‘I want you to lead on this’, is one of the most daunting things a line manager can say, or at least it is when it’s the first time you’re asked to lead on a large museum event. But that is how it started.
I’ve been in charge of lots of little events before, but this was for the Late Shows at the Great North Museum: Hancock. This year marks the 10 year anniversary of the Late Shows, a fantastic cultural crawl across Newcastle and Gateshead, where venues from artists’ studios to libraries and museums open their doors for the evening 7pm – 11pm. It’s notoriously a fantastic evening and it’s kind of a big deal.
So where do you begin with planning an event for a museum that is part of this? . . . What did we do? . . . In the end did it work? . . .
Audience – Yep. That’s where we started. These are the important people. You want them to have a good time. You’re in a museum, so you want to inspire them with the collection. It would be nice if they learnt something new, but most importantly you want their visit to make them happy leaving with a positive outlook on the venue; after all it is the year of ‘Museums Change Lives’. The choice in audience was the first wild card that was taken. The Great North Museum: Hancock is an interesting beast, run by Newcastle City Council but owned by Newcastle University, with collections from local natural and historical societies. Its audience has been predominantly family driven since its refurbishment. But what if we had one evening for adults . . . would it work? No-one really knew. So this seemed the perfect trial run.
Theme – the next factor thrown into the mix. I consulted the office team. I hoyed out my idea of having an event for adults, which was greeted with nods and ‘yeah that’s different’ and then dropped the theme bomb. ‘What if we do an event for adults, with adult themes?’, ‘like the rude bits of the collection?’ . . . well this idea wasn’t shot down. In fact one of the archaeology curators pipped up with, ‘We could get flaming nipples lady out’; (turns out she’s a roman statue with nipple holes that perfectly fit fake tea lights). It is important when choosing a theme to involve other people. No-one likes a dictatorship and it helps people to feel involved in an event, they aren’t just dragged in last minute to perform an aspect of it, and they get to see its progression.
Getting a yes from management – there is no point in continuing to create an event such as this without it getting the go ahead from those at the top. Especially as this event was suggesting something new everything had to be checked and given the go ahead. It was given the go ahead, but also decided that although it would be advertised as for adults, if families turned up on the night they would not be turned away. Instead the events of the evening would be explained and if they wanted to go in they were welcome to.
So what was actually going to happen on this evening? Originally there were discussions about life drawing, but in the end we went for a DJ, 2 bars and things that we could run. By having mainly activities that we could run costs were kept down, but we could still draw on the specialist experience of learning and curatorial teams = WIN/WIN.
Sustenance – Most adults like a drink. We decided we wanted to name our own cocktails and have local beers and found a company that could provide pop up bars serving exactly what we wanted. But this brought problems with it – there are no drinks allowed in many of the galleries, we are a museum after all we have to look after the collection. So the ordinary map had to be adapted to be handed out on the night to act as a guide of people looking around. A map with rules as to where you are and are not allowed to go is not the best thing to be handed on entering a museum, in fact it would make me personally feel like I wasn’t really wanted in there. So the map also included ‘X’ marks the spot for things to do, see or have a go at. On the back of the map was an ‘X-rated museum trail’, featuring objects that are on permanent display, but if you found them you would learn some alternative information about them featuring ‘adult themes’. This worked well because as soon as people came through the door we could tell them about the evening, mention the cheeky themes and give them a map of where to find everything.
Activities – people like things to do, maybe something they wouldn’t normally try, or something they wouldn’t normally see. We had tables set up for origami, object handling from the archaeology and biology teams who found some wonderful cheeky examples to bring out from the stores for the evening. There was the opportunity to write captions for some of the stonework on display, a penis shape to animal matching game and a penis length to animal game. The temporary Polar Explorers exhibition also remained open for the evening, creating a really cool space for a bar as well as the opportunity to try some of the children’s dress up on – you’d be amazing how many people did as soon as there weren’t children to compete with for a chance to dress up.
Advertising – is very important for an event. Thankfully the main advertising for this event was through the Late Shows platforms, a leaflets and social media. But word of mouth should not be underestimated . . . I think I invited everyone I knew. If you’re planning an event get people talking about it; tell your friends tell your work colleagues, tell your Granny (mine came on the night and loved it). The more people you tell the more chance it will be passed on. The fact that we were having an adult event was also unusual enough to grab the attention of the local paper, who wrote an article on it.
Evaluation – ALWAYS REMEMBER THIS. This event was a trial run, we didn’t really know if it would work or if it did what other events adults might be interested in at the museum. Without evaluation we could run with assumptions that it had gone ok and that people were saying nice things so it must have been good but that is not written proof. On the night we had support from some brilliant volunteers who helped us to get 75 questionnaires completed, allowing us to see what age groups our visitors came under, if we had any brand new visitors and what their highlights of the night were . . . after all they had over 70 venues to choose from.
The questionnaires completed suggest that night was a success. Not only did it show that we had brand new visitors, 60% of the people who completed the questionnaire mentioned this venue as a highlight. It could not have happened without the support of the Great North Museum: Hancock team, the Late Shows communications team and our wonderful volunteers. It was scary doing something new, but it was worth it.
Were you there? If yes then let me know what you thought! And if the evening left you searching for more examples of slightly rude museum collections check out my blog on the Icelandic Phallological Museum.