Museums, personal, technology, Travel

Visit to Brooklyn Museum 9th September 2016

I’ve wanted to visit Brooklyn Museum for years. I love hip hop and the museum crops up directly and indirectly in the culture – from my favourite rapper talking about art “Cop Rembrandt, hang ‘em, pay the lot. Can’t complain, we ballin, true or not ma?” To showing artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat which pop up in my feeds frequently. No other museum has crossed my radar as much as the Brooklyn Museum and its famed African art collection to name just one area.

All of the above coupled with the exciting digital work such as the ASK project made choosing a holiday to NYC a sound decision. We took a stroll around the botanic gardens located next to the museum before visiting which our daughter loved. In addition to wanting to see the museum as a fan, in the back of my mind I’m also looking at our own future redevelopment of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery so seeing how other museums position various services will give me good ideas for the welcome, shop cafe, toilets etc.

The welcome

I’d say that the main entrance has three phases: an initial public outdoor space with cool foundation and seating, an inner floor to ceiling glass area with further seating and security (my normal bag too big which left me carrying a zzz 2yr, her change bag and my iPad – common practice in nationals) and then finally a large reception with bag checking-in area, welcome desk, access to the shop and toilets in view. The cost of “admission” is a suggested $16 or pay what you think. The messaging is good at having the bahaviour of paying the fee for me. The person at the desk explained the admission policy and that a benefit of paying is access to the special exhibition ‘Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present’. I took up this option whilst my wife went for $4 as she wasn’t bothered about sports. At this point I was expecting to hear about the ASK app but nope. A missed opportunity as Sara did say that staff normally tell folks about it. Hey we all have this happen. At this point I always ask the first visitor asssistant I see a question (I have a mystery shop list that is secret ha) and after they finally got my Bristol twang they gave me a very helpful answer. But first I needed to check out the cafe as I oversee two cafes at our own museums.


They have two options, a lovely looking restaurant and bar called The Norm or a standard cafe. I was tempted to try The Norm but it looked too lovely to disturb the diners with my young daughter. I’m sure it is kid friendly but I had that “pang” of not wanting to be loud as it didn’t look like that kind of space – more cool date type. This is the same feeling everybody has about being very quiet in gallery spaces even though this isn’t a rule! Instead we ate a lovely curated (I forgot the name of the artist) turkey cheese sandwich with coffee. Service was very good and I loved the design of the menu and bar area itself. There was indoor and outdoor seating.

ASK app
Whilst having lunch I started to spot messaging for the ASK app on the tables and lift. The app connects you in real time to staff who you can ask any question to and they get back to you. It wasn’t immediately obvious if you didn’t already know what it did. They seem to have mostly solved this by the helpful staff who work at the ASK station which you pass early on the first floor. I “asked” about what Ghanaian art they had on display and got a few suggestions and liked the style of interaction which was friendly and felt personal with lines like “my personal favourite”. The app worked well and lived up to my expectations having read about it on their labs blog for the whole development.

As much as I wanted to see everybody in the museum using the app I feel that this strand of “connection” with the public is very much in its infancy. The team behind ASK are tinkering with the future by making it. In 20-30yrs it may not be ASK but it will be a distance relative. Personally I think voice recognition will be something to keep an eye on. As an aside when I’d previously mentioned ASK to our curatorial team they were intrigued and also concerned about the time involvement of answering questions – when is too much of a good thing a burden? I didn’t get a chance to ask about this.

I really enjoyed the four open floors of galleries and started top down. The Luce Center for Amercian Art visible Storafe Study Center is the best example of explaining how a museum works I’ve come across. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a simple clear explanation of an accession number. The ASK app suggestion had the additional benefit that I felt I was seeking out a unique way to find objects.
I enjoyed seeing a closed section being worked on. I loved the African art, Rodin and got a sleeping baby and me selfie with the Venice scene by Monet. I enjoyed the sports photography and was pleasantly surprised to see a photo of Wolverhampton wanderers football team (I lived there for 12 months and saw them play) among the basketball all stars, boxing stars and Motorsport. Use of tech was subtle and mainly used for TVs with bright signs. I liked the use of directional audio. There was lots of big open empty space throughout the building.


