Entrepreneurship in Cultural Heritage (2/2/2017)

I travelled to Birmingham last week to attend an event on Entrepreneurship in Cultural Heritage, put on by the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage and West Midlands Museum Development. I approached the event as an interested sceptic. Although I am all for new and creative ways of working, I’m sceptical of efforts to dress up new ways of getting money off people – especially when these efforts end up targeting people who do not have a lot of money in the first place. I suppose I generally feel more favourable toward ‘social innovation’ than ‘social entrepreneurship’, but it was an event I felt I should attend – and I’m glad I did.

The introductory talk and keynote clearly communicated the rationale for entrepreneurship in cultural heritage: heritage organisations are experiencing budget cuts and looking after heritage is expensive. We keep on accumulating more heritage and as heritage ages it is costly to conserve. These things are all true, but in my opinion we can’t responsibly leap directly from this to discussions of raising enough money to balance our books through entrepreneurship, without asking whether we should be spending money conserving an ever increasing assemblage of heritage. While I completely agree with the sentiment that we must move beyond regarding “profit” as an inherently dirty word and that we must judge its cleanliness on how it is spent, I don’t think we can embrace “profit” without considering how money is made or which expenses are approved before “profits” are declared. Protecting and restoring the original fabric of heritage is not the only way to care for heritage, nor is it the cheapest. I’m not saying that we should not take care of material remains, but that we can’t begin with the assumption that it is the only appropriate way to care for and manage heritage. A discussion of whether material remains should be preserved must be part of a balanced debate about entrepreneurship and innovation in cultural heritage.

The opening presentations were followed by some really interesting talks on filming at National Trust properties, the role of creative industries at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, retail at the National Gallery Company, international touring exhibits organised by the Bury Art Museum and the work of the Birmingham Museums Trust Enterprise Committee. Apart from the speakers’ really engaging delivery and the freshness of hearing from professionals who don’t usually present at the kinds of events I usually attend, there were a few things that stuck out to me as really inspiring:

  • The sheer scale of interest generated for National Trust properties by television and film, the new audiences that are attracted through these media and the (baby)steps the organisation is taking toward recognising film and TV heritage as valid subjects for interpretation and engagement. Diversifying heritage should be about telling new stories, not just convincing diverse audiences that the stories we’re already telling are interesting.
  • The great work the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust is doing to use the merchandise they sell in their shops as part of their engagement and interpretation strategy – creating close connections between curation and retail. Selling products made in the gorge or inspired by the gorge is a way to communicate the heritage of the gorge and allow visitors to take aspects of it home with them.
  • The amount of work and creativity that goes into designing the displays in the shops at the National Gallery and the commitment to create original merchandise that visitors are happy to spend money on because it is not available elsewhere.

I think it is fair to say that these presentations and the following discussion primed me for Kiran Trehan‘s closing talk, ‘Cultural Heritage, Business and Entrepreneurship: Sleeping with the Enemy or Match Made in Heaven?’ She began by asking whether we wanted to be entrepreneurs or whether what we really wanted was to be entrepreneurial, and stressed that being entrepreneurial is really all about identifying what our clients/audiences need. She challenged us to dream futures for cultural heritage and make the most of opportunities as they arise, while working strategically within these broader progressive visions. Her point about moving beyond the idea that “profit” is a dirty word struck a chord with me, following on from talks about the sale of innovative products and services. Over lunch I talked to a tour guide who made the point that in the UK, we seem less interested in the services professional tour guides have to offer than in many other countries. This led me to think that the challenge for tour guides and heritage professionals is not to try to squeeze money out of people, but to offer something people are happy to pay for and that represents value for money – in the view of a broader segment of society.

This is an entrepreneurial challenge, but a challenge I think is worthwhile – one that will ultimately be more meaningful and rewarding than simply finding new ways of making enough money to let us keep on doing what we’re doing.



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