Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid appointed joint CEOs of Birmingham Museums Trust

Photo of Sara and Zak standing in the main hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery with paintings in the background

Birmingham Museums Trust, one of the UK’s largest independent museum trusts, has appointed Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah as joint CEOs. The pair will formally join the charity in November, taking over from Dr Ellen McAdam who stepped down in June this year.

The appointment is a rare instance of people of colour reaching the highest level of leadership in UK museums, and of job-sharing taking place at this level. Of the 45 institutions represented on the National Museums Directors Council, only one other organisation is currently led by a person of colour. Sara and Zak’s appointment also represents the only instance of a shared CEO role among the group.

Birmingham’s demographic is young and diverse and this announcement further cements Birmingham Museums Trust’s commitment to representing the people of the city at all levels across the organisation.

Zak comes to Birmingham Museums Trust from a leadership role at Bristol Museums where, as Head of Transformation: Culture & Creative Industries, he made a leading contribution to increasing income by 100% within three years as well as ambitious programmes focusing on continuous improvement and technology.

Sara is currently Head of Engagement for the Museum of London’s new museum capital project; previous to that she was Head of Interpretation at Birmingham Museums Trust on a fifteen month secondment where she produced the ground-breaking experimental exhibition ‘The Past is Now’ offering new perspectives on British Empire.

Sara Wajid said: Being appointed as joint CEO to BMT is a very special honour for me and it’s in part thanks to the experience I gained on the Arts Council ‘Changemakers’ programme at BMT in 2016. That’s what I call effective anti-racist succession planning. Zak and I were inspired to apply for this role together through our involvement in Museum Detox (an anti-racist museum collective). We hope it could be a useful blueprint for others considering their future in the sector, and that we won’t be in such a small cohort of people of colour leading museums for long.”

Zak Mensah said: “Birmingham Museums Trust attracts over 1 million visitors a year to its world-class services in Birmingham and online that bring both local and world stories to the public. As a regional museum with a very diverse demographic, BMT is well placed to connect communities locally and use technology to drive audience engagement on a global scale. Sara and I aim to ensure BMT remains resilient and delivers services that are inclusive, allowing people to connect and learn. On a personal note I’m proud to be a demonstration of being part of the change you seek to make at an institutional level and look forward to making a ruckus.”

Niels de Vos, Chair of Birmingham Museums Trust, said: “This appointment is a transformational moment for Birmingham Museums Trust and allows us to plan confidently for the future after what has been a very turbulent few months. Sara and Zak’s experience, proven past results and their openness to experiment and push boundaries is what made them standout candidates.

“The sector needs to diversify from the top if there is to be a real shift in how museums operate and how their collections are presented. Sara and Zak are trailblazers and they reflect the character of this city, young, futuristic and diverse. Their dynamic partnership will mark a very exciting new chapter for Birmingham Museums Trust and for the city.”

Liz Johnson, Director, Museums & Collections Development/ Birmingham, Arts Council England, said: “I’m delighted to be welcoming Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid as joint CEOs of Birmingham Museums Trust – it’s great to see an appointment like this representing such an important step-change for the sector.

“We have worked with Sara on several projects, including as part of our Change Makers programme, and look forward to working with Zak who brings with him an entrepreneurial spirit and drive for innovation. I’m sure they will achieve great things as they join forces and help visitors from across the city and beyond discover what Birmingham’s museums have to offer.”

Cllr Jayne Francis, Cabinet Member for Education, Skills and Culture at Birmingham City Council, said: “This is a really exciting moment for Birmingham Museums Trust, with the appointment of Sara and Zak who will I am sure bring great energy and a fresh perspective to Birmingham and the Trust and how we engage with visitors to its sites.

“I applaud the trustees for recognising the talent available to them and making this prestigious post a job share between two people of colour. I wish both Sara and Zak well in their new role and welcome them to Birmingham.”

