How to drive visitor numbers by focusing on the local community with Liz Power

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, we speak with Liz Power, Director of the London Museum of Water and Steam.

Liz Power has been the Director of the London Museum of Water & Steam since 2018, which follows 20 years working in Museum learning at the Science Museum, Imperial War Museum and London Transport Museum.

When not at a Museum Liz can be found running around after her three children, volunteering as a trustee for her local grassroots youth work charity, or playing the Baritone horn badly in her local brass band.

“In the summer of ’20, we had decided to open our outdoor space, because to be brutally honest, nobody needed a static steam engine at that point in their life. Did they need a place to play with their kids? Absolutely. So, we did that instead.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Their excellent reopening video
  • How they drove their summer visitor numbers sky high by focusing on their local community

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

Liz Power Blog large


The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Liz Power


Kelly Molson: All right, Liz, welcome to Skip the Queue.

Liz Power: Thank you so much for having me.

Kelly Molson: Well, it’s my pleasure and I’ll tell you why it’s my pleasure in a little while. But first, ice breaker questions. So, if there was a zombie apocalypse, which three people would you want on your team? And they can be friends or celebs.

Liz Power: Wow.

Kelly Molson: Or famous, not celebs.

Liz Power: We’ll see, for years and years me and my husband had a zombie apocalypse plan when we lived over in Wimbledon. We’d meet at the windmill on the common, and so we would… This is before we had children, we had this actual zombie apocalypse plan, so I think I’m going to take him, because he’s in on the plan already and I think it’s completely rational to have a zombie apocalypse plan, completely. So, I’ll have him because he’s good. And then who else would I have? I mean, I basically want somebody who knows a lot about zombies. There’s not many of those around. Maybe I’ll just take any mortician.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, yeah. Okay.

Liz Power: Because they’re used to handling the dead, and it’s not the zombie’s fault that they’re trying to eat our brains, so maybe they would handle the zombie relationships while I do fighting.

Kelly Molson: I love that. I like that you’ve thought so in-depth about this. Now I feel like I need to put my own zombie apocalypse plans together.

Liz Power: Everyone needs one.

Kelly Molson: Okay. All right, if you could eliminate one food so that no one ever had to eat it ever again, what would you destroy?

Liz Power: Without a doubt it is celery. I mean, it is obnoxious, horrible, does nothing for you. Just the presence of it in a space stinks it out. I can spot it in a mixed up food a hundred miles. It is the filthy devil’s food, and eating it would kill you if you ate nothing else. So, the world could do without it. It’s very much the mosquito of the food world, celery. Yeah, everyone would be delighted. Nobody would believe me for that.

Kelly Molson: Great. Okay, good. Exactly how I feel about peas, so… It’s similar.

Liz Power: Similar. Similar. Maybe we could do both, sort of a two-for-one offer.

Kelly Molson: I’m all down for that. Celery has no part in my life.

Liz Power: No, nor mine. Nor anybody’s I’m sure, but anyway. Still should be banned.

Kelly Molson: All right. Final one, what is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Liz Power: So, I have three children, and my daughter turned two the day after my twins were born. It was unbelievable chaos for the last… Well, for the last eight years to be honest, but particularly the first kind of six months. At one point, I cried on a health visitor and said… Because they would just scream and hit and it was oh, they were such messy little creatures. I said to her was it ever going to be like this forever? Had I ruined everyone’s lives? Had I ruined my daughter’s life by bringing these two horrible screaming babies into her world, and she said to me, “They are learning about relationships in the safety of your love.”

Kelly Molson: Aw, that’s lovely.

Liz Power: And it was the best bit of advice, and I probably reference it about three times a week, because even though they’re now 10 and eight, my boys are eight, it’s still chaotic and it’s still argumentative. The small one had an argument over jumpers. I mean, it is that… They are going to just be the best humans, they’re going to make the best friends, they’re going to have the best relationships because they’re learning about that in complete safety. So, that’s what reassures me when it all goes horrifically wrong.

Kelly Molson: Oh my God, that is so special. What a… That’s a really lovely gift that she gave you with that saying, isn’t it?

Liz Power: Yeah, and I was at a very, very low point, and it just gave me enough to keep going, that I hadn’t ruined everything. Not that you can choose to have twins, but it just felt like I’d blown everything apart. She was like, “No, this is for their good.” And it is for their good.

