How the events of the past year gave a museum the opportunity to improve their digital foundations
This case study is based on a session at Digital Heritage Lab's Digital Skills Day, when Chris Unitt talked to Sophie Heath, Director of the Museum of Royal Worcester about the positive impact digital has had on the museum over the past year during the Covid-19 pandemic and their participation in The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab.
A couple investigate objects commissioned by Lord Admiral Nelson with the help of an audio guide.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Royal Worcester. Photo Steve Carse ©.
Over the past nine months Chris Unitt has been mentoring the Museum of Royal Worcester as part of The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab.
Chris Unitt: So to start off, just to give people a bit of background, Sophie can you tell us a little bit about the Museum of Royal Worcester and your role.
Sophie Heath: The Museum of Royal Worcester looks after the largest collection of Royal Worcester porcelain in the world with 8,000 objects. We also have an incredible archive, a lot of which came from the Royal Worcester factory, including thousands of records, pattern books, order books, factory photographs, apprenticeship records, and lots of fantastic artefacts.
We are an independent charitable trust. We were established in 1946 by Charles Dyson the then Managing Director of the factory who was also a collector of Royal Worcester porcelain. He put into trust his collection of Royal Worcester with the factory's collection to give the factory a cash injection after the war. So in 2008, when the factory closed, that collection was protected. We don't have any regular public funding, so visitor income is really important to us.
I joined the museum two and a half years ago. I've worked in both the independent museum sector and the local authority sector, and I've got some previous experience with porcelain. I think it's a really exciting collection and organization, and we want to do a lot with it.
Chris Unitt: What kind of activities were you undertaking at the museum before Covid-19?
Sophie: In 2018 we had a National Lottery Heritage Fund refurbishment, which beautifully refreshed all the physical displays. We had curatorial and learning support as part of that project, but that had come to an end.
We appointed a development manager who started around the time that the first lockdown started. We'd also been looking to develop the museum's audiences, we had about 12,000 in-person visitors in 2019. So broadening our audience, growing our audiences, and making changes to our programme was a goal that we were working towards. We had plans but then, of course, we were hit with this huge challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chris Unitt: What happened immediately following closure? What was the situation like for the museum?
Sophie: Trading income is really important for us and we're seasonal ― winter is a lean time. Group bookings are an important strand of activity. About 15% of our visitors come as part of an organised group. They have a talk and tea and coffee on Royal Worcester China. We had lots of bookings for 2020 and they were obviously cancelled. We furloughed the front of house team, but kept the rest of the small team working. We had support from individuals and we had emergency funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund, which really helped us. It made a big difference for us to have the team working really hard behind the scenes.
Chris Unitt: How would you describe the approach to digital activity that you undertook during Covid?
Sophie: It was a mixed approach. We were in the midst of a West Midlands Museum Development Audience Champions Programme, which had Arts Council England support. We'd had nine months on that programme, six months of doing audience surveys and we had ticket data as well. I felt that we needed to understand our audiences better and we needed more data.
We know our in-person audiences are older and tend to be first time visitors. We get a lot of out-of-area visitors but we don't get a lot of local visitors, and our family visitors are really low. Part of our vision is to change that in the short, medium and longer term.
Before Covid-19 our social media activity had involved a weekly Facebook post, a weekly tweet and some retweeting, getting on Worcestershire Hour and a weekly Instagram post from our collections person. Fiona, our development manager, had a mission to massively up our social media activity during the first lockdown. So we did volume for visibility and for reaching local audiences. We created ways to dip into the museum’s collection in a fun way at home for families. Our social media presence was a big part of what we spent effort on during the first lockdown.
Staff celebrate the re-opening of the museum.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Royal Worcester. Photo Steve Carse ©.
Chris Unitt: Who took the lead on the digital activity that you were doing?
Sophie: I think it's really important to say that the way we've approached it was as a team. I'm sure this is true in lots of small organisations, social media updates aren't just one person's job. A big thing that Fiona got in place really quickly was intern support from University of Worcester. We’ve had capable students with real enthusiasm, and that's made a huge difference to the quality and amount of content we've been able to do.
Upskilling the team is something that we've really focused on. We haven't quite got right down to the front of house team, partly because they’ve been on furlough or flexible furlough. But it's definitely part of my ambition that everybody in the team is able to play a part.