The announcement follows the news that Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery will be reopening to the public on Wednesday 7 October, after a significant closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The focus of any business plan in the Cultural sector

There are only three states of any business:

  1. Not generating enough money to cover your running costs – Danger zone
  2. Meeting your budget by balancing costs so that your income covers your running costs
  3. Generating a net surplus above and beyond your running costs

The first means close up shop so that’s assume that isn’t us.

Option two is where most cultural organisations sit and should be the initial focus for everyone. Either generate enough money to cover your running costs before your reserves or line of credit runs out and/or reduce your running costs until money in/out match. Its not the most comfortable place to be but perfectly respectable. Most of the folks I meet have 2-4 years to get to this magic number. A commercial business would have 90-180 days. Apply the 80/20 rule. where you apply 80% of your focus on the 20% that will offer the best way to get to the magic number. For example 20% of our retail products deliver approx 80% of our revenue. Same with venue hire customers.

Once you are able to meet budget you can then consider option three generating a surplus. Option’s two and three should be running in parallel where possible (see my thoughts on Scale elsewhere). Option three is about using any surplus to build the future – reserves, continuous improvement (that lead to further surplus of money or resource) and enabling activity not possible under the other conditions.

Most folks in the sector don’t write a business plan to know which of the three states they are in. Write it down. Use Seth Godin’s “The Modern Business Plan“.

Sell what people are asking you to sell

At work we sell approx 50 types of goods or service. We sell goods in our shops for example and our services include permitting, steam train rides, educational workshops and much more. Transactions none the less. I regularly get asked how to start a new revenue stream. For me the answer is simple for a good proportion of the time: Start by selling goods or services that people are already asking us for. Simple.


Case in point are the studios at M Shed. The original purpose was for the delivery of education activity. When not in use, staff would use the space for internal activity, meetings and the like. There was wriggle room for different uses. Any use that wasn’t the original intention or primary purpose I call a “by-product”. Sometime during 2015 we started to get enquiries for hiring a space that was smaller than our event suite. The event suite on the top floor was originally the only space for hire. We soon agreed with the learning team that they and us would both have access to the booking diary and use the space for education or private hire aka a new by-product. Every year since 2015 we have seen growth in the booking of this space which generates something like 5% additional revenue at this point. We didn’t transform or innovate, we simply responded to a user need and make a healthy stream of revenue. 

What are people asking you for that perhaps could be the start of tens of thousands of pounds?

Set your social media free

We trust our workforce (yes including volunteers who are super critical) to fly the flag for us day in and day out. To represent our brand in the flesh and to tell the stories of our organisation. Oh and no small feat to ensure the safety of both the public and our collections. Every interaction with our customers at our venues, on the phone or by email is an opportunity to delight. Our museums alone welcome over a million people a year.

Yet nearly every organisation still insists on holding tightly to social media with a select few as guardians. Worried about tone of voice or that something bad may happen. We are happy to let folks loose in the physical environment (and again keep us all safe) and tell amazing stories to people, protect rare and priceless objects but not tweet ?! Who better to tell stories online than the very workforce who do this for us on a daily basis.

Please set your social media free. Provide simple guidelines [see our social media principles] and training then bring the rest of the workforce online. Social media wants to be free. It will pay you back with the stories people will tell that they already know captivate your audience.

Tell me what you discover in my data

Unless I’m at risk of being fired for sharing data I happily throw out our numbers publicly. Money, satisfaction, raw data on X, y and Z.  I think that sharing is vital and by sharing it leads to connecting with others seeking similar answers. I get messages from people across the globe who have googled an issue and found a talk, tweet or blog I’ve shared. I’ve already done the work so sharing costs me nothing but has led to real connections.
An unexpected benefit has been that others have spotted trends or interesting insights that I’ve overlooked. Everything looks like a nail when you’re welding a hammer. Opening up the data gives a new perspective which can only be a good thing.
So please do tell me what you see when you look at my data or dashboards.
P.S. I get push back from others who think they aren’t able to share their data verbally let alone publicly – I’m fairly confident an FOI request could be made on 99.9% of things you haven’t shared. So share because you can not because you’re being forced to.