Kelly Molson: Hats off to you, because I’m juggling a four-month-old right now, and that’s tough enough. So, well done you. All right, what is your unpopular opinion?

Liz Power: I’ve been thinking about this, because I have so many opinions, but I tend to have a tendency to think I’m right, so I think they’re more popular, but I thought of one particularly for museums. We have so many museums in this country. That worries me. We just have so many, and I’m not sure that every single museum in the country is viable, so I think my unpopular opinion should be that if we’re going to have to make choices about which museums we can sustain as a country, then we should make it purely based on which ones have mannequins or not, and get rid of every single mannequin museum.

If you have a mannequin, I don’t care how pretty it is, it must go. The things are terrifying, horrific. Maybe we’d have an amnesty and give everyone 12 months to get rid if they wanted. And then anybody who was like, “No, my mannequin must stay.” I’m like… I don’t mind a headless one to display clothing, but the ones that are just kind of an actual person. Horrific.

When I worked at the Transport Museum, there was one… Well, Transport Museum, I love it dearly but they’ll definitely have to close or get rid of the mannequins. There’s one there that is actually modelled on Sam Mullins, the director. And so, it’s even more horrific, and then in their store in Acton, there’s just trains full of random mannequins. I mean, it’s horrible.

Kelly Molson: Kind of spooky having a mannequin of yourself, isn’t it? That’s a bit creepy. But where would all the mannequins go, though? There would just be a landfill of weird, creepy mannequins.

Liz Power: No, we’d burn them.

Kelly Molson: Okay.

Liz Power: Yeah, we’d burn them. We’re very industrious in museums. We’d probably sell tickets to the bonfire. We’d burn all the mannequins that were given over in the amnesty, and the museums that don’t comply, that is it. No more of your museum. You just have to be… Though, I think that’s probably going to turn out to be an incredibly popular opinion.

Kelly Molson: I think it might as well. Let’s find out. Listeners, can you let us know how you feel about the burning of the mannequins?

Liz Power: I think it just feels right. I don’t know how you’d object to it. It’s so good.

Kelly Molson: Also, let me know if you buy a ticket for that as well. I’m intrigued.

Liz Power: I’ll get that Arts Council application on the go right now.

Kelly Molson: Liz, thank you for that. Okay, I’ve had so many wonderful unpopular opinions this season already, I just… Yeah, where you pull them from, I do not know. Right, tell us a little bit about the London Museum of Water and Steam.

Liz Power: Well, of course, everyone has visited, but just for a couple of people that have never been, we are a very small micro-museum over in West London, and we’re based at Q Bridge train station, but actually in Brentford and Hounslow. We are a historic site, and we have 200 years of water pumping history and the impact it has on London.

So, we have a collection of static steam engines, we have a small, really small [inaudible 00:08:22] gauge loco that runs around our site, and we are a community museum, so we’re really focused on what we can do for our local community. That’s a massive part of what we do, and then the other part of what we do is our visitor profile is the classic split of the under-fives and the enthusiasts.

So, it’s a really unusual place and massive plug for everyone to come and visit and come and see me because everyone at all. Yes, I know this standpipe tower, so if you’ve ever sat on the traffic queuing to the A40 with that big tower that you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know what that is.” Yeah, that’s us, and it’s a standpipe tower, not a chimney. So, come educate yourself, because everyone’s like, “Oh, I’ve queued past so many times.” Yeah, that’s us, that’s the Water and Steam.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love it. That was a very good synopsis, and you mentioned community. We’re going to come back to that because that’s what we want to talk about on today’s podcast. But listeners, as you know I basically stalk people on Twitter and LinkedIn and various social media platforms and ask them to come on the podcast. I’m always looking out for interesting guests, interesting stories, and I have been stalking Liz for a little while, actually, after I saw their rather brilliant reopening video that the museum produced. 

Now, this was when the museums were allowed to reopen after the first wave of pandemic. I know we are still in it, but I thought it was such a great example of one, a video that was on brand. It was really fun, really authentic, and I’m going to say really inexpensively-made, and I just thought, I just thought it was perfect. It was such a lovely way of kind of showcasing to your potential visitors that it was a safe place to come.

