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View from: Carolyn Sankey

21 July 2020

Part of Supercool's Arts + Culture In Lockdown series

Carolyn Sankey – Director of Development, Black Country Living Museum


Sustaining Culture: that was the theme of the conference I was due to have been speaking at on 20 March in beautiful Harrogate. How much more poignant that phrase has become four months on.

A rescue package of £1.57bn for the arts, culture and heritage sector is imminent, VAT is reduced to 5% for tourism and hospitality businesses, and there is now a furlough ‘bonus’ scheme to brighten the new year. But I doubt I’m alone in thinking recovery for our sector is still some way off, and sadly for some it won’t come.

2020 should have been a seminal year for Black Country Living Museum (BCLM).

Following six years of year-on-year growth in visitor attendance to a record 358,000 last year, this year should have seen work start in earnest on the largest development in the Museum's history. BCLM: Forging Ahead – a £23.2m project embracing the 1940s-60s with a new town and industrial area, as well as a new visitor centre.

… this year should have seen work start in earnest on the largest development in the Museum's history

As an open-air museum, Easter through to the end of summer is when business booms… usually.

We’re fiercely proud to be a cultural enterprise not overly reliant on public funding. Ironically, this kind of independence has meant we’ve proved extremely vulnerable in the current circumstances.

94% of our annual income is visitor-related (admissions and secondary spend) and busy summers effectively subsidise us during the winter months. But not this year; we are in the midst of three winters. Put simply, the timing of Covid-19 could not have been more cruel.

We closed the doors on 18 March and furloughed all but 13 of our 246 contracted and casual staff, to keep things ‘ticking over’. I’d hazard a guess that not many other cultural institutions had horse feeding and welfare to consider when they shut up shop!

I’d hazard a guess that not many other cultural institutions had horse feeding and welfare to consider when they shut up shop!

Nineteen weeks of closure has meant we’ve not been able to welcome 150,000 visitors, and have lost £3m in the process. But it didn’t mean that we stopped engaging with our visitors and supporters.

Around 60,000 schoolchildren visit us each year, and so History At Home was born– a series of easy-to-digest short films and resources aimed at KS1-KS2 students on themes such as The Dangers of Mining and Life on the Canals.

In addition, our researchers took to camera to talk about favourite items from our collection, including a particularly topical one – a mid-century pack of ‘Little Miss Muffet’ toilet roll! Even our Duty Manager and Horse-handlers got involved – behind and infront of the camera.

We also used these opportunities to ask people who enjoyed the content to either buy an annual pass for use on reopening or to donate.

Happily, reopening is on the horizon on 1 August, and the team are rallying to make sure that yes, it’s a safe experience for our visitors but that it’s an enjoyable one too.

Having worked in the performing arts pre-BCLM, and as a Board member and performer for a wind orchestra, I keenly feel the frustration of not knowing when curtains can rise and batons can fall again; and recognise that we are fortunate in the museum sector to be able to welcome visitors back.

We’ll be focusing on two core messages:

Unlocking Safely

We'll be implementing timed ticketing, limited capacity, prescribed routes around the site, and other protective measures – in line with Government advice, and feedback from both staff and visitors.

Unlocking History

An exciting daytime programme will take advantage of our outside spaces (weather, be good to us!). Our much-loved Historic Characters and stories will move outdoors and onto the streets, along with more demonstrations to keep all ages engaged and entertained.

Canal with narrow boats in foreground, industrial chimneys behind
Black Country Living Museum's Boat Dock

Although reopening is not recovery – there’s a long road ahead – we can’t wait for our Museum to be alive with visitors again.

And if nothing else, I very much hope that this most challenging of times will mean that the value of cultural experiences, and the ways in which people can access culture, will be even greater than before.

Part of Supercool's Arts + Culture In Lockdown series

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