"Have a plan and stick to it" is something people always say but how easy is it to actually do that as a CEO of a self-funded, independent museum and charity that’s mainly staffed by volunteers? The simple answer is ‘it’s not!’.
You can have a fully planned day and all you need is an unexpected rush of visitors, a group that requires that little extra time or a volunteer that's now only able to help for half the day, and before you know it your plan is out the window. It’s not always visitors and staffing that can throw the plan out, it’s also having to pause vital refurbishment projects for urgent unexpected works on our Grade II listed site.
I always say that the museum can seem very back to front at times but taking on a museum originally set up as a society and club for retired firefighters, that has then been relocated and reopened a few times in different locations over the years into a nationally styled museum and well-loved visitor attraction can be a massive change on lots of levels.
Naturally creating a museum from scratch would involve funding, partnerships with relevant organisations and all the basic plans and procedures in place. But lots of hobby and volunteer run museums are not always set up in this way. But without these hobby style museums, history would be lost but changing a hobby into a national visitor attraction has some major disadvantages as well as the many advantages.
For me the museum is more than just a job, it’s a life, a family and community in itself. I originally started volunteering for the museum at the age of 13 and after 8 years of volunteering became part of the new trustee team to change and develop the museum.
The new trustee team worked hard to create a new museum with the bones of the original. This saw some of the largest changes the charity had ever seen, taking the collection alone from just fire and police to now include ambulance and all other rescue services building some amazing new partnerships going forward.
Since becoming the CEO of the all new charity in 2014 the museum has grown and developed extremely rapidly with visitor numbers rising, allowing the charity to reinvest funds into refurbishments and staffing allowing for new exciting exhibitions and facilities as well as providing funds to better care long term for the collection on a national level.
So why can things take a little longer than expected? Even though we are bigger and more developed than ever, we are still a seriously small team. The museum currently has just two full time staff and four part time / self-employed members of the team, meaning that the museum does not even have enough staff to say we have at least the skeleton staffing to operate. We might as well say we have a few bones at most! On the outside we don’t let this show and we have been amazing at keeping all the balls in the air, somehow, even in the middle of a pandemic! Whilst things have been a struggle we've managed to not drop any of those balls just yet.
I can be confident in saying that a standard day for a CEO here at NESM can start with opening up the doors, cleaning the museum and preparing tills, staffing the front desk, gift shop or coffee shop to then as the museum closes down and visitors leave and volunteers go home for the day, my day starts. That’s why you need to be positive, passionate and truly love what you do and I can easily say that all the team feel the same!
So what’s next? In one way being closed has been a blessing in disguise as the normal day to day running of the museum has virtually stopped, giving us the perfect opportunity to resolve a large amount of back office work. Thanks to the amazing generosity of visitors, supporters and local businesses we have also been able to refresh some exhibition areas within the museum; these works have been projects that didn’t need much funds, but needed time closed to the public and time for us to focus directly on the task in question.
As well as many organisations, charities and museums we have had no standard income during this time and in June we came extremely close to closing for good. We cannot say we are out of hot water at all but hopefully having had the time to refocus some of our time will mean we can come back stronger. The work that has been achieved over the past few months by an even smaller team than normal would normally take around 10 months to a year to complete. Just imagine what could be done if we could just make the bones into a skeleton. Every little that is invested by the charity improves the museum by double over at the very least. The next step forward is to not step back.
Other blog posts have outlined how much of a fantastic and diverse team we have here at NESM and shows exactly how we don't just survive but we continue to grow, advance and strive to become a household name and reach the overall goal of breathing life back into this amazing historical location.
It has been hard to fit this into a blog post and not a book but hopefully it shows just a snippet of how dedicated everyone is, my role here and how much more goes on backstage.