Our own shop suffered from neglect for years so shops are front and centre in my head at the moment. The layout of the main shop was very nice and sweeping. I thought I’d see lots more budget kids stuff we love in the uk but it was more gift stuff which I’m sure works very well. I saw a print on demand station but sadly ran out of time to try it out. There was a pop up shop in the special exhibition area that was well visually merchandised. I liked the seating by the book section and overall visual merchandising.

Meeting a few of the team

I was very fortunate to get to spend an hour with Sara Devine, JJ and Christina who took me up on the offer of saying hello. I explained how we’re trying to transform our service and focused on our own version of Pay What You Think, user research, shops and digital literacy for staff. I picked up Some helpful nuggets and hope to see these guys on the circuit soon.

Thank you Brooklyn Museum and thank you Sara, JJ and Christina for taking time to meet me…. Now back to my holiday!


Gone on holiday Sept 2016

Hey folks,

My two week holiday starts now. I’ll be zipping around the South West for a few days then in New York City for some of my holiday. I last went to NYC in 2000 as an 18 year old. It really will be a special family trip and I can’t wait to check out the museum scene, tourist hot spots and hopefully cycleways with my wife and kid. If you live in NYC and want to meet up just tweet me or drop me an email and i’ll do my best to see you.

Those of you who know me well will know I have a fear of flying and days before my trip it is throwing me for a loop. However I am determined to board that plane, ride it out and have a fantastic time!




Reading list 2016

Below are a list of books I’ve read in 2016. For the first time ever I have a commute so it will be interesting to know if I get much more reading done as i’m mostly on a looong bus ride. You can see my 2015 Reading list or 2014 reading list2013 reading list and 2012 reading list.

  1. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! finished 4th Jan paperback. A very enjoyable collection of stories and worth a read.
  2. Ecommerce Bootcamp by Kurt Elster and Paul Reda finished 6th Jan ebook. A book about getting started with the Shopify retail platform. A few gems in here but not much for me.
  3. Fatale Books 1-5 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, finished 17 Jan graphic novel. A series about “Jo” who can’t help but  hypnotise men who are all after her and therein lies many deaths and heartbreak.
  4. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott finished 3 Feb paperback. A great read for non-writers/writers
  5. Poke the Box by Seth Godin finished 7 Feb hardback. This is a re-read for me. A short rant on starting and finishing.
  6. War with the Newts by Karel Čapek finished 2 Mar paperback. This book came recommended by a secondhand book seller and it was very well written. This could really happen…
  7. A Room of One’s Own by Virgina woolf finished 28 March paperback. A very different style of writing (or maybe the small typesetting made me read it differently) that kept me gripped. I will now be seeking out more of her work.
  8. When you Dead, You Dead by Guy Martin. A brief insight into the  year of Guy’s life as a truck fitter, TV presenter doing crazy challenges and a motorcycle racer.
  9. What to do when it’s your turn: and it’s always your turn by Seth Godin. Finished april 2016
  10. David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. May 2016 hardback in New Zealand
  11. The E Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber paperback isbn 0887307280. Finished 27 May 2016. A great read about how to think of a business as a “system” using an example of a pie shop and McDonalds
  12. the dip: The extraordinary benefits of knowing when to quit (and when to stick) by Seth Godin. Paperback  ISBN 9780749928308. Finished 1 June 2016. A short book about quitting.
  13. Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla. ISBN 978-000756506-1 finished 19 June 2016. A funny story about life with the internets and family.
  14. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Finished 4th August paperback.
Museums, Notes, personal

100 days as Head of Transformation

Saturday 11th April 2015 marks 100 days since I started my new role as Head of Transformation for the Bristol Museum Service and therefore, a good time to reflect on the journey to date.

I’ll begin by saying that it is very much the challenge I expected and I’m loving it. I used to say my old job was spinning a 1000 plates and this role is no different, except the stakes are higher and more people are watching. Nobody said it was going to be easy, which is fine by me, as it’s a privilege to be helping a place to thrive (that I grew up visiting) and that was here long before me and will be here long after me.