Chris Unitt: Can you give us a few highlights of some of the new digital activity that you've put in place over the last year?
Sophie: One of the things we've worked on with you as part of The Lab has been Google AdWords and getting those established. When we got a place on The Lab, Fiona and I saw that as an opportunity to navigate our way through Google Ads and Fiona has been the person leading on this. With Chris’s experience and perspective, we were able to streamline the technical bits of getting set up and focus on the step-by-step process.
Chris: For anyone who's not come across the Google Ads grants scheme ― Google give eligible non-profits up to $10,000 a month in ad spend that you can use. There are some restrictions on what you can do with that. If you're an organisation that's attached to a council, university or college then you probably won't be eligible, but most other heritage organisations or charities will be. And it's great.
Google Ads are the ads that show up when people search for things in Google. If you don't naturally feature at the top of search results, this is a way to get to the top quite easily. They're not the easiest things to manage. But as Sophie said, it doesn't take too much to put some basics in place to get some benefit. It's one of those digital activities that will benefit you in terms of your local visibility.
Sophie: We've been on a massive learning curve around Google searches and the importance of that for our website. We've learned that we do come fairly high in Google searches for core terms like Royal Worcester, museum and collections. But not for terms like local days out or things to with children or family activities.
Our online shop performance is another thing that we'd like to improve. We've introduced gift vouchers, the idea of people buying an activity they can look forward to doing in the future. Memorable days out with family and friends, afternoon tea, and family trails.
And collaboration. We've just opened a partner exhibition with the local botanical artists society. The vision for that is to broaden our audiences — reaching people who are interested in gardening and nature.
Chris: What are you doing with regards to your website?
Sophie: We realised that our website wasn’t working for us. We had some questions: what are the analytics that we should be looking at? What are we wanting the website to do for us? How do we improve audience reach? How do we maximise our income? How do we generate donations? Is the website working for us?
We were successful with our Cultural Recovery Fund bid, which has given us a reasonable budget to redevelop the website. I've never commissioned a website so your (Chris) mentoring support as part of The Lab has helped us to shape the process and get the technical bits of right.
Chris: What do you think is going to be the ongoing role of digital for the museum?
Sophie: I think embedding digital across the organisation is very important. It’s no longer a separate entity. We need to do digital well to engage with all of our audiences, whether they're local families, or whether they're specialist collectors, in America.
When I applied for The Lab I wanted to be able to shape a digital strategy for the organisation because I felt that that was something that as the leader of the organisation, I didn't really feel equipped to do.
The Digital Heritage Lab session on how to build your own website really helped me to read the applications from web developers for rebuilding our website. Practical training on social media has helped us with our social media strategy. So I think, increased digital competence of everyone in the organisation is really important.
Delivering online lectures, which enable you to reach a much wider audience than you can locally, is going to continue to be part of our programme. Online ticketing, which we had to introduce for Covid-19 restrictions, is here to stay.
The continuing challenge is generating content and finding the capacity to do it. For example, video content is a key strand of work that we'll continue to look at upskilling the team to enable us to do that. I’ve just got my head around buying some clever things that enable you to pick up better sound with a phone.
Chris: Is there anything that you've had your eye on in terms of digital activity that you've not had a chance to do over the past year?
Sophie: I know lots of organisations have successfully moved their creative engagement workshops online. In the main they’ve managed this because they already had a strong programme, which is something we're developing through project funding.
Having an online programme where people can do fun, creative things in the comfort of their own home clearly has an appeal for people. We've just introduced a paint your own pottery experience in the museum that's available for people on a self-led basis. That's been a long-term goal that we've just realised. It was delayed because of Covid-19. To be able to extend that online would be good.
We’re also navigating the question of digitising collections and the power of storytelling through collections; making that part of our digital content. Sharing all those incredible stories from our collection and archive. Naughty Royal Worcester apprentices who brought mice into the factory in their pockets and got a fine. Or the geese they used to guard the gold that was used on the ceramics. We've got the order book from when Admiral Lord Nelson came to visit the factory after his great victory.
There's all these incredible stories that we passionately talk about in-person, but we're not capturing that online. Developing the new website will be part of doing that.
The Digital Heritage Lab is a project managed by the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, One Further and the Collections Trust and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. It is a free programme for small and medium sized heritage organisations seeking to develop their digital capabilities and capacity.