It was really fun. You really explained visually really well what they could and couldn’t do, and I just think it’s excellent. I’ve referenced it in many… Well, I’ve referenced it on the podcast, I’ve referenced it in a few webinars that we’ve done for ASVA, and I just think it’s banging. Can you just talk us through the process of how you… I will put the link to the video in the show notes, so if you haven’t seen it you can have a watch.

Liz Power: Cool, thanks. We were fully furloughed as staff from April the first, including myself. So, we were out of work, but that didn’t stop you from attending webinars, and so myself and the team were attending anything we could do to just feel like we still had a job. One of the webinars, we heard Bernard Donoghue who I know you’ve had on before talk about a reopening video that would be an important part of reopening.

We didn’t have any money or any budget or anything, but we had enthusiasm and an incredible ability to chuck ourselves into having a go at anything. And I just thought we could do it. I looked at some of the ones that other people were making, and I was like, “You know what, it doesn’t look that hard.”

So, we filmed it on my iPhone, because I had the newest phone of the team, so that’s how that choice was made. Myself and Gemma, who… We only have three staff majoritively, so the two of us filmed it together and we wrote a little skit. We filmed it in order, so we’d find it easier to edit, and we filmed it without a microphone or anything, and then we took a few takes of a few things, but pretty much did it short and sharp, under a minute long. We knew the messages we wanted to get across about space and fun.

Kelly Molson: That’s my favourite bit. The space bit is my favourite bit.

Liz Power: There’s so much space.

Kelly Molson: There’s so much space. But it’s filmed from really far away, so it sounds like you’ve got loads of space as well, and I was like it’s really brilliant.

Liz Power: In our garden, yeah. And then we used free editing software to bring it together, and then my friend Vicki Pipe, who is the manager of the amazing Bow Street Police Museum, check that out, who’s a brilliant editor. She’s @vickiexplores on Twitter. She did a time to edit for me and put some music over the top, and that was it. And then we did a really important thing, and I know this sounds silly, but I lost all sense of shame and I set up a WhatsApp group which was absolutely everybody I knew who I thought would retweet it for me.

I sent out a WhatsApp group to them and sent a message to them all saying, “I really need your help. Good news, I’m not asking for money. All I’m asking for is a retweet. Can you retweet my video when I bring it out next week?” And sent them a little preview.

And then everyone did, including the amazing Scummy Mummies, who retweeted it for me, and they’ve got a massive following. So, it really got out into the world. It was fantastic. Anyway, so we loved it so much that we made another one for October when we reopened, so that was our outdoor spaces. When we reopened our indoor spaces, and this time I roped in my kids to star in it, and we did exactly the same process. For us, it worked really well.

Liz Power: When we’d had to close, all of our engagement with our audience had gone on to social media, and there was nothing else we could do. We were furloughed, we were really tight but we have always been really open with our visitors and our community about who we are as an organisation but also as individuals.

So, it’s really not unusual for our social media to feature us messing around, or us just talking about our lives or… It’s not my kids’ first appearance. It is very much community work. You have to give so you can receive, and it fitted our brand because if we’d suddenly had come out with something that was so slick, they’d all gone, “Well, they said they have no money.” We haven’t gotten any money, so we have to film it like this. It fits. This is us, this is me and Gemma.

We’re the people you will meet, and so in every way, it fitted what we did. It was so well-received, and it really held its own against people who spent a lot of money on theirs, and we spent, for the record, nothing.

Kelly Molson: Amazing. Yeah, I love that, and I think that’s part of seeing… The pandemic has forced people to be more innovative and be more creative with the budget that they’ve got, which was zero, and to do things like this. I think one of the nice things that you mentioned is about, you were in it and your children were in it, and it was… If people are going to visit, they’re going to meet those people, and that brings me back to that community aspect that I want to talk about. Because you’ve had a really, really successful summer, and this was something that I saw on Twitter a little while ago.

You posted, and again, I’ll reference this in the show notes, but you posted up a graph. Your tweet said, “The grey are the numbers we expected. Yellow is what we had before, and blue is what we got.” And basically the numbers were phenomenal. They were far over what you were predicting, like far over.

Liz Power: Yeah.

Kelly Molson:  You said this had all come about because you’d focused on your local community. I want to know what you did.

Liz Power: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: So, you’ve got your summer 2021 results are pretty phenomenal. Talk us through how you got them, because they were so much better than what you expected.