Although my new position is an internal move and I haven’t left the museum, it immediately felt like a completely new place to be working! Since 2013 when I began working for the service, I’ve had no trouble making myself “responsible”. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar says in Creativity, Inc “you don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility” which is a career tip nugget. Also since I began working for the Bristol service, we are now on our third Director, have been restructured, won Arts Council England MPM funding and expanded our service remit to include the arts and events teams along with the Bristol Film Office, making us now ‘Bristol Culture’ and no longer Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives, so we have witnessed a fair number of changes!

If I dive for a moment into a few things I’ve done since my start in January it’s clear that my value often isn’t a tangible production line output:

  • Introduced Trello to the wider service AND management team so that no task is left behind
  • Given staff across BCC a discount in our retail shops to encourage buying from within
  • Passed all sorts of decision making to more people to help flatten our structure (to varying success)
  • Put into motion audiences and data front and centre for all
  • Been more visible than ever in the city’s wider culture community
  • Helped Laura ensure management are as transparent as possible by sharing plans and that data and decisions are made available
  • Kept up my weekly blogging
  • Introduced a framework for my team managers to use which includes using Trello, monthly budget kpi reviews, staff meetings and 1:1s
  • Began to identify patterns in our internal behaviour to contribute to our 10 year mission

In addition to my new gig I also got a new boss, scratch that we got a new “leader” – most people don’t need a manager/boss they need leadership. Before Laura had even started she came to our end of year/era wider management team session and laid a lovely straight line that stopped at her feet pointing to the new leader. Since this first meeting Laura has really been a fantastic leader for me personally and stepped up to steering the new Bristol Culture service.  In return, I offer loyality on top the stuff I’ve been mentioning here! What’s been great about working with Laura? Here’s a few of my observations so far:

  • Having clear leadership means I can have the confidence that Laura will fully support me and give me the direction I need
  • Laura hasn’t always agreed with my point of view. I’m not always right so this gives me the safety net of Laura catching mistakes and I recognize Laura is ultimately responsible so I dig that I feel safe in saying my piece then getting a decision I’ll happily stick to – I worry if I only ever get YES as I’m not that good but I feel listened to.
  • We work in similar fashion which is paperless where possible, inbox zero, clarity over waffle, with the same ethos – audience needs which leads to business needs not the other way around etc
  • I recognize I can learn more about running teams and working with wider stakeholders from Laura and I’ve been paying attention.

I genuinely look forward to helping Laura drive our service into the next chapter and transformation is at the heart of a lot of this.

Great leadership? Yes. Support? Yes. Phew! So what of the new role and remit? My task is to ensure we are both enterprising and able to be flexible in how we work to deliver what our audiences need. Since I’ve started I have said ‘yes’ to many things to help empower staff get things done and probably said ‘no’ to as many things that I don’t feel should continue unchecked.

What does he actually do?

The higher up the chain of command you climb the harder it can be to describe what you actually do as it’s often your team who “deliver”. I would hazard a guess that after 100 days even members of the transformation wing may be thinking this as I’ve had much less contact with them than my direct reports. Thus a large part of my job is hidden. So let me bring to the fore some of the detail that is actually pretty instrumental to service delivery even if you can’t see my tool marks. I help us craft vision and then action it.

Being valuable

As Liam Neeson’s character Simon says in TAKEN “I have a particular set of skills” which revolve around the rough edges of responsibility that others can’t or won’t do. Who wants to dig through kpi or visitor surveys seeking patterns and nuggets? I will! Then I’ll know the who, why, what, when and where which is very valuable when making choices on uniforms, programmes, partnerships etc. People buy into trust based on evidence not gut feelings. I like to ask Laura on a regular basis “is there anything I can do for you?”.

Setting standards

I expect and demand a relentless cycle of planning, doing and reviewing of processes. Feel the heat of pressure from your manager? That’s probably due to my input on something I saw that I feel should be changed. If I can see excellence,I want that process frozen for now so we can do it again. I want to know the detail and ask “why” constantly.

