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Change and Momentum in Museums: Turning Challenge into Opportunity

© River & Rowing Museum

Steve O’Connor on getting a grip on finances, pulling together a clear and coherent plan to set a path to sustainability, and building the momentum needed to return the River & Rowing Museum to the centre of the community and deliver a world-leading educational product hosting the debate on healthy rivers.

In the six months between my announcement as the new Director of the River & Rowing Museum (RRM) at the start of 2023, and taking up post in July of that year, I had the same sentence delivered to me multiple times, “River & Rowing Museum, great opportunity, big challenge.”

Whilst this may not have been the exact congratulatory message I would have hoped for, they were of course completely right. The RRM has seen a number of highs and lows over its 25-year history since its opening by Her Majesty the Queen in November 1998. The following year it won the prestigious Museum of the Year award and in 2013 it was listed in The Times Top 50 Museums in the World. Whilst these accolades are always welcome, the truth behind the scenes is that the Museum has always struggled to reach an operating breakeven position and since its inception, has wrestled with its raison d’etre; is it a Museum for Henley-on-Thames, the sport of rowing, the River Thames or can it exist for all three?

Covid obviously had a lasting and terrible effect for the whole industry, but the RRM seemed to suffer particularly badly. It had changes in its senior leadership and, after a short period of re-opening to the public, the Board of Trustees took the brave decision to close for nine months and put right all of the wrongs which had been forgotten about for so many years. In total, a £4 million project ensued which saw a raft of works completed including refitting the ageing roof, installation of a new climate control system across the galleries, conversion of real estate into an office building for tenants and a migration of the entire Museum database into the cloud to name just a few. Towards the end of this project is that point at which I was brought in to take over as Director and begin to put the Museum back on a path to sustainability.

Some may see my appointment by the Trustees as an interesting one given I don’t come from an arts or heritage background. In that respect there are elements which have been a steep learning curve, and I could have never envisaged talking about relative humidities as much as I have in the last six months! I have, however, spent the last 10 years running a charity which I founded in 2013. The skills and experience I gained in building something from nothing up to a £1m turnover charity are key to now helping get the RRM back on the front foot and to achieve the objective that has been agreed with the Board, reach operational breakeven by the March 2027.

Whilst many challenges remain, the organisation I have been handed following the reopening, now has all the building blocks in place ready for its next 25 years of growth. The first step is to make sure we have a coherent and clear strategy for the next three years. Working with all of the stakeholders groups you would imagine, we have been able to firstly get an accurate picture of the Museum’s financial position and then demonstrate a clear direction of what needs to happen in order to reach that breakeven milestone. Keeping our costs at a broadly flat base for three years will be key but the reality is that we must boost our income streams for the plan to work. We must show how we can more than triple our income levels from their current position across admissions, events, donations and retail, this is where the challenge meets the opportunity.

There are four key themes which our plan will use to help guide the trajectory over the next three years. Namely they are to return the Museum to the centre of the community, reimagine the galleries, deliver a world-leading educational product and host the debate on healthy rivers.

Our Museum has often been criticised for not feeling part of the town and being metaphorically and physically, ‘on the peripheries’. I believe that if we are to be successful, the residents of Henley-on-Thames must begin to say, “Our Museum” instead of “The Museum”. We need to ensure we have a space available for residents and businesses to use, that we engage with all of our locals schools, we design and relocate our Henley gallery to a more central part of our site and that the Museum looks to pro-actively take part in community events instead of waiting to be asked.

We have a large amount of real-estate and galleries which have been largely untouched for over a decade, in one case largely since we opened! We will begin a process of rationalising our collection following the establishment of a new collections policy aligned with the stories we are trying to tell. This will free up badly needed storage space and reduce the financial burden of caring for a collection of nearly 40,000 items. We will also begin to rejuvenate the galleries in a phased approach and, as we gain in confidence and can see the numbers moving in the right way, eventually look to redesign our three main galleries entirely, reimaging both the stories we tell and how we tell them.

© River & Rowing Museum

At one point the RRM had a nationally renowned education offer, seeing more than 20,000 students a year. Whilst the impact of this was clear to see, the reality is that the fundraising wasn’t keeping pace with the delivery, and we are now moving to cut-our-cloth accordingly and deliver the sessions we can afford. We are effectively rebuilding our education product from the ground-up and have begun to work much more closely with SEND students. We also launched our partnership with the Rivertime Boat Trust to highlight our SEND offer which was attended by HRH The Princess Royal (not something I thought I would be doing during my second month in post!). Our education funding plans are proving successful, and we now have our eyes set on construction of an outdoor classroom to allow further expansion of the pupil numbers through the door.

Our final focus will be to host the debate on healthy rivers and, for me, this presents us with our biggest opportunity. Both the sport of rowing and the town of Helney have had advocates fighting for their space in the Museum over the years but there has rarely been anyone banging the drum for the river. I’ve found this situation particularly ironic as without the river it is entirely possible that neither Henley-on-Thames nor the sport of rowing would exist. It’s clear to me that we need to use the Museum platform to advocate for healthy rivers and waterways and allow our visitors to get a true understanding of the scale of the environmental pressure they are under, and what they can do to help. We have begun to engage with partner agencies such as the Rivers Trust and River Action UK who we hope can help us craft the narrative around this story and create a truly special gallery that can deliver the impact we seek with our visitors.

So, from a raft of challenges on arrival, I can genuinely only see opportunities. We have a grip on the finances which is allowing us to pull together and clear and coherent plan that sets our path to sustainability, launching in April 2024. We have a great team of trustees, staff and volunteers who are focussed behind our mission. After 25 years in operations, we have a large network of supporters, advocates and friends whom we will work with the reimagine how the Museum delivers its key stories. Crucially, we have begun to gain momentum and I truly believe that once we reach a sustainable position in March 2027, we will have created the foundation needed for the RRM to continue its growth for the next 25 years.

Steve O’Connor – Director of the River & Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames

Published 11 March 2024

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