The Lockdown Interviews – 9 – Laura Wright, Chief Executive Officer, Postal Museum, London, June 2020

Lockdown interviews – Laura Wright, Chief Executive Officer, Postal Museum, London.

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Mail Rail part of the Postal Museum.

1 – What is the current situation for the Postal Museum – How worried are you about the future of the museum?

We shut our doors on the 18th March and went into a phase where we were responding to a very immediate situation. One of the things I have found particularly interesting and challenging during this period is the concept of time, and how you make decisions well when you don’t know what is going on. Time seems very elastic, sometimes it feels like we have been here for ever and sometimes it feels like two seconds. The very first phase was making sure everyone was well, we did have some incidents where we thought we had sickness among our team. Then it was making sure people could work from home – we have an IT department of two, they are brilliant. We had been preparing for a while, we had set up for homeworking and given everyone a laptop. We, like everyone else, have been discovering Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Our IT department has been thrilled, all the things they thought would take a year have taken a week!

The next big thing was furloughing. It has been a massive lifeline to museums, but it has also been a psychological challenge deciding who to furlough. In a way, for me, as I like action and things to do that was relatively straightforward –  it was busy but clear.

Now we have had a chance to take a breath, we are not in the position of some organisations where they have had immediate financial problems. That isn’t the case for us. When we started thinking about re-opening the penny dropped that we are not in trouble now, but we will be after reopening over the next year or 18 months.

As time has gone on many who have been furloughed have re-imagined their life in different ways, juggling stress and anxiety about what is happening in the wider world and their relationship with work. In terms of the team some are in closer touch than others and some want more contact than others.

2 – How many staff do you have and how many are furloughed? How have your volunteers been impacted? 

We have furloughed 85% of our staff. The team that is left is very small and we have furloughed some of our senior team in rotation, in part to show it is a mechanism that is keeping the museum going at this time, not a reflection of the importance of staff.

We have 97 members of staff, a small handful are zero hours staff. We furloughed all our casual staff and I think casual staff are in a very difficult position. We don’t rely on a huge front of house of staff who are casual. Originally, we committed to paying all shifts through to April, then the furlough came in so we didn’t have to do that and we could work out a longer-term solution. I think they were grateful for that. A lot of them are juggling a number of jobs and they didn’t have the same experience from every employer. Or some of them do it because they are actors or artists and those sectors have been massively affected.

We have about 50 active volunteers, they work with the schools team, front of house, family activities. There are some volunteers with really specialist knowledge who work with the collections. We were worried about them before the museum shut as we were worried about their health as many are older, so we asked them not to come in. That has been really hard, we really value them and for some we provide a point of interest in the week, we acknowledge that they have skills that we really need. So, to lose that and to feel vulnerable must be really difficult.

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Mail Rail train ride.

3 – Do you think the guidance is clear on when and how to re-open?

I think we are in a really tricky position as a museum, we are quite small, we are all indoors, we are in the middle of London, you can only get to us using public transport, we have an open plan office.

I can’t imagine us opening soon, getting staff back or volunteers. How we get back to something staff want is going to be tough. Everyone trusts working in a different way now. How flexible can we be to make sure everyone feels really great about being back in the museum? Can we get people back on certain days and certain times? If all our team feel good about being back hopefully our visitors will too.

One of the things that is really difficult, bearing in mind my whole background is retail and front of house, is that it is easy to talk about museums coming back, but sometimes people are thinking about office-based staff. There is no choice for front of house staff –  they can’t do their job from home. I am concerned that there may be a two tier system – you can continue to work from home if you have a back office role but if you are front of house you have to come back. We are seeing that already with construction workers and shops. I would hate for the museum sector to add to that inequality as well.

The larger museums have a duty to say they are not the whole of the museum sector. I think Tristram Hunt, Director V&A, has been excellent at that, he always talks about independent museums. We need to keep in front of everyone and lobby for independent museums. I think my museum has more in common with a theatre or concert hall, than Tate or V&A.

4 – When are you thinking about reopening? How would the museum work with social distancing?

If I had to make a guess, I would say we would be opening in the autumn. I don’t think it benefits us to open in the summer with low income through the doors and the anxiety we cause our team, as compared with being closed with the furlough scheme running. Having said that, we are preparing for opening as we want to be ready, we are mapping visitor flows, looking at how many people we can fit in. We are looking at payment schemes, and ticket slots – because we are a ticketed museum we are in a good position to do that. We can have a very straightforward one-way system round the museum. We’re obviously mindful that all of our experts, who know front of house inside out, are mostly furloughed.

We know there is lobbying going on from the venue sector, if you stick with 2 metre distancing in England and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 1 metre distancing that is a massive difference in terms of how we could operate. It would be great to have some clarity around that. Can you imagine small museums investing a relatively large amount of our last remaining cash mapping out distancing measures and then they change the guidelines? We don’t want to be in that position.

We have looked at Mail Rail and thought how we could make it work with ticketing, queuing, cleaning and amending the trains. I am confident we could make it work from a health and safety perspective, but I don’t know if we can make it work from a financial point of view.

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‘Post Early’ Autism Mornings

5 – You have been doing great work around accessibility with ‘Post Early’ autism mornings, how do you think the museum can maintain that focus on welcoming everyone?

