Q&A by Jack Lewis-Barclay

How did you work your way into your current position?

Well, I started working in the arts in the theatre. I worked in the box office of the Library Theatre Company. It was here that I got involved in marketing; they supported me to do marketing qualifications. This prompted a move to Bradford, still working in theatres but as the marketing and sales manager. I didn’t enjoy Bradford that much so I came back to Manchester and got a job with Arts About Manchester. (Now called All About Audiences) At the time they were the audience development agency for all of the arts in Manchester. Basically an agency owned and run by its members which encapsulates all of the galleries, museums, theatres, concert halls and orchestras around Manchester and helps them develop a better model of their target audience. My role there was marketing towards specific groups of people, for example I ran a campaign to increase the disabled arts audience. I also worked on the Family Friendly campaign, Manchester being the first place in the country to launch such a scheme. This was very important for me as I believe that audience development is the same as good marketing: getting the message out to people, communication. We built mailing lists and websites specifically for families who don’t have the time to seek out new things to do from 25 websites, they were time poor and needed people to show them things to do which are suitable for families. On the other hand we also advised museums and galleries on how to be more open to families. From here I came to Manchester Museum, I’d worked with them a lot before and they were always very interested in bringing in new people. I’ve worked here for 6 years now and last year was made the dual marketing manager for the Whitworth too.

As head of marketing how closely do you work with the curators to create an exhibition that people will want to come and see?

The first step is an exhibition choice making process. This is carried out by the exhibitions team of which I am part, which looks at the ideas coming up for exhibitions. So whilst the original ideas about exhibitions that we might want to do come from curators, the exhibitions group look at all of these ideas and considers them in the light of all the different priorities: what other exhibitions have we done recently etc and it’s at this point that marketing is principally involved. The way I look at it, I bring the voice of the audience. So when we’re looking at an exhibition idea we consider who’s it for and who the target market are? I’ll use the evidence we’ve got from audience research about what sort of exhibition is going to work for what audiences. Of course this is only if we need to do a really popular exhibition, which isn’t always the case but in both instances I feel like I need to be that voice giving balance across the whole process. Something popular, something less so. And it’s during this discussion process that we’ll say: “What does this exhibition need to be?” and use this audience data to say “well is that idea going to achieve what we want it to achieve using this slot?”

Looking at the literature associated with visiting the museum there seems to be a slant towards young people. Is this an attempt for the museum to shake off its staid image, or does this simply address the average age of your cliental?
The museum has 350,000 visitors a year. So within that there is a huge variety of demographics but it is a hugely family orientated attraction. We receive something like 60% family groups and busiest times are weekends and school holidays. So inevitably families are a big part of who we are. Traditionally museums have attracted a real older demographic. This is less of an issue for Manchester Museum but at The Whitworth it is more so. Certainly both museums are trying to develop a new audience which is actually quite similar. Both are aiming for a young adult audience through programs, events, less so than through the actual displays at the Museum as there is only one changing exhibition space but there are efforts being made to bring in this desirable young adult audience.

Do you think the trend towards interactivity in the museum or gallery is a vital step?

We at the Manchester Museum think that interactivity is essential. The common conception of museums are lifeless, dead, dusty place. I don’t personally think that but we are aware that this is a long standing perception. One of the most common visitor comments is that “there’s nothing to do!” so we work hard to break that down because just because somebody says, I want more interactives, they think they know what that means: buttons to push or shiny new technology. But actually, what is it that they want? So we thought a lot about it. We’re not a science museum and actually if you observe people in science museums, kids run up to the interactive, push the button and have run away by the time the thing has started. So we’ve defined interactivity as being about people and objects and the opportunities that we can give them to actually interact. What we’re done in the last few years is put a lot of effort into our handling tables. We’ll usually have four tables running at any one time around the museum and these will include a range of real museum objects, not replicas. Volunteers are then trained by the curators to talk about them and get people to hold them and bring them to life for people. You can walk past a cabinet filled with a hundred flint arrowheads and not bat an eyelid, but put it in someone’s hand and suddenly it brings it to life and so when you go back to the display, you can really engage with it. So this is our definition of interactivity. For the Whitworth I think it’s expected less but neither the less, the current exhibition Dark Matters, has several interactive elements. The shadow lab, for example, gives people the opportunity to create films inspired by the exhibition. So there is a definite effort to maintain levels of interactivity because we recognise that by interacting we increase the engagement and enjoyment for the public.

The Whitworth recently moved into the top ten attractions in terms of visitor numbers in the city, do you work hard to advertise outside of Manchester?

Well, the Whitworth punches well above its weight in terms of its marketing spend. They have a very small budget. They can afford to produce a brochure, send some emails, put on a few private views and pay for the odd advert in city guides. Beyond that there isn’t a lot of money left. We do however allocate some money towards press. We usually work with an agency who have the job of gathering the press coverage. The target for this is particularly national and international media. The Whitworth has never bought an advert in a newspaper and has no plans to do so. We do however spend a large block of money for each show on employing a good PR agency. To get a good review in a national is not necessarily about having a good exhibition, it’s about having a good agency working for you and the competition for these review places is intense. So the Whitworth does well for its self, thanks to both the quality of the product and a concerted effort towards raising its profile.

Do you have a favourite piece in the museum/ gallery?

Yes, there used to be a statue in the old living cultures exhibition, a mannequin dressed in a costume from the Kiribati Islands. The helmet was made from a fish and the armour was made from coconut shell with a sword made from shark bones and shark teeth. So you had this full warriors costume made from natural and sustainable materials and I felt that it said something about the mission statement of the museum: promoting a sustainable world and creating understanding between cultures.

Ok and finally, looking to the future, is twitter as important as everyone says it is?

I am in two minds about twitter. When Twitter first happened, the only people tweeting were people working in the arts. It was all of us tweeting to each other, which left me cold. Why were we investing so much time and effort into doing this when actually it was just our friends constantly retweeting each other in a self satisfying circle. But in fact I think twitter has changed enormously in the last 6-9 months and its really taken off. Fortunately we were really engaged in there at the start. What we haven’t done is allocated more resources to it and I think its something that I really need to do something about. The blog too, is something that we’ve been massively successful with. A year ago three of the top 50 cultural blogs in the country related to Manchester museum. We were doing this incredible work but it seems like everyone else has caught up. The bigger organisations have invested more money in it, stuck more people in and we’re still doing it on a shoe string. These things, because they’re not adverts in papers with a quantified budget, people think they’re free. They take time, resources and specialists are often needed to help. Generally speaking though, social media is only going to get bigger. Another thing to consider is that, whilst twitter seems to be only on the rise, websites like myspace have been massive and fallen. There is a certain reluctance to say “put everything into twitter”, you need to be constantly on the lookout for the next big thing. We need to make sure that we’re not just following the trend, we need to be ahead of the game.

Follow Timothy: @timjohnmanley