Finding constraints

The average member of the team won’t be keeping an eye on the budget, kpi or stakeholder needs but I am. I’ll shape the scope of the work to be done and pass this to your manager. I’ve banged on for years that constraints are everything and you need to know where the edges are.

Having a process

I’ve been told that the average length of service is 14 years which is plenty of time to develop your own ways of doing things! Yet things now aren’t what they were even a few years ago and we need to be constantly refining. This does not mean stopping what works well but ensuring there is a clear rationale aligned to our mission, values and service plan. You may only be one cog but we need the whole machine to work. So I find the grit that’s hampering us. Key to this is a unified process so that self forming team are talking along the same lines and we can identify the bits that work from the bits that don’t. Fading away is the idea you work for one manager in your area. I may need you to help out over in Engagement. These sutle changes in process have my mark on them. The 18 items of what I expect each manager to do with their teams has been designed purposefully to be uniform for all 30 or so staff. These items include having an annual business plan, fortnight reviews, an annual profit/loss sheet, staff development plans and such.

Picking our focus

We “can do anything” is unlikely to be a mission statement that anybody wants to get behind. I often hear folks saying the creativity is an essential ingredient in their role. Yet when I joined there wasn’t a clear focus, this made it very hard to start on any particular problem, giving me that all important creativity. So I chose to focus on helping people to use technology. Now we’re applying the same idea to give the service a focus by clearly developing our mission and values. This will naturally provide us with our overarching focus. Sign up or step off.

Solve hard problems

The easy problems have been solved. We’re now left with the hard stuff. I need to join our loosely connected dots. How should we price an exhibition? How can we measure success? Provide safe scaleable storage for physical and digital items? Work in real partnership with our local, national and international stakeholders? How can we further reduce our dependence on public funding? What are the patterns from all the raw data? One step forward at a time of course.

For example, staff development is a core strand of work we need to transform and I’ve actioned staff across the service to attend events that will keep our capabilities sharp. This needs to move into a more structured and formal programme of work but at least we’re moving forwards – I want to finally implement Open Badges for recognition of skills.
A number of projects are coming into fruition, coinciding with my first 100 days in post, these include wifi, new tablet devices for staff and digital TVs screens for the public and I’ve had lots of positive feedback from the staff about these changes.

What’s been difficult?

I have less time for individuals as my remit has increased which has been tricky. However I’ve been delegating more than ever and I want staff to see this is a positive oppotunity not me passing off work!

The job title is a gift and a curse. It’s good because it can mean many things so I can swap hats quickly to whomever I’m dealing with but it is far less obvious than the old “deputy director”. Apparently in the wider local authority the new title is typically associated with change management and shutting down of work, not a great vein to be aligned with.

I need to find more time to think. I can’t solve a really hard problem if I only have 10 minute windows in my day. From May I’m going back to my hiding places and getting stricter on email traffic. I also plan to choose a problem and commit one hour chunks to only think about that one area e.g. Pricing and patterns are two areas that need attention.

In no small part I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my old leader Vivienne Bennett for allowing me to ask so many questions last year and poke at decisions to help me gain the experience and sharpen my focus needed for this role. Onwards to the next 1000 days.

UPDATE: Laura Pye has written about her first 100 days

Museums, personal

The art of transformation

“What do you DO mister Head of Transformation?”.

As head of digital my ‘art’ was to “help people to use technology”. Seth Godin says our art is about what you DO that helps other people through your own generosity. In my new role I have a number of teams (scary) that at first glance seem quite different – digital, retail, venue hire and cafe, modern records, fundraising, Archaeological services plus marketing and design, yet the connection to me is very clear; lead those teams (with the wider Bristol Culture service) to make connections with their tribes, be flexible, ship stuff and RUN with it.

Digital team help staff, volunteers and the public to enjoy our services onsite and online, hopefully occasionally saying “that’s cool”. Modern records keep their stuff safe. Shops, make people remember that family day out when they look at that fridge magnet. Get inspired at a conference overlooking the harbour. Gossip over a coffee. Land that dream plot of land. Allow you to be generous and help fund a gallery refurbishment. Build a gallery. Let others discover an event for a first date. Take responsibility.