Collect, Share, Use

We make decisions everyday. If it’s a one off decision then you may as well use as much information as you have to hand then commit. You’ll be right or wrong quickly. But if the valuable work you seek is repeatable then you need a system. A way to help you make better decisions and measure the impact. Here at the culture team we realise that whilst quick decisions, assumptions and gut feelings can be good, there are many times that we could be better prepared at the point of decision. Especially where the pattern is repeated over and over. We “expect” various things to happen daily such as visits and enquiries. These patterns typically have a limited number of outcomes. We want to be better at spotting patterns to help us continuously improve.

Currently I am working on transforming how we use PERFORMANCE within the service to measure our success. Small wins and large wins. And before you shout that being data heavy can also be a burden, i know, i know. Let’s suspend disbelief for awhile though and trust that tinkering never hurt anybody… For data I keep coming back to the phrase “Collect, Share, Use”.

Collect – what minimum pieces of data can we collect in a consistent way over multiple cycles? e.g. daily/weekly/monthly/yearly and can we collect easily

Share – let everybody see the streams of data as they may have a use for your data eg school visits may impact retail so share it all

Use – take one or more data sets and use them to contribute to understanding user needs which in turn allows us to make business decisions. Pssst your business needs are to meet user needs. For example if we identify spikes in visits to events/retail/café what was happening that day? Was it a one off? Was it a school or coach visit? Can we replicate again and again? we can then resource accordingly. If we have a 4-6 week weather forecast for rain then we expect to be busy so let’s get casuals on stand-by as we can map the forecast to this year’s forecasted visitor figures and/or use last year for a comparison. We shouldn’t be surprised if there is a band of rain for a long period as that data exists out on the web and we can overlay to ours in theory. IF I want to do a lunchtime curator talk I want the best chance of being busy so which days are we busier? As I can see visitor flow hourly is 12pm ideal or 1pm? Etc etc or would 11:30 be best so I can then promote the café offer for lunch immediately after?

I want our workforce and partners to explore our data to help us make a ruckus. I really hope teams start to be interested in bits of data instead of thinking it is for management only. For now we are sharing two data points, satisfaction and number of visits publicly at https://performance.bristolmuseums.org.uk/

Internally we’re building dashboards using Google Data studio. The hope is that in addition to standard reports, individuals or teams will grow their own dashboards, customised to teams and/or individuals with the things that are important to them. This makes it more personalised for a member of staff instead of dozens of seemingly unloved/viewed data.

I will be chipping away at encouraging us collectively to Collect and Share for the next 12-18 months…onwards

 

Field notes from Oslo 2018

I was invited to Oslo, Norway to give a talk and workshop to a network who represent 200 museums and galleries. I had previously visited Norway twice before and it’s definitely under the radar for most people. I arrived to Heathrow Terminal 2 early and used this as an opportunity to see how the shops were. Airports retail is often interesting as they usually invest in beautiful displays and make a lot of money. The mini John Lewis was a standout and I nearly fainted at the £68 at Dixon’s wanted for a MacBook air to hdmi connector which I passed on. The flight was full and they insisted my bag go into the overhead storage. This of course led to the breaking of my iPad screen. I still really really hate flying and my stomach felt like I’d been through the ringer even though the flight was smooth!

Oslo airport was impressive with great architecture and food shops as I whizzed by. The airport run into Oslo centre was via the efficient express train. It is only about 20mins and £20 each way. You can simply swipe your credit card for payment which is probably as frictionless as you can get. After a short walk to my hotel I went for dinner on the harbour at Olivia Aker Brygge with my host Elisabeth. Most of the city seemed closed which surprised me as they want to increase tourism. More food options on a Sunday evening please.

We had a very pleasant meal and chat.

The network met Monday to have a session with Innovative Norway to hear about the latest tourism plans. As the sessions were in Norwegian I had alternative plans to pass the time. After a nice walk through the Royal Palace Park and a glance at some royalty arriving with an escort I met with Ingrid who works at The National Gallery. The Gallery is most well known for displaying The Scream by Edvard Munch. I had an hour to really look around the retail offer and hear about the new plans for 2020 when the Gallery relocates to the the new location at Aker Brygge. I was stunned to hear that they will retain the existing building too. Great work whoever negotiated that deal. The retail offer had a really nice local artist and bespoke range that was also very popular. The long layout spread between two levels is challenging so I’m sure the team will be pleased to move to the new build where they will have three retail offers. I insisted on seeing the stockroom too as a lot is gleaned from the stockroom. I am very grateful to Ingrid for taking the time to host me.

