Tears, Laughs, Spiders and Witches- AIM Conference 2019

Nantwich Museum in Cheshire opened a Civil War Centre in April, the first of its kind in Cheshire, so we returned to the Civil War Centre in Newark to see how our big brother is doing and to help strengthen our networks with other great Civil War Museums around the country. This year’s theme was ‘How to be a Great Destination’ and we certainly heard some gems of advice from some of the friendly bigwigs in the independent museums world.

After a typically warm and jovial AIM welcome to kick off Thursday, Iain Standen and Hilary McGowan of Bletchley Park Trust explained how they doubled their annual visitor numbers from 120,000 in 2011 to 250,000 in 2018, with a little help from numerous royal visits and of course, the influence of the 2014 film- The Imitation Game. Iain stressed the importance of having:

  • A staff uniform and name-tags to help the public identify staff and also reinforces a team atmosphere amongst staff and volunteers.
  • All public facing staff, from gardeners to guards should be trained to give good customer service, and be a friendly first-point-of-contact for visitors.
  • Finally, the narrative should be strong, and widely appealing.

Rebekah Howley, Project Officer at Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site talked about the difficulties of managing a 15-mile long site, but gave some useful tips:

  • Sell the whole area as a visitor attraction and you will feel the benefit at your Museum.
  • Use artists, art installations, performances and creative events to draw people in.
  • Clear goals, clear narratives and clear ambition for our museums.

The charismatic Quonya Huff, Audience Development Manager at the National Mining Museum for Scotland, attracted a round of applause when she said:

“Hire someone in front-of-house with a good attitude! You can train someone to use the tills, to record a group booking, but you can’t train someone to have a sunny disposition”.

Helen Bonser-Wilson, Chief Executive of the Mary Rose in Portsmouth emphasised just how crucial it was to get our narrative and interpretation right, by using HAIR:
Human stories, or creating a character (we also like animals in the narrative). Stories of human bravery and endeavour are relatable and accessible to visitors.
Authentic experiences (tudor cooking sessions for example).
Immersive multi-sensory experiences: utilising touch, smell, sound in our exhibitions.
Relevance of narratives, remembering to relate exhibitions to the modern age.

Zara Matthews, Museum Manager at Melton Carnegie Museum received a round of applause on Friday and won the hearts of the audience when she said that she that Melton had removed all their ‘Do Not Eat or Drink Signs’ in the museum and said simply:

“We Got Over Ourselves.”

Friday evening’s dinner and drinks social was hosted at Newark Castle where guests quaffed a decent Prosecco served from a converted speedboat, laughed at the theatrical wit from the costumed interpreters and enjoyed tours of the castle and dungeon, before watching the beautiful sunset over the canals.


Saturday’s Story Tour involved a fascinating trip to the Holocaust Centre where they are developing the ‘Forever Project’- an interactive experience where visitors can digitally engage with a Holocaust survivor about their experience, crucial in ensuring that the last generation of survivors are not forgotten. In their breakout session on Thursday, many of the audience had tears in their eyes as the Holocaust Centre played a video of a survivor reading out a posthumous letter from his parents who didn’t make it out the camps. This, more than anything else, illustrated the point that real, emotive, personal stories, have much more effect on us than facts, figures and static exhibitions.

The study tour finished with a trip around Creswell Crags, a picturesque limestone gorge that straddles both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and a tour around the collections store and also the caves, which were inhabited during the last ice age. Despite being a long sufferer of lankiness, I managed to avoid banging my head on the low cave ceilings but managed some great shots of the cave spiders and ‘witch markings’ which defined the cave.


Overall, the conference ran smoothly, with great food, friendly organisers, and a welcoming down-to-earth vibe. The key themes from the speakers called for hiring and training friendly, warm staff in our Museums and ensuring that the narrative of our exhibitions is clear and engaging.

Some other highlights of the conference included: Richard Huthwaite, Tourism Marketing Manager for Newark Council, who emphasised the importance of good quality visitor research in order to guide more closely our marketing budgets and management plans, and he highlighted the importance of working in cross-promotion amongst a number of sites to boost tourist spend. Katherine Lynch, and Kate Daly of Port Sunlight Village Trust also echoed Richard’s point and discussed how they sell a package in partnership with other heritage sites in the area, and have encouraged group bookings by contacting coach companies directly and treating the driver right by giving them a free lunch.

I will certainly be visiting Newark again soon!
See you next year AIM, it’s been a blast!

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Elliot is the Development Officer at Nantwich Museum in Cheshire. You can find him on Twitter @Brumheritage

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