Thursday, 07 July 2022

Let's Get Down to Business: Sarah Posey, Henley River and Rowing Museum

Let's Get Down to Business: Sarah Posey, Henley River and Rowing Museum

SARAH POSEY is the director of Henley’s River & Rowing Museum. She was born and brought up in Hampstead before reading for a degree in anthropology at Cambridge University. Her career has been in the museums and heritage sector, having worked at the British Museum for more than 17 years before completing 12 years as head of collections, interpretation and learning at the Royal Pavilion and museums in Brighton and Hove. She moved to Henley in 2018 when she took her current role and lives in the town with her husband and son, who is studying at Oxford Brookes University. Sarah regularly practises yoga and recently joined Henley Choral Society. She loves to explore the local countryside.

Describe your organisation

We are an independent museum attracting more than 118,000 visitors a year, engaging local residents and the surrounding community as well as many visitors who travel quite long distances to enjoy the unique galleries in the award-winning building. We also offer formal and informal learning programmes, especially to children, with 20,000 participating last year. The museum is a charity.

How many people does it employ?

We have 21 full-time equivalent permanent employees and several casual workers.

What did you do previously?

After graduating I went to China and taught English and then lived in Japan, where I was a proof reader at Baring Securities. On my return to the UK, I worked in the bookshop at the British Museum and progressed to become a specialist curator at the then Museum of Mankind. I carried out fieldwork for the museum, gaining my PhD, which was a thesis on masquerade in north-east Romania. In 2005 I moved to head up the world art department at the Royal Pavilion and museums in Brighton and Hove.

Who or what influenced you?

As a child I was taken to the Museum of Mankind and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. That’s what inspired me and sparked my fascination with anthropology.

Do you have a mentor or role model?

Maggie Appleton, president of the Museums Association and chief executive of the RAF Museum, is a great role model. I really like her style of leadership.

What would you do differently if you could start again?

I wouldn’t do anything differently but it was tough to complete my Phd while working and being a mother.

How is the museum doing?

Last year was a record year for visitors. We have no ongoing public funding and have to generate all the money we need ourselves, not just for the galleries and caring for the building and the collections, but also for our temporary exhibitions and to put towards our schools and families programme and events for adults. Our revenues come from admissions and our commercial activities as well as fundraising and sponsorship. We hold lots of events and weddings here in our beautiful Thames Room.

How do you market the museum?

We are only a short walk along the towpath from the town centre, so we try to showcase ourselves through several routes, increasingly using digital and social media as well as our what’s on brochure and the press. The Henley Standard has been great in promoting us.

What’s the best thing about what you do?

Working in a smaller organisation where I’m closer to all aspects of the museum’s work. I love seeing people in the galleries enjoying their visit.

What’s the most challenging aspect?

Having to be always concerned about the bottom line as well as thinking about future plans and strategy.

Where is the museum headed?

We’d love to refresh some of the galleries. We want to do more community outreach, particularly with special needs schools, disadvantaged groups and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. We want to have greater focus on the environment and wellbeing by encouraging learning, volunteering and being active.

How important is online?

People can book events on our website, subscribe to our Friends scheme and also buy some items from our shop online. We are working towards selling admission tickets online also.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

I’ve learned so much but recently had confirmed something I’ve always believed but had no evidence for — a study reported in the British Medical Journal found that trips to the theatre, museums and art galleries are good for you and are a key to a longer life.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?

We made a small error in the phrasing of our Christmas offering last year which caused a little confusion and led to a few disappointed customers. We responded personally to everyone who contacted us about it and fortunately most were very forgiving.

What’s the secret of your success?

Listening to visitors and staff, learning from experience and, above all, the passion I have for what I do.

How organised are you?

Pretty good but my filing is terrible.

How do you dress for work each day?

Smart casual.

What can’t you be without every day?

My mid-morning mug of coffee and my walk to work ending with five minutes along the Thames Path.

Lunch at your desk or going out?

Either at my desk or in our lovely café.

Do you continue to study?

I believe in continual professional development.

What do you read?

I’m trying to read more books that are about or set around the Thames. Currently I’m reading Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield.

How are you planning for retirement?

That seems a long way off still.

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