Next I was due to meet Véronique from Astrup Fearnley Museet. Astrup Fearnley Museet is a private museum which re-located to the harbour in 2012. The building is stunning and set amongst law firms on the Fjord. I chuckled when I discovered that the collection store is under the water line. Brave! The retail area was designed by the architect so it has some very “interesting” challenges as is always the case with non-retail experts. That being said the shop looks amazing both as a piece of design and how Véronique and team have carefully considered the products and visual merchandising. Even the floor power had beautifully designed metal covers. I got to hear about how the team work with artists for in-store workshops and are constantly finding fun ways to engage with customers. I was mightily impressed with the retail. The product range was as good as anywhere i’ve ever been and they are quite rightly profitable.

I was visiting on a Monday when they were closed to the public which gave a rare chance to quickly explore the galleries including Jeff Koon’s latest exhibition and the permanent collection which includes Damian Hirst. The museum is a popular place to hire too and I enjoyed the visit. If the shop had been open and I had more time I’m confident I would have spent lots of money. The match boxes made using the collection were a personal highlight – the low light throughout winter means matches are a very popular purchase. They will launch an online shop before the end of the year.

Zak standing next to a piece of art by Jeff Koon's called Michael Jackson and Bubbles is a porcelain sculpture
Jeff Koon’s sculpture – Michael Jackson and Bubbles

By this point it was mid-afternoon and we rejoined the rest of the group to get a coach to a number of museums and galleries outside of the central. We started with the home of Roald Amundsen who was the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911. The house is located about 45min drive from the centre of Oslo on the Fjord in the type of location that these days money can’t buy. The house has pretty much been left as it since the day Roald left it for the last time. The home is restricted to 2000 visitors per year so I felt pretty lucky. The tour was in Norwegian but my partner in crime Mathilde Emilie Johnsen kindly kept me in the loop.

Our next museum was a cartoon museum with gallery called Avistegnernes Hus, DrØbak. The space was across two floors with plenty of cartoons (Newspaper cartoons) and was showing photography from Willibald Storn. Our host gave an overview of the history of the space which is famous in the newspaper cartoon world. Tasty local apple juice made for a very pleasant time.

Next we took a ferry boat across a Fjord to an island to Ank Oscarsborg. A fortress that was in use until about 2000. We had a wonderful dinner and great conversations about Norway. I really enjoyed the afternoon and evening not only to see the museums but to just “see” Oslo and surrounding area as the bus whizzed around. A quick beer at the hotel saw in midnight. Tuesday was my day to deliver a 90min talk with discussion and a practical workshop. I love days like this which hark back to my time delivering training at University of Leicester and for Jisc as part of the University of Bristol. I feed off the energy of the room and we all get to exchange ideas and challenge everything. I always learn a lot too even as the presenter. For example the majority of the room said they were running at 35%-40% gross profit margin. This makes it hard to be profitable and was a nugget for the day which I used for reference. The group seemed to really enjoy the day and I loved a short session where each person gave a 5min presentation with photos of their retail offer. A good way to see where they come from and the scale of the retail offer. If I had to guess which two areas they really engaged with the most I would say making a roadmap and learning what your museum “touch points” are. A roadmap using trello is a quick and easy way to work with colleagues on delivering incremental benefits. A touch point is any point of contact that any member of the workforce has with a visitor. There was a definite lightbulb moment when the room realised just how many interactions a visitor can have. The point is to surface opportunities to delight a visitor and to show that retail needs to be out in the museum not just in the retail space in order to maximise the opportunity to raise awareness. Follow the visitor. In practice it may be that placing a display in the cafe or a sign in the toilet is a way to become visible to visitor who would normally just skip the retail offer by default.

