in digital engagement?
Ann-Marie: One of the biggest wins has been the growth in followers. It hasn’t just been about getting more followers, but rather the right kind of followers, those that want to engage with us and our digital content. The number of people engaging with content about Richard Jefferies has gone up, as we’ve become more confident talking about him and his work.
Something unexpected happened in April 2021; some vandals caused a fire in the gardens and destroyed children’s play equipment. We posted about it on Facebook and our post engagement went up by 1170% and our page likes by 650%. We were overwhelmed by offers of help and donations. It’s really made us appreciate how much local support there is out there for us.
In September 2020 the average Facebook post reached 900 people and in April 2021 that figure stands at 4,700 people. Even in February, before the fire, the number had climbed to 2,000 people, so the strategy was having an affect. We are now driving people to the website from Facebook, something that we hadn’t done before. Engagement on Instagram and Facebook has gone up too.
We wouldn’t have got anywhere close to the level of engagement we are getting now before starting the Digital Heritage Lab programme.
“In September 2020 the average Facebook post reached 900 people and in April 2021 that figure stands at 4,700 people … We are now driving people to the website from Facebook, something that we hadn’t done before.”
Zahida: What is it about the Digital Heritage Lab that’s been most beneficial to you?
Ann-Marie: It’s the combination of the training and working with a mentor that’s helped us get so much out of this programme. The training alone wouldn’t have been enough to propel us forward at this pace. I’ve really felt a gear change in how we operate and our approach has become more professional.
Zahida: What’s next for on your digital journey?
Ann-Marie: The next step in our strategy is to create a digital newsletter. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a while but there are just a few of us doing most of the work and it’s always felt too onerous. But as the number of people that are engaging with us has grown it’s made it feel worthwhile. First we’ll create an email template and start planning content. Once we have that we can work out how we share out responsibility for the newsletter each month.
Zahida: And finally, is there anything else you’d like to share?
Ann-Marie: The donations and goodwill that came forward after the fire reminded us how much we matter to the people of Swindon and how important it is to stay connected to the people that care about us. We are a cherished part of the town’s heritage and if we win the hearts of the people of Swindon they will advocate for us and awareness of the work of Richard Jefferies will grow.
This case study was produced as part of the Digital Heritage Lab ― a digital skills development programme for small to medium sized heritage organisations in the UK and was funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative.
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Please attribute as: "How a very small museum is using digital to tell its big story (2022) by Zahida Din supported by The Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0