Liz Power: So much better, and I just want to say that halfway through the summer, I had failed the basic mantra of “know your numbers” and was in the pit of despair unknowing if we were doing well or not. And then I was like, “Actually, Power, sort yourself out. Just count the numbers up and have a look,” and we were doing so well. We had forecast that we would get 25% of our normal visitor numbers. Now, for a sense of scale, we are tiny, so if we get over 200 visitors, we’re emergency going to say we need to get more loo roll, just to give you a sense of scale. But we had forecast 25%, and we were smashing it. Absolutely smashing it.

We are very lucky in Brentford where we sit. We’re surrounded by people, so we’re overlooked by the Brentford Towers Housing Estate, which is a high-rise accommodation, high-density, and then we have new-build flats all the way around us, and that’s why in the summer of ’21… In the summer of ’20, we had decided to open this outdoor space, because to be brutally honest, nobody needed a static steam engine at that point in their life.

Did they need a place to play with their kids? Absolutely. So, we did that instead. When it came to this summer, what we really wanted to do was kind of take that same approach and feel, and bring it into the museum. Despite all the new people we met last summer… All the new people we’ve met since we reopened in May, come to the museum and just, we want it treated like a park.

We want people to feel like they can come time and time again, have a play. That kind of feel, so when we had opened… I don’t know what you call the October opening. Almost open. When we’d almost opened in October and done the half term, and then again when we reopened in May, the first thing we did before we let the public in is have a week of community opening, where we invited all of our local community groups in to have the space for themselves, get them back through the door, just kind of build up those relationships.

Liz Power: We’d had some funding from the Council over the autumn of ’21 for a project we called Sharing Spaces. Sounds really posh, but what they actually did was pay for a duty manager and a cleaner so that we could open the museum not for the public but for community work, because we were a large space.

So, we were ventilated and groups could meet inside, and particularly for the local communities work we do with people with autism. Having a regular meeting place had been really important. So, it started to kind of snowball all of this work we were doing in the local community, being helpful. Helpful is one of our museum values, and so we’re like, “What would be helpful to do now?” Again, still nobody needs a static pumping engine, but they do need a place to come and do a regular craft group or whatever it is. We had carried on this mantra, and then we’d closed again and gone into that really long lockdown.

Then, with the help from the Culture Recovery Fund, we’d been able to open up in May, and again, focus on the community groups. What can we do that is helpful? We’ve got a brilliant new community partner in the Au Bon community, who are a charity who work with young people with learning disabilities.

They’re our new café, and that’s really exciting and we’ve got all these new community groups coming in and out. And then we’ve just got local people, and we swapped our annual tickets, so we are unashamedly a Robin Hood organisation. If you travel from Brighton to buy a ticket for the day, we’re an expensive day out for you at 17 pounds. If you live next door, we are an absolute bargain. 17 quid for the year, come in every week. Brilliant.

So, we have this. We knew we’d have people coming time and time again, and annual ticket members bring other annual ticket members. And then we knew we couldn’t do seven days a week. We didn’t have the staff, so we consolidated down to five days a week. Still, at five days a week, we beat what we had done in 2019.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Liz Power: It was just local people because we know them, and we see them, and we chat with them. They help us find the leak buckets when the roof rains, and they say things like, “Are you doing that story again, Liz?” And you’re like, “Yes, I’m doing that story again.” And we put together a simple program that we felt was manageable and deliverable, we had a good summer. But local people had built this relationship with us, which meant that they knew what they were getting, they know the approach they’re getting. We’re a friendly place. You really can’t go far wrong.

Of course you can touch something. You’re going to get covered in oil, but help yourself. Come in the water play, just come and sit and chill. You walk a coffee through our museum, it’s absolutely fine. We want to be that kind of relaxed environment, and that’s just what people needed this summer. We just got it just right for our local people, and I think we’ve done a lot of listening and a lot of thinking about them.

And also a lot of reflecting on our own lives. What do we want this summer? I certainly don’t’ want anything too intense. I wanted a chill place that made me feel safe and relaxed and happy, and that didn’t have to go too far. So, that’s what we provided for a lot of people in Brentford.

Kelly Molson: How did you get the word out? Did you use… You’ve obviously got quite a tight-knit community around you anyway, so you’ve got people that would come back and visit regularly, and they’re going to spread the word organically for you. Is that what happened, or did you go to any other lengths to…? So, did you invest in digital, for example? Did you do any online campaigns? Or did you do any flyer dropping, or…?

