Thursday, 18 July 2019

Museum chief aiming to break more visitor records

Museum chief aiming to break more visitor records

DESPITE another record year for attendances, the River & Rowing Museum in Henley has scope to grow its visitor numbers much further.

That’s the view of its director Sarah Posey, who says awareness of the attraction in Mill Meadows is still low across the region so it holds a lot of untapped potential.

An unprecedented 118,000 people visited between the start of April last year and the end of March, an increase on the previous year’s record of 114,000.

The museum, which celebrates its 21st anniversary in August, also expects to welcome its two-millionth visitor within the next three or four months and will award them a surprise gift when they buy their ticket.

Dr Posey and her staff had anticipated another healthy year but didn’t expect to break the record again, even with the quality of exhibitions such as the one on sculptor Barbara Hepworth which proved popular.

Yet according to market research, only 11 per cent of people living within an hour’s drive of Henley know the museum exists and Dr Posey plans to improve this.

The research, which involved 1,000 people who had either visited the museum or were generally interested in culture, found 64 per cent of respondents liked the idea of visiting Henley while more than 40 per cent had already done so.

About half of everyone who learned about the museum had then visited and 86 per cent of those said they would “definitely” recommend it to others.

Forty-three per cent discovered it through word of mouth, more so than via advertising.

Dr Posey says raising awareness should start a cycle of long-term growth because each wave of new visitors will encourage others to do the same.

One way of doing this could be improving signage on the Thames Path, which runs along the front of the building, because 46 per cent of visitors to Henley did so for the walking, according to the research.

Dr Posey says: “We want to be as visible as possible to walkers because there’s so much inside that would interest them.

“We’re lucky to have this gorgeous, verdant landscape with its greenery and trees but the downside is that we’re partly obscured from the path.

“I went outside to have a look and from some angles you’d barely know we were here so more signage would be a great start.

“The Thames Path National Trail is willing to make some for us and list us as a ‘thing to do’ on their website. We’ve talked with them about promoting some circular walks that could start and finish at the museum so the Henley community and its businesses would benefit.

“We also discussed joint promotion for accommodation providers as I was talking to a Henley bed and breakfast owner and was struck by the fact that half of their customers visited for walking.”

Dr Posey also plans to have talks with Great Western Railway as 82 per cent of people who visit for the walking arrive by train.

She says the museum’s marketing materials should emphasise its permanent collections and not just its temporary exhibitions, which have been the main focus, while appealing more to adult art enthusiasts.

She says: “Although awareness of the museum is low regionally, a high proportion do visit when they find out and are very surprised at the level and quality of the art on offer.

“People are blown away that we’ve got the country’s only permanent John Piper gallery and hold exhibitions like our current one on William Morris. Those are particularly attractive for adult audiences, not only because we work very hard to develop strands of interpretation for children.

“There’s scope for growth in that area although we’re very proud of our appeal to families, which will remain an important part of what we do.”

On July 15, the museum will introduce cheaper one-day entry prices, although the cost of an adult annual pass, which is currently included in all ticket purchases, will almost double.

More than 80 per cent of the research respondents said the curreny £12.50 entry fee (£9.95 for children) was off-putting while the new day tickets were more attractive at £9 and £6 respectively.

Dr Posey says: “More than half our visitors attend more than once a year and many come very frequently so anyone buying the new annual pass will still get great value for money.

“More than three-quarters of recent visits were planned in advance, which reflects our large family audience, but we’re keen to increase incidental visits and the day tickets should encourage this.

“At the moment some people choose not to enter as they’re only passing through Henley for a few hours and don’t feel it’s worth paying for an annual pass as they’ve come from far away and don’t feel they’re likely to return.”

The museum will continue inviting schools from the Henley area to take part in workshops as pupils are more likely to bring their own children years later.

Dr Posey says: “Community engagement is very important. We work with schools and youth groups on projects like the displays in our community gallery that were linked to our William Morris exhibition.

“There were some fantastic works by pupils from Gillotts School who were inspired by Morris’s profile as a campaigner to research and create their own display about the coca trade.

“They will remember that and will hopefully share that enthusiasm with their children.

“One lovely thing about being 21 is that we’re already seeing a new generation of parents who first visited when they were at school.”

There are also plans to revitalise the museum’s membership scheme by offering benefits like out-of-hours viewings and priority bookings. Existing members will soon be surveyed to find out what they would like.

Dr Posey says the 21st anniversary feels like a “milestone” and she is looking forward to welcoming the two-millionth visitor.

She says: “We really want to make it a special occasion for that lucky person. We’ll be monitoring the numbers so we’ll know who it is on the day and will be able to tell them as they come through the gate.

“There will be a gift but I’m not sure whether we’ll surprise them too much as we don’t want to frighten them!

“We’re feeling very optimistic for our future. This museum started its life as an extraordinarily ambitious project and we should take a little bit of inspiration from that spirit as we think about our next steps.

“The audience research has given a new sense of purpose and energy as it had some very positive findings and others which we’re able to act upon to improve what we offer our visitors.

“We hadn’t expected to set another attendance record so soon after the last one but we did and by quite a jump.

“We’ve had some great programming and I think some visitors who came to us the year before have been returning, which is promising.

“It means we’re not just seeing more visits overall but developing a loyal following, which is a wonderful endorsement of what we’re doing and shows we’re on the right track.

“We don’t survey each visitor about the purpose of their visit but we’d like to do so as the more we know about people’s reasons for coming, the better we can serve them.”

Dr Posey, 55, an anthropologist and former British Museum curator, has just completed her first year in post after moving from her old job as head of collections, interpretation and learning for the Royal Pavilion and Museums of Brighton and Hove.

She was initially commuting from Lewes in Sussex but is now renting a property in Belle Vue Road, Henley, with her husband Nigel Worlidge.

She said: “We feel very welcomed by the community and I’m very pleased to have moved as the last part of my daily commute is now along the Thames Path, which is lovely.

“We didn’t know the area at all but we’re really enjoying getting to know it and making friends and I’m still discovering new things all the time.

“Henley is the most beautiful location and I think we don’t shout enough about it as a museum. It’s a very special place to be working with a highly dedicated team and a very experienced and supportive board of trustees.

“We’ve been given very strong foundations to build upon.”

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