After the sessions I headed to the airport with a few of the group. I had a few hours to spare so got to people watch and relax after a long day on my feet. I had a quiet flight back and crawled into bed about 3am.

I would like to thank everyone that I had the privilege of talking to and Norway continues to be a delight. I hope to return for more workshops in the next year.

[Music I listened to: Belly – Immigrant, Edvard Grieg – The Best of Grieg, 6Lack – East Atlanta Love Letter, Travis Scott – Astroworld, Westside Gunn – Supreme Blientele].

Retail: living without a stockroom

In late June 2018 we ripped out our stockroom at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery shop to give us 20% more floorspace for selling during our refit.

Three months on and the decision remains a sound choice and acceptable risk.

When you think of a traditional shop and what is fundamental to success, having somewhere to store products is usually high up the list. Yet i was unconvinced. For various reasons our shop stockroom was full. Upon close inspection I estimated 50% or greater of the stock was very old and has long lost any sellable value. Unsold stock just stuck around. Unsold stock actually costs us money:

  • Stock over 2yrs old is effectively worthless as it’s a sunk cost yet requires regular stock checking
  • The space it occupies has a value and in our case approx 20% of the total footprint of the shop was lost
  • Old stock literally gets in the way which makes quickly finding products difficult when a customer says “Please can you check if you have this product out back?”
  • Restocking products is slower when the back up stock isn’t near the stock on the shop floor
  • Having a high stockholding ties up cash on the shelf which in turn increases the risk
  • Stock checking takes 2-3 times as long as much more products need checking and as it’s out of public view this increases costs because a dedicated member of staff is required as retail assistant cannot leave the floor
  • Opportunity for shrinkage is higher through theft and/or the attitude that there is plenty of stock so less care may be taken – neither were an issue for us but I hear this is a problem for others
  • Piling stock high introduces health and safety risks as ladders and lifting at high become a consideration
  • There is a temptation to over order without any actual margin benefit (in theory if you order in bulk you can negotiate better margins)
  • Modern ordering and fulfilment means typically an order can arrive the following day so there is less reason to bulk order

With quite the list of reasons to loath the stockroom myself and the retail manager decided to work though the stockroom. We discovered stock from the 1960s and each decade in-between I kid you not! I half jokingly said that any stock from before the year I was born 1983 automatically had to be removed. We made a sale table. If it failed to shift we offered it to charity groups and then finally recycling or the skip. The day we hired a skip was a turning point for rebooting the shop. After several months we managed to reduce the stockholding to approx 50% and mostly maintain this figure even when re-ordering.

Floor plan of original stockroom footprint which took up 20% of total available footprint[Fig 1] shows in the red and top 20% of the graphic is the original stockroom footprint.

Around this time we started to drum up the support needed to refit the shop itself. All the low hanging fruit had been uncovered and it was obvious the shop fittings wouldn’t help us grow. Initially the plan was to retain the stockroom but our exercise above proved it might just be possible to be effective with a reduced stockroom.

Floor plan of the initial revised stockroom which retained a small footprint for an office or stockroom [Fig 2] shows Initial revised floor plan which retained a small stockroom and office. 

I had asked others if the stockroom was needed as a way to sense check. Everyone told me to retain at least some stockroom OR place to sort products and just like that was the aha! Moment. I had just visited a whole lot of museum shops in recent months. All the newer designs included ample under bay storage. I calculated that the under bay storage was roughly equal to the amount we currently had. Furthermore I had just read The Toyota way which championed ordering “just in time”.

Armed with this information myself and the team decided losing the stockroom was worth the risk. At worst we would need to hide away products in one of the many random corners behind the scenes.

The final refit completely eliminates the stockroom and gave us 20% more shop floor space for selling[Fig 3] shows the final design of the shop which eliminated the stockroom completely

Fast forward to three months post refit and we haven’t had an big problems coping without the stockroom. In fact having the back up stock directly under the bays has made improvements to stock checking and merchandising. The team have reported that it works well too which is vitial of course!

Onwards