Nine things I have learnt from ten years at Culture24

For the past decade, I have had been on the board of Culture24; first a trustee and then for eight years, as Chair.  In July, I attended my last meeting, said a teary goodbye and handed my special gavel (not really) back, having learned a huge amount.

Culture24 is a small-but-mighty group who bring museums and heritage organisations together to do incredible things that they wouldn’t have been able to do on their own.  They (may I still say ‘we?) specialise in creating and nurturing networks which then create digital products, physical events, experiences and research papers and we openly share all that we learn from those endeavours. The purpose behind those networks and programmes of work is to connect organisations and networks with the audiences of today in meaningful ways. Sometimes this means teaching new skills, telling new stories and creating new channels to reach new audiences. Sometimes it means being brave and upending sacred cows entirely.  

Inspired by Culture24’s always generous sharing, here are the lessons I have learned from my time as Chair.

1. The role of the Chair is to be the critical friend.

I, and the rest of the excellent non-exec trustees, are there to ensure that the organisation operates appropriately. We are there to ask questions, sometimes challenge and generally give support. The team is responsible for the work, the board is responsible for governance – fiduciary responsibility, people, policy and decision-making oversight and general all-round accountability for legally compliant and ethical behaviour. 

There is a corresponding task in constructively supporting the executive team with strategic direction; is the organisation making the right decisions and prioritising the right things?  Are they able to say ‘No’ when an opportunity is not core to the charitable purpose? Are they able to STOP something potentially wonderful when it’s the best thing for the future health of the organisation?

2. Therefore, focus on the purpose is vital.

I have always loved the strategic discussions at Culture24 board meetings. Jane Finnis the CEO and the rest of the ambitious team are one of the hardest working and most innovative in the business so there is never a shortage of opportunity. The job, as Chair, is directing and maintaining focus on what are the right things; there are always so many possibilities that creative people can imagine but like anywhere, finite resources. We have a list of seductive ‘could do, might do, will do when the time is right’ projects that haven’t yet been prioritised; I hope their time comes one day and I will celebrate when that happens.

3. Get ready to passionately participate.

It feels obvious to me that this would be the case but, for absolute clarity, don’t bother getting involved with a not-for-profit organisation if you don’t passionately believe in what they’re attempting to achieve and are prepared to lend your own sweat to help them do so.  You cannot just phone it in, you need to really show up and dig in. The role of trustee at Culture24 comes with the expectation of personal investment; not of money, but the trustees are expected to actively participate by lending our own expertise, our networks and our time to support and promote the work. The official obligation is only a few meetings a year to prepare for and attend but in reality, we all do more, whether participating in subcommittees, reviewing contracts, speaking at events, hosting potential sponsors and so on. The board is made up of smart, busy, professionals from many disciplines and with different skills to lend and they all do so with energy and knowledge that their time is appreciated and is making a difference.

4. Creativity will find a way.

I learned a lot about creativity during my time with the team – an example I am particularly fond of is the VanGoYourself programme which we developed through Europeana Creative in 2015.  We invited members of the public to recreate famous works of art in the collections of organisations all over Europe, and share them online. It was joyful and the sheer imagination was spectacular – I saw ingenuity with toilet paper and toy dinosaurs that I could never have imagined.  It was no surprise that it was a Best of the Web Winner but it was a proud moment.

Another Culture24 product which I have been disproportionately fond of is Show Me. It was created back in 2013 and is now run on the tiniest of budgets, with no formal funding recently but bags of commitment. It aggregates, tags and then sorts online games, collections, stories, homework help and family information from museums, galleries and archives into a really easy-to-use child facing website. It’s a useful and eclectic showcase which is like a fruit machine for creativity; whether you want to make a T-rex glove puppet on a rainy Sunday, take a quiz to prove your Suffragettes knowledge or nail Roman Bingo; you press the button and hit the jackpot!

5. Be thought-sharers, not just thought-leaders.

Culture24 is driven by a mission and like all missionaries, we go out there and spread the word! The Let’s Get Real action research projects and subsequent conferences, now in their tenth year,  exemplify this generosity. Culture24 curates invites and connects groups of clever, energetic and passionate people from the best audience-focused organisations in the world.  They then work collectively to experiment, learn new skills and solve problems, sharing all findings openly and publicly. It’s so valuable and powerful – it’s not the jealous protection of knowledge I have come across in past areas of my professional life, this approach ensures that the knowledge subsequently grows for everyone’s benefit. Other organisations might pick up an experiment and try it for themselves, adjusting or improving it along the way. They then often share their own case study back, whether it’s a museum selling online or optimising social channels or experimenting with  storytelling… and the sum of our knowledge just increases. It’s such a great model and makes my heart swell.

