Ashley Bell, Project Officer (Retail Development) at Beamish Museum travelled to Ballarat in Victoria, Australia in October 2016 with a WIRP Travel Grant. This is Ashley’s report from her visit.
Beamish Museum is about to undertake the largest redevelopment project in its history with the announcement of a £10.9million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to build over 30 new exhibits including a reconstructed 1950s Town and a Georgian Coaching Inn (an exhibit with the ability to stay overnight). Alongside this we are in the process of expanding our offer of Beamish-made and bespoke products due to increasing demand from visitors to take home something truly representative of the Beamish experience and brand. We are already producing our own sweets, bakery products, and honey; growing visitor numbers mean that we do not have the capacity to always meet demand without negatively affecting the visitor’s experience.
Sovereign Hill is an outdoor museum in Ballarat presenting the story of Australia’s gold rush history. Its particular focus is the impact of the great 19th century gold discoveries on the growth of Ballarat, which was a small pastoral settlement when gold was discovered in 1851. Sovereign Hill has a large international audience and has also provided accommodation for its visitors for a number of years, meaning it was an ideal place to visit as we developed our plans for Beamish Museum.
Sovereign Hill and Beamish have a relationship stretching back to the formation of both museums and are similar in many respects, so it was incredibly useful to see how they operate on a day-to-day basis and manage their site. Both museums offer an open air experience where visitors can explore the homes and day-to-day lives of people in specific time periods, interacting with costumed staff and the opportunity to participate in really hands on engagement. Of particular interest was their ‘Activations’ programme, where staff perform scenarios in 1st person as a set piece. They were incredibly popular with visitors and really added a sense of life to the Main Street.
Myself and my colleague spent two and a half weeks meeting staff from across Sovereign Hill, from public facing, costumed staff on site to members of the senior management team and the CEO, Jeremy Johnson. Sovereign Hill were kind enough to allow us to sit in on operational meetings, experience their renowned light show, and attend various events that coincided with our stay. It was particularly special to be able to stay in their on-site accommodation for the duration of our visit, which, apart from giving us invaluable information about the day-to-day operational management, also allowed us to really immerse ourselves from a visitor’s perspective and interact with other guests.
The biggest challenge was getting to grips with an organisation of Sovereign Hill’s size – with over 350 staff and a similar number of volunteers manning everything from immersive educational visits, sweet manufacture and distribution, historic themed fashion shows, animal husbandry to heritage engineering, it was initially quite overwhelming trying to place everything in context and understand how they all worked together. Fortunately, Sovereign Hill had organised such a varied schedule that things soon started making sense and we were able to delve more into specialist areas of interest. They also facilitated visits to a number of other nearby museums and attractions on our days off, such as Melbourne Museum, and Puffing Billy (an historic railway).
Beamish is also hoping to be able to better meet visitor demand for in-house made products, which is something that Sovereign Hill do exceptionally well. They were happy to share their research and development process and advise of problems they’d had to overcome to get to their current stage. I returned to Beamish with a much stronger idea of how we could develop our product offer in the future, and a practical understanding of how to do so.
My role at Beamish is to develop our retail offer so that it becomes an extension of the visitor experience and really links back to our collections and on-site engagement. We do sell a small number of items in period areas and it’s really important that these fit in the exhibit environment. Sovereign Hill sell a much larger selection of products in this way so we were able to discuss their research methods and criteria for new product lines, and how they balance these with their collections. We were able to share information on suppliers and compare problems (and solutions!) that are universal in the industry. On a practical level, meeting the Sovereign Hill shop manager, inventory officer, and confectionery manager was a useful overview of the day-to-day details. I was also incredibly lucky that my visit overlapped with that of the buyer from Den Gamle By (a national open air museum of urban history and culture in Denmark), and the founder and managing director of the UK based Past Pleasures (the UK’s oldest professional costumed historical interpretation company) so there was a real international sharing of ideas and networking opportunities.
In September this year, Sovereign Hill’s Senior Operations Manager Jarrod Page visited Beamish. Both museums are hoping that this could be the beginning of an ongoing exchange as each side feels there is so much left to learn, and it was wonderful to reconnect with Jarrod and see him already making changes based on what he had experienced on his visit to us. It is difficult to overstate how useful both visits were for each museum, and how much information we gathered and shared from areas of operation that didn’t necessarily come under our own roles.
In terms of advice for other museums involved with international projects, working across time zones can be difficult as there can be quite a delay before receiving responses. To combat this, plan well ahead to ensure everything is organised in good time and provide alternative contact details for any projects you are working on in case there is an urgent query.
I personally feel incredibly fortunate to have been introduced to other museum professionals who have already helped my personal development so much, and whom I can continue to work with in the future. Everyone was very generous with their time and knowledge, and I hope that one day I will be in the position to offer this help to someone else at the start of their career.
From a wider perspective, the opportunity to put what we do at Beamish in context internationally and see alternative working practices was invaluable in allowing us to quite critically review where we’re doing well and where there is room for improvement or experimentation.
A priority is the distribution of the knowledge gained to the various teams at Beamish, to ensure the entire Museum benefits from the experience. A large aim is to incorporate some of the learning into our future developments; to successfully realise these plans it is important that we maintain the contact we made with staff at Sovereign Hill, and beyond, to continue sharing information and ideas. Proceeds from our retail and food outlets help us meet our goals of sustainability and independence, and strengthening and improving our retail offer will ensure that Beamish continues to grow and develop for future generations to enjoy.
“Meeting with people who had worked in museums for decades, who were still incredibly passionate about providing a first rate visitor experience, was really inspiring and reminded me what a wonderful international museum community exists.”
Ashley Bell, Project Officer (Retail Development) at Beamish Museum
“The WIRP Travel Grant gave us a valuable opportunity for face-to-face meetings and for discussions to take place with our international partner Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, Australia. These discussions enabled relationship development between our two very similar open air museums and have been key to furthering shared experiences, which can help to inform developments back here at Beamish. To be able to actually experience a hands-on visit to Ballarat will impact directly on our ideas and developments back at Beamish and we cannot underestimate the importance of this kind of opportunity, made possible with the grant”
Rhiannon Hiles, Deputy Director at Beamish Museum