Liz Power: No. The Cultural Recovery Fund’s money, obviously, was only for the three months and it ran out before the summer holiday, so we had pre-invested in that well-known marketing tool, the banner. We have two banners out saying what we were doing for the summer, and we use our social media a lot, so we chat to people and we often say to people, “Oh, if you want to know what’s going on, just follow us Facebook.” We’ve got a big Facebook following, big for us.

Lots of people do follow us on that, but then also, we’re really unashamed about it. This half term, we’ve been doing science shows and at the end of every science show, we end with an appeal, thanking everyone for coming, saying that museums will only keep going if we have visitors. It’s their homework to go away and tell five people, “Help keep us going.”

I think a lot of it is word of mouth, and just kind of the good feeling we can create from being helpful, from being positive, so you get people whose child maybe attends a club that meets in the museum, or maybe they’re a carer to one of the young people who does their bunchy work in café… That kind of good atmosphere, and then that’s it. We don’t have any money for any new marketing or leaflets or anything like that, so it’s simple at the moment until we build our income back up…

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Liz Power: … and are able to put a bit more money behind it.

Kelly Molson: That’s phenomenal. To have achieved those kinds of visitor numbers without actually any additional spend is pretty impressive.

Liz Power: Yeah, I forgot one thing, as well, which was before the summer, I did a request out to Thames Water. Thames  Water doesn’t fund us or anything, but I kind of think they should. So, I’d phoned them up and asked them if there was anything they could do for the summer to help us, and their engagement team came down every Wednesday with a bunch of activities, and so we were able to have additional programming for no additional cost. If in doubt, ask.

Kelly Molson: That’s excellent.

Liz Power: Yeah, and that came out of… I was at training or networking, and somebody said, “If you need help, ask for help.” And I was like, “We need help. We need help to put on programming for this summer. Let me ask.” And they said yes.

Kelly Molson: That’s phenomenal. So actually, a big part of it is finding new partners to support you. It’s not just about relying on the general public to spread the word. That’s one part of it, but the other channel is actually, if we look at the community and we look at partners that can come and support us, that’s another way of developing… Because, are you getting new people coming through the doors as well? You talked a lot about your annual visitors, but are you getting new visitors? You can see that split?

Liz Power: Yeah, we can see the split. I’m not very good on stats, so I haven’t got the stats for you, but yeah. We can see the new people coming in, so when I was changing the ticket prices… In 2019, we had 13 different ticket prices, and to volunteer on our front desk, you basically needed a degree in mathematics. We simplified it and we now have the classic two ticket prices, adults and concessions, and we made all kids go free because it’s such a good line.

I worked out when I was doing the calculations for that ticket change, the percentage of new tickets that we would have coming through the door, and I was heavily indebted to the AIM guides, an Association of Independent Museums who are brilliant. I mean, they’ve got a guide for everything you need… If you want to run a museum, just use that website. Their ticket guide basically said, “If you change to an annual ticket, annual tickets bring other people.” As soon as you read it you think, “Do you know what? I’ve done that.”

So, you get an annual ticket to somewhere and then you say to your friend, “I’ll tell you what, I’ve got a ticket to Kew Gardens, do you want to meet me there? That would be great, and then you could get a ticket, and then the two of us can meet in Kew Gardens.” And then they say to their friend, “Do you know what? I’ve got a ticket to Kew Gardens…” That’s the word of mouth that comes with that investment in that annual ticket for those families, and we’d had people who’d bought annual tickets at October half term, we’re very liberal at just extending those, thanking them for support. Lots of families said, “Don’t be ridiculous, we’ll buy a new one,” which is lovely. But the annual ticket is something that… Now, you can come every weekend like everyone else.

You can just have a play, or did you know the trains are coming back? Or did you know that we’ve got the model railway, or whatever is coming in, they feel we are a hop in-able venue, and then that’s how they kind of spread the word to their friends, really, and start the snowball off.

Kelly Molson: And is this kind of constantly evolving? Because I guess just going back to what you mentioned right at the start, is that you said, “What is it that people need right now? They need outdoor space, they need somewhere to come with their kids where they can burn off steam, and they need it to be a calm space where they don’t have to worry about anything.” How does that translate now that the winter’s coming? Are you speaking to the community to find out what it is that they need?