6. I’m starting to think Resilience is a muscle and you can train it.

Boy, have we all had to learn a great deal about resilience of late. I feel lucky because, like so many arts organisations, Culture24 pulses resilience and my time on the board helped me develop my own. I am proud that during my time as Chair we moved from an 80/20 restricted-public /unrestricted-commercial funding split to something  close to 50/50 but the financial vulnerability that comes with that entrepreneurial mindset is sometimes scary. We’ve had to invent and reinvent, innovate and pivot and sometimes, kill our darlings just to survive. When I started as a trustee in 2011, the Museums at Night festival had been running for two years and would continue for a further seven until we took the hard decision, given the end of its funding, to end it.  We had to; we couldn’t sustain it.

But. We couldn’t quite give it up. We knew that the night-time economy was important to Museums. We knew that we had started something with M@N; new and more diverse audiences had visited venues or enjoyed collections for the first time, they been invited into spaces which they had sometimes previously felt excluded from and the sector wanted to continue these relationships. We embarked on a far-reaching research series on the provision and potential of Lates to the Museum sector, and from it the Emerge Festival, well, emerged.

7. Access, diversity and inclusion are deliberate choices: Be/Do/Say.

The Emerge Festival 2019 – or Night at the Museum meets Glastonbury – was pure energy and excitement and joy (and rain – it was terrible weather that weekend). I participated in an immersive Regency mystery game at Apsley House, drank gin at Wellington Arch and listened to rock-folk at Banqueting House.  It was an incredible night. And talk about impact – the results of the festival (captured and expanded in the Rap under the Rubens report) were as we hypothesised and hoped despite operational difficulties; Emerge’s audiences consisted of at least 75% 16 to 34-year-olds and at least 30% people of colour. 88% of the visitors to Emerge had never before been to at least one of the museums they visited at the festival.

That was autumn 2019 and the plan was for two further (at least) Emerge Festivals but of course, the pandemic arrived and the world then changed.  Sadly, Culture24 hasn’t been able to produce the festival again as originally conceived.

And while much of the work of Culture24 focuses on access and inclusion, it’s not enough. We believe in a Be / Do / Say model; as well as doing work which champions these values, we must Be the model of representation and behaviour we want to see. There are a lot on internal workstreams focusing of introducing diverse and traditionally underrepresented voices at Culture24 but as Chair, one of my specific responsibilities in this area has been the composition of the board of trustees. The work’s not finished but we now have a specially designated Young (under 30) Trustee, we have an unusual majority of trustees identifying as female and a better (if still not-quite-good-enough) representation of trustees of colour. And this board of trustees is amazing – smart, sharp and passionate and I know they and the CEO will continue to focus on Being and Doing all the right things at Culture24 which makes me so happy.

8. Use all your platforms to promote the work!

And that brings me almost up to date I suppose and yet I have left so much of what I love from Culture24 out.  I can’t resist – and nor should I – a final plug for Museum Crush, the whimsical and witty site and newsletter which showcases curiosities in collections up & down the land. It tells a story; whether an object’s origin, use, unexpected discovery or (often!) politics and power struggles over ownership and bragging rights. It’s funny, often gruesome, always fascinating; I heartily recommend you sign up to its newsletter.

9. Work with incredible people.

But most of all I haven’t yet told you about the team; that brave, clever, humble and powerful group; everything I have gushed about so proudly is the result of their hard work, pulled together under the leadership and vision of the one-and-only legend, Jane Finnis and her dynamic deputy, Anra Kennedy.

This is my final lesson for you: work with great people. I am lucky to have been a mentor to Rosie Clarke, lucky to have seen the hard work of Nick Stockman  come to life at Emerge and lucky to have chuckled at the wit of Richard Moss through numerous publications.  I feel lucky to have worked with all of them for so long, to see their entrepreneurial plans bear fruit, to hear their impassioned defence of work with meaning and quality… and then experience that project go from powerpoint to real-world product.  I have been lucky to work with a list of intimidatingly brilliant and supportive trustees over the years and I am convinced we have had the best board meetings (discussions, debates, occasionally arguments…) in the sector. Culture24, it has been an absolute honour – thank you for having me.