How to become a community-led organisation. Interview with Liz Power, Director of London Museum of Water and Steam.

June 1, 2021
Photo of the author - Ashleigh Hibbins

Ashleigh Hibbins

“Community engagement has been at the heart of what we do since before Covid, but the pandemic made that focus even more critical. We are led by what our communities need, putting them first in all our decision making.”

In May 2021, as cultural venues across the UK prepared to re-open their doors to the public, I caught up with Liz Power, Director of the Museum of Water and Steam in Hounslow, West London. In an area with huge cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity, this small independent museum has embedded itself at the heart of the local community during the pandemic. What’s their secret?

We discussed how the Museum has used Covid as an opportunity to become even more community-led, how to build lasting relationships with locals, why going digital isn’t always the answer (even during a pandemic), and why being an outlier can pay off in the long run.

Ashleigh: How has the Museum responded to Covid over the past year? What have been some of the successes and challenges?

Liz: The pandemic has been really tricky for us, especially because we’re an independent museum. 84% of our income comes from visitors. Losing that meant we had to furlough or flexi-furlough all the staff, including myself, for the majority of the pandemic.

When we’ve been closed, we’ve still been participating in community forums, talking to people, making new contacts. Community engagement has been at the heart of what we do since before Covid, but the pandemic made that focus even more critical. We are led by what our communities in Brentford [Hounslow] need, putting them first in all our decision making.

For example, in summer 2020 we didn’t open the building when restrictions lifted. Instead, we opened the outside grounds and created an outdoor visitor offer. We live right next to high rise residential buildings, and the most important thing for those families would be outdoor space.

The Resident’s Association from our neighbouring housing estate took some extra desks and chairs we had for their office. So, it’s not just about partnership programmes, but solidly supporting each other in all kinds of ways.

We converted our finance office into a community meeting room to share with people. We also converted our mezzanine gallery into a community exhibition space. Groups can put up their own exhibitions for a few hundred pounds – there are screens and corkboards and display cases already there. The first exhibition going in is by fans of the local football club.

We’ve changed our cafe provider from a for-profit contractor to the charity Our Barn. They’ve turned it into a training café for learning disabled young people to help them gain employment skills. Yes, it means we aren’t making a profit from our café anymore, but the new arrangements better reflect our values as a museum, and will hopefully pay off in the long term with increased support from the community and funders. Our trustees have seen the bigger picture.

We’re making real infrastructural, material changes to support our engagement work. It’s at the heart of what we do and has been since before the pandemic.

“Just because everyone is doing something doesn’t mean we should, it needs to fit us and our audience. That’s felt a bit scary at times, but you have to be brave and stick by your plan.”

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A: You mentioned that a lot of your current approaches to community engagement were planned before Covid. Have you tried anything new during lockdown?

L: We’ve leapt forward about 3 years in some areas of community engagement – being completely closed has allowed us to make sweeping changes. Covid has been a catalyst to make planned changes happen faster.

One thing we haven’t done is digital engagement, because it doesn’t suit our local community. We know that digital poverty is very real in our area, so it’s not necessarily the best way to reach the people we want to reach. We also have a big family audience. Outside of home school hours, many parents don’t want kids using more screens.

The digital market is saturated. It was never in our plan – it doesn’t fit with our audience and never has, so that fundamentally didn’t change with the pandemic. Each museum should play to its strengths, why compete? Just because everyone is doing something doesn’t mean we should, it needs to fit us and our audience. That’s felt a bit scary at times, but you have to be brave and stick by your plan. We have felt like an outlier – we’ll see in the longer term if it was the right choice.

A: Has Covid recalibrated the types of communities you are targeting or reaching?

L: Our focus was local before Covid, but the pandemic has made it even more local. We had families visit us in the summer who had never been before. People have been forced to stay at home, especially commuters in nearby estates, so it made them notice we’re here.

We’ve also gotten better access to our local authority due to the pandemic, and I genuinely think that’s because they’re at home and available online. More meetings and conversations have led to more opportunities.

I’m also now more open about asking for help because everyone is struggling with Covid. That’s been liberating, you don’t have to pretend that everything is OK.

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A: What are the challenges to taking a hyper-local approach to audience engagement?

L: The time it takes. Time well invested, but you have to be prepared for the long haul. You might go to community meetings for 18 months before an opportunity arises. You might have several cups of tea with somebody before that relationship bears fruit. It’s worth doing, but it’s always a surprise to people how much time it takes. You have to give before you receive.

It’s interesting when you’ve always done something that’s ‘fringe’ and now it’s the mainstream. Some cultural organisations are playing catch up right now in terms of engaging their local communities – but people need to recognise it can take years to see results. We’ve put in a lot of work before, during, and after Covid. I’ll be interested to see how long ‘hyper-local’ lasts as a priority in the sector. There’s a real opportunity for community engagement to be core and central to everything we do – it’s not just a one-off project activity.

A: What are your plans for re-opening?

L: We are still prioritising our community organisations. We’re giving them the museum first, before the general public, to do whatever they want to do. On our first opening day, we are giving the whole museum over to groups who work with families with autism – this kicks off a whole week of community previews with Children’s Centres, tours for adults with learning difficulties, etc.

We’re revitalizing our volunteer programme, they’re key to us but most of the team aren’t representative of the local area. We’ve received some funding to create a new volunteer programme for young people in Hounslow. There is a real need for retail, admin, and customer service experience.

One big challenge we are facing is having to reduce our opening hours. How do we achieve all these ambitions with so little time and resource? We need the income and visitors to return so we can slowly open up more. We can’t always say yes to everything. We’re being transparent about that, there’s no point in pretending.

Being transparent has advantages - our community partners love that we’re small because they usually are too. It doesn’t feel unbalanced, and people appreciate the honesty.

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A: What advice would you give to those looking to engage with their hyper-local communities, now that cultural venues are reopening?

L: It’s simple: join in! If there’s a neighbourhood group; join it. If there’s a local meeting to attend; go to it. Think about what you can offer right now, literally what have you got? In our case, it’s the physical building, so we share our space for free with community organisations. That’s how we develop relationships with our hyper-local audience. Everything else tumbles down from there.

Having the support of your trustees and senior management is crucial. Our chairs have been amazing, they’ve really stepped up and been supportive. This type of work is tricky without senior buy-in. It’s not always quantifiable in the same ways as other areas. It’s about making that broader case about who we want the audience to be. Have that strategy in place and demonstrate why is worth doing, and then stick to your guns, be brave.

It’s also important to have a board that reflects the communities you want to serve. The next thing we’re doing is getting new trustees who are part of the community we’re working with, so at a governance level we reflect our general attitude and audience.

If you don’t have senior level support, be stealthy and do it anyway, then present the results. Find ways to sneak it into your normal work if you feel that’s right. It is really hard though!

Have patience, community engagement work can take months and years to develop, so don’t give up if you don’t see results immediately.

Images are courtesy of Museum of Water and Steam.

Featured in the June 2021 edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter shares updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.