Recently I have been thinking a lot about new museums. A few weeks ago I spent time in the new Museum of London site at Smithfield and it really brought home to me the challenges of funding, planning and building a new museum.
Taking a museum from concept to reality is a huge task and I was delighted Adrian Steel, director of the newly opened Postal Museum agreed to have a chat about all the work that goes behind successfully delivering a brand new shiny museum.
Steel has been with the Postal Museum since 2003 and in his current role of director for the last 7 years. The Postal Museum is the new public identity of the Postal Heritage Trust, a charity formed to take over the management of the heritage of what was the Royal Mail in 2004. Steel has been there throughout the process, and since the charity’s formation it has been it’s mission to find a new home for the history of the postal service and it’s collections.
It has been a museum story that stretches much further back than 2004. The origins of the museum can be traced back to the 1890s when there was a Record Room in the General Post Office Headquarters in St Martin’s Le Grand. This early preservation of postal heritage led to a museum which traces back to the early 20th century. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the National Postal Museum in 1969, but in a story replicated across many areas of the UK some 30 years later in 1998 it closed down.
Smaller museum objects and staff moved to Freeling House at Mount Pleasant which had been home to the archive since 1992 and large objects were placed into storage. It was a museum with no gallery space and an archive in an unsuitable building that lay behind the push for a new museum.
Steel talked not only of a labour of love but a real mission to save and recognised the importance of our postal heritage. A heritage that perhaps has become even more important as we write fewer and fewer letters and rely more and more on electronic forms of communication.
For Steel the project really got going in 2011 when Royal Mail offered Phoenix Place and in 2012 when planning permission was approved. The plans received an Heritage Lottery Fund first round pass for £4.5 million of the total £26 million cost in the same year1. It has been a process complicated by two museum sites, the main museum and cafe on one side and the Mail Rail (an underground mail train) and child’s play zone on the other.
Steel is currently on a sabbatical till January 2018 which has given him time to reflect on the process. It has been a time to appreciate the team’s achievements but also to step outside the process and look with a critical eye. We talked about all the focus being on the opening but also the important first phase of opening which is critical too.
He talked of the team looking at Trip Advisor to get immediate feedback which has been useful before official evaluation has been carried out. They realised quite quickly they had problems with the back office process in the way the Mail Train was being booked. They had assumed the majority of people would not book via the online systems but get walk up tickets on the day. But they found the majority of booking was online and managing these bookings if visitors wanted to change the numbers of visitors or times was problematic. They couldn’t sell annual passes as entry times and restricted numbers of seats on the mail train meant they couldn’t always guarantee entry on any given day. Fire regulations also restricted the numbers who could be housed in the building at anyone time meaning visitor flow had to be carefully watched. Large group bookings were also proving difficult. It was interesting that Steel said it wasn’t that they hadn’t planned this out but they had just made the wrong assumptions. The focus came on customer facing teams to relay information and improvements to the back office systems.
Garnering immediate feedback was also useful for building issues, particularly as the contractors were still working through their ‘snagging list’. Getting comments through quickly allowed them to fix and issues with the building quickly and efficiently.
We did talk about the role the accessibility panel had played in early stages but perhaps this would also have been useful to ‘road test’ the museum on opening to highlight potential problems. It was also key to prepare Front of House for those visitors who weren’t happy, not everything will be perfect on opening but how you deal with the issues is key.
I also made the comment that finding the museum is actually quite difficult with minimal street signage. Steel explained the problems of a street that borders two councils, Islington and Camden and getting agreement on road signage was surprisingly difficult. It is something they are working on but it is taking longer than anticipated.
Steel talked of the joy of answering visitor letters and queries, for so many years not having a museum and not having visitors he took great enjoyment in reading the letters from members of the public who took time to comment on the new museum. It is refreshing to hear letters are still being sent!
We talked over the funding process and Heritage Lottery Fund involvement, their support was fantastic particularly in the final stages, not just when the funding was awarded. Also their flexibility over getting quotes in when only limited numbers of contractors had the expertise to work on underground trains!
We talked of the positives of the new museum, how visitor reactions have really shown they were right to recognise and make the most of our postal heritage and the stories contained within the collections and the broad appeal that would have for the public. He felt they perhaps could have pushed even more to open up more stories.
There were actually positives to the delay in opening as it gave them more time to work on content for the exhibition which was a bonus. Not every issue could have been predicted but it is how responsive you can be to problems that is key. Steel felt the main lesson from running such a large project was not to deliver the building and exhibition design separately. Steel said often they were waiting for things to be fixed before they could proceed. Formalising language and wording is also key, as what builders understand from certain terms was quite different to exhibition content designers.
Of course his job is never finished, I asked Steel what he was planning for now. He talked about developing work with the community and looking to improve strategic partnerships with bodies like the Arts Council. It was now time to catch up with a lot of work that gets pushed out to the side with a large project. He is also keen to open up more international ways of working capitalising on passionate philatelists across the globe.
There was also the need to capitalise on digital as a way to open up even more stories from the collections. Steel spoke of making sure they document the institutional knowledge of the process of opening up a new museum, to preserve a record of decisions that were made and the reasons behind them which mustn’t be lost with the movement of staff.
The museum officially opened on the 28th July 2017, and before they know it they will be a year into this process and it will be time to really assess and make plans for the future. It really is a remarkable achievement when you look at the length of the project and the huge teams of people who have made it all happen.
As director, Adrian Steel has steered the ship and during the few short weeks he has left before returning from his sabbatical I hope Adrian can really appreciate the scale of his achievement. If you visit the museum and have a ride on the mail rail don’t forget to send him a letter to let him know what you think, I know he would love to hear your thoughts.
For more information about the Postal Museum, opening times and ticket prices, please see the website – https://www.postalmuseum.org/
Any errors in this piece are purely my own. With thanks to Adrian Steel.
1- The BPMA turns 10! – Adrian Steel – The British Postal Museum and Archive Blog – https://postalheritage.wordpress.com/tag/postal-museum/