part one, by Visitor Service Staff Sophia Sample

At the beginning of last month, I spent a week at The British Museum as part of their VS Knowledge Circle programme. Overwhelmed by the success of their previous Knowledge Exchange programme and the number of applicants from Visitor Service staff, Georgia Mallin, programme manager, decided to pilot a new scheme giving VS staff the opportunity to experience life in other museums.

My week began with meeting VS Manger David Owen, who was to be my contact for the week. David took me on an initial tour of the museum, making sure to point out things of particular interest to me, including the oldest wall paintings on display. He talked me through the extraordinary amount of work the VS Team does on a day-to-day basis as we walked through the recently reopened gold-leafed China and South Asia gallery, marveled at the glass ceiling of the Great Court, and discussed dealing with controversy as we stood before the Parthenon Marbles. VS Team Leader Dimitra Kountiou acted as another week-long contact, looking after me incredibly well, allowing me to shadow her as she opened the museum, sharing with me some of the practical concerns and everyday problems the VS staff encounter, and finally accompanying me on a trip to the Wellcome Collection at the end of the week.

Having stated the importance of our volunteers at Salisbury Museum in my application, I was keen to meet with Volunteers Manager Francesca Goff, who last year took part in the Knowledge Exchange, spending a week with us. We spoke of the training volunteers receive, the object handling ‘Hands On’ desks, highlights tours and an initiative to encourage young volunteers to build confidence and skills essential for public-facing roles. Throughout the week I managed to speak with volunteers at all six ‘Hands On’ desks and attended a number of volunteer-facilitated gallery talks – I now know an awful lot more about Ancient Maya civilization than I ever thought I would!

Early in the week I had meetings with Paul Roberts, Ticketing and Information Manager, Natasha Berbank, Private Tours Manager, Claire Byfield, Membership Events Manager and Bryony Smith, Adult Programmes Events Manager. They gave me an insight into how the museum generates revenue through exhibitions, out-of-hours private tours, membership and patronage, and events. The majority of British Museum visitors are one-time visitors, and without a general admissions ticket that means most visitors spend little to nothing during their visit. They are therefore looking at new ways to engage with their audience and begin to draw people back with extra events, lectures, festivals and workshops.

Midweek I had the chance to visit the ‘I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria’ exhibition. As a lover of all things Ancient and Assyrian, the exhibition was one of the main reasons I applied to the British Museum. I met and spoke with Carine Harmand, Project Curator, before attending her lecture, giving an overview of the rise and fall of Ashurbanipal’s Assyrian empire. You can see her below talking through the beautiful Assyrian reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s palace. The video also shows how lighting and projection were used in the exhibition to animate the reliefs. I was absolutely thrilled at the end of the week when David presented me with the exhibition catalogue as a goodbye present. It is still providing much enjoyment.

Another set of meetings I had were with staff involved in outreach and communication. I met with Emmerline Smyth, Community Partnerships Coordinator and Nicolette Hamilton, from Age Friendly Museums. They both work with encouraging new audiences in to the museum, those who may feel it isn’t a place they would feel comfortable. They shared ideas about initiatives including exhibition previews for community groups, GP-referred friendship groups for older people, appointing ‘Culture Champions’ in the community and making quiet seating and eating spaces available.

I also met with Eleanor Chant and her colleagues from the National Programmes team who organise loans and travelling exhibitions. I had met Eleanor previously when she was involved with bringing Hoards: A Hidden History of Ancient Britain to Salisbury Museum late last year. She was interested to hear how the VS staff had found the exhibition and how many visitors we’d had who themselves had discovered hoards. A particularly interesting session was with Rob Florance, Social Media Manager. He greeted me very ominously with ‘Sophia? I’ve seen your tweets…’, before introducing me to colleague Eloise and talking me through their extensive work covering everything from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and blog posts, to website articles and mail outs. I was impressed at the planning and forethought, having posts lined up weeks if not months in advance, and the interactions they have with curators and video production teams to ensure the highest quality, accurate information. We spoke about dealing with the negativity often encountered online and ways of dealing with it. Interesting in light of recent events in Salisbury!

In the next post I will share tales of my time behind-the-scenes…