We have really tried with different disability groups. Considering one of our main attractions is quite inaccessible we have tried to put accessibility at the heart of what we do. We don’t want it to be lip service. I have been thinking about this increasingly lately because I think it could go one of two ways, sector wide and for us. One way could be, that the sector says it is all so difficult and complicated that we are just going to start off slowly and incrementally think about these issues the more confident we get. Or it could be that we say actually there are ways we can make our museum accessible to people and we are going to build that into our reopening in a meaningful way. For example, if you had slots during the day for different kinds of visitors, if all booking is online anyway, why not make some slots for older visitors, or some for those with mobility issues.

Could we do smaller guided groups if we are looking at a model that is not about getting as many people through the door as possible?

I don’t know how it will work but I want to try and build that into our thinking from early on. I read the Dea Birkett piece in the Spectator, I thought it was really, really, interesting. I can see the large museums built in the Victorian times, almost to slightly intimidate people, reverting to a rather old school way of welcoming visitors. But newer and smaller museums have been built in a different way from the very beginning so maybe there is a way we can push accessibility to the forefront.

6 – How have you been connecting to audiences while closed?

We have a really great marketing and digital team but as we are quite new we don’t have a real depth of content that perhaps other museums have, that we can mine at this time. But our vision is very much about connecting people, it is about the post! Everyone went into ‘lockdown’ and realised they needed to stay connected to people and they have been using the post. So, everything we have been saying about our vision of connecting and communication with people has been utterly relevant.

One of the things that has been fascinating, and I think this is working across the sector, is that marketing and digital teams have been able to get together with curatorial teams and the commercial pressure has been lifted. So instead of a marketing team being judged on how many people are coming to an exhibition or how many tickets have been sold it is just about how many people are discovering our content. They have been able to be completely creative and free and connected to their curatorial colleagues and it has been joyful to see. If we are going to learn lessons from this and not just revert back to the old style of doing things, that is one of the lessons I want to learn. How can everyone value each other’s knowledge and expertise as much as they are at the moment?

Although overall visits to our website are down, visits to our collections pages are hugely up and the dwell time is massively up. So people are discovering the collection and our stories.

7 – Have you applied for any emergency funding? How do you think the funding landscape will change in future?

We didn’t immediately go into a crisis situation, but if we project forward 18 months that looks different. I think that is also true of other organisations. We are going to have to look at our operating model going forward and it is going to have to look a bit different. We will be applying for emergency funding through organisations such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF). They have increased the amounts they are giving in recognition of these ongoing pressures. We are a NLHF project and we will definitely be applying for funding.

The funding situation is confusing, and we have had to be all over it and learn different skills. We applied for Arts Council funding and didn’t get it. You had to be accredited to apply and our accreditation panel was in April and it was cancelled. We are applying for other things and we will definitely need support over the next year.

8 – Do you think coronavirus will mean museums will have to change the way they work in future? 

Of course, we are going to have to make changes, but I don’t want them to be so fundamental that they strip out the heart of the organisation. There is a conversation to be had and it needs to happen soon about what does the sector look like after this? What decisions get made now that have a long-term impact on the museum sector? If you look at America, many American museums have laid off their learning teams, it has been one of the first things that has happened. In fact, there was a question to a podcast that Tristram Hunt, Director V&A, and Diane Lees, Director General IWM, did where this was pointed out to them and they both said it hasn’t happened in the UK. I hope it doesn’t happen in the UK.

If you are an organisation that is lucky enough to have reserves because you have been planning a capital project, do you just use up your reserves and the capital project is just gone?

While individual museums are looking at how they re-shape themselves to be able to carry on there is also a duty of the whole sector to think about what it means for expertise and care of our audiences, it is about what happens across the whole sector.

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Mail Rail

9 – What aspect of your work are you feeling positively about taking forward in future? 

I am really excited about how we think about our collections now. This time has made us think about the relevance of our collections. What we are doing with contemporary collecting and how we co-curate. They are buzz words but when you get them right, they are so meaningful and enriching. We have been thinking about how we connect, how we reflect this time and how we reflect a real diversity of voices.

I trust the expertise of the funding organisations, and I trust how much they care, but I would like to see a more coherent and joined up conversation about what the whole sector will look like from top to bottom. If I have a worry it is that it is very easy to say we are going to save the Royal Opera House, the Southbank Centre and the Globe and not recognise that smaller museums have such a role to play in getting people into museums in the first place. Our collections are entirely unintimidating – everyone has experienced the post – and we know we get people coming to us who haven’t been to museums before and if that disappears it will have an impact on everybody, on every museum.

This interview was collected on 29th May 2020.

You can read more Lockdown Interviews here – https://tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com/category/the-lockdown-interviews/

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You can read more about the Postal Museum here – https://www.postalmuseum.org/

You can find out about the Mail Rail here – https://www.postalmuseum.org/discover/attractions/mail-rail/

You can find out about the Post Early autism mornings here – https://www.postalmuseum.org/event/post-early-relaxed-mornings/

‘Museums should stay shut’ – Dea Birkett, The Spectator, 23rd May 2020 – https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/museums-should-stay-shut [accessed 12 June 2020]

The Future of Museums, Aspen UK Podcast – https://www.aspenuk.org/events/the-future-of-museums/ [accessed 12 June 2020]

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