The impact of a global pandemic has left little of what we consider to be normal life or ‘business as usual’ untouched.

Whilst our focus is naturally on the wellbeing of our families and friends, on supporting public health initiatives and the staff who deliver them, professionally, everyone with a connection to independent museums faces an enormous challenge.

AIM has over 1000 organisational members located right across the UK. Stretching from the Channel Islands to Shetland, our membership includes volunteer run community heritage centres and some of the UK’s biggest and most successful heritage attractions.

Independent museums pride themselves on their resilience, their entrepreneurial skills, their ability to both grasp opportunities and flex to meet challenges. Our members offer many examples of best practice: in building audiences for events; in delivering compelling educational activities, in offering attractive cafes and retail experiences, and memorable wedding and corporate hire spaces.

With the closure of UK museums in March and, at the time of writing, no clear path back to a return of visitors, our members have lost their income streams overnight, irrespective of the strength of their business model or their excellent practice to date.

The financial packages offered by government and sector funding bodies do offer some museums a lifeline for their continued survival, but many members remain vulnerable to a financial collapse in a matter of weeks or months. No-one’s reserves are limitless.

So how is AIM responding?

As a small, agile organisation led by a Chair, Andrew Lovett, Chief Executive of the Black Country Living Museum and a strong set of Trustees all drawn from the sector, we have been able to quickly refocus the organisation, prioritising both advocacy and the re-development and re-purposing of services to members, developing and sharing resources that clarify and respond to the quickly moving operational and funding contexts we are all now operating in.

Our advocacy approach has been to work closely and collaboratively with both government and sector partners. We instigated regular calls with these key stakeholders, using those calls to share data and clearly evidence and articulate the challenge and imminent threat that our members and all independent museums face.

This work is ongoing and demands on funding are considerable, but we are grateful to our members for responding to our regular requests for ‘on-the-ground’ information, ensuring that we have the latest and best possible evidence to base our advocacy work on, and bringing the data to life with compelling and urgent examples of the challenges members face.

Naturally many organisations are seeking to respond quickly to the changing work and policy environment, resulting in an almost daily release of complex information for our members to navigate, understand and act upon.

Such information – on available funding, tax relief, rates, staffing and more – can be daunting for museums to work through at the best of times, so in this most challenging of times our member services have been remodelled to provide rapid, clear and practical advice and support, and critically, additional access to expertise.

By agreeing a clear new delivery model, supported by a flexible communications plan, AIM was able to quickly reallocate its resources.

Members were offered free online consultancy from our network of sector experts support on matters ranging from governance to applying for an Arts Council grant within days of the team moving to remote working. In addition, we have provided ‘easy to follow’ guides to government support, brought in specialist advice (e.g. HR advice for the Jobs Retention Scheme) and worked with partners like Charity Finance Group for areas where members need most support. Alongside UK Government, ACE and NLHF support, we have developed resources, working with partners, on caring for collections in lockdown and FAQs on insurance matters. The regular canvassing of member views will support the ongoing development of both our advisory content and our advocacy priorities.

The months ahead are not going to be easy. Like the Association for Cultural Enterprises, we had to take the difficult decision to cancel our 2020 conference, usually the highlight of our year. But the scale of the work to be done to support our members through the current crisis means that it is relatively easy to put thoughts of conference on hold until 2021.

AIM is determined to ensure that independent museums are given the best possible opportunities to weather this challenge. As an essential part of the cultural fabric and wellbeing of their communities and the nation as a whole, AIM’s member museums will never have been more valuable than at the point when the UK starts to emerge, recover and look to the future.

Emma Chaplin
By Emma Chaplin
Emma Chaplin has worked in curatorial and senior management roles in independent and local authority museums in England and Wales for over 25 years as well as running a successful consultancy business, specialising in collections management and business planning. She has been Director of the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) since early 2018. AIM supports and champions independent museums and heritage organisations in the UK – helping them to achieve their purposes and ensuring their needs are recognised and addressed by policy makers, funders and other sector bodies.
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