Liz Power: Yeah, so on our community work site, at the moment we’re only open to the public at weekends, during term time. But we’re open for the community Thursdays and Fridays, and that’s when we’re also starting to welcome schools back in. Watch this space, and also when we have our volunteers come in on Thursdays and Fridays. The big request from the community is to open more. I mean, we could fill the building four days a week, easily, with community work.

So, that’s a real challenge for us, to look for sources of income to make that happen, so I have a couple of proposals out with corporate donors who, I think it should help the community by opening our museum for a couple extra days a week. For them it would be, in case they’re listening, a very low-cost investment, so we need a duty manager and we need a cleaner, and that’s pretty much it. And some overheads to keep the lights on, so we know that’s what the community really need.

They need a dry space, they need a ventilated space, they need toilets. So, that’s really, really important, and then for our kind of family visitors, it’s really interesting. So, half term just gone, we had good numbers. I was really pleased. We beat our 25% target, we didn’t have those numbers like the summer. What is really interesting, families were saying to me, “I’m so glad you’re not busy. I thought you were going to be busy.”

Kelly Molson: Oh.

Liz Power: Which I think is fascinating. I mean, it’s an independent museum’s worst nightmare, that people want to avoid busy places because busy is what we love, but I thought that was really interesting and made me think about kind of the messaging we’re going to do this winter. We are big, we do have plenty of space. You can safely navigate our museum without hitting a queue or feeling hemmed in.

So, I think that we’re going to have to think about how we communicate that, and how we make sure that we… Instead of going what is more traditional for us pre-pandemic years, October half terms is manic, and then winter toddles along. How can we spread that out? How can we say to our families, “You know the offer that you love at half term? Well actually, this weekend in November, we’re also doing some of that.”

So, we can spread all visitors out and make them feel safe and secure this winter, and safe and secure I think is just about not being busy for them. Actually, it’s going to be a really fine balance.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s difficult, isn’t it? It’s a conundrum of… And I guess this comes back to a pricing strategy as well, is do you have less visitor numbers, higher entry price? But then that’s a challenge in terms of the local kind of community you’ve built up. You don’t want to whack the price up for them, but will people travel and pay more to come?

Liz Power: Brentford’s a very deprived area, and Hounslow is a little rich borough, and I’m very aware of not wanting to kind of price our local community out of the museum. For me, working in independent museums as I have for the last 13 years, for me it’s all about demonstrating worth, so £17 is a lot of money. Some families, for an adult, I can’t do the maths quick enough to tell you what it’d be for two, but for some families that is beyond their reach, right? They’re never going to be able to afford that. Those families, we will give tickets to for free. That is not a lost income for me, they are never coming. So, I will give them a ticket because that is gained love, gained support, gained word of mouth. That’s all pluses for me, there’s no loss at all.

In the past, we’ve given away tickets with a food bank, which has been really good, and we’re delighted to see some of those families in. We work very closely with the Children’s Centre, who hold a stay and play on a Thursday in term time in our museum, and we give tickets away to those families, and all of my duty managers are on strict instructions that if somebody arrives with a family and when they’re told the price, they say, “This is not for us, then,” and you can tell, you know those families aren’t faking it. They absolutely can let those families in.

Kelly Molson: That’s wonderful.

Liz Power: That’s not lost money. That’s just a total bonus, but it’s about demonstrating 17 quid, for a lot of people, is a big spend. So, what are you getting? What’s your value for money there? I always think about the cinema, the thing about paying for the cinema is you know how long you’re going to be in it, you know what it’s going to be like, and you know what it’s going to be like when you finish.

So, that’s a safe bet for a family, they understand that transaction, and I think the thing with museums is people who aren’t museum-goers don’t understand that transaction. They don’t see what they’re getting, and this kind of loops back around to the film and the social media and the being very open, and welcoming community groups in.

All we’re trying to do is show you what you’re going to get, that it’s not scary. You’re going to meet me and Gemma. It’s really fun, your kid doesn’t have to behave, tantrums are incredibly welcome and totally normal, as is shoplifting from our shop. Toddlers running across the carpark with a bouncy ball, you don’t have to put on your best. I don’t want it to be a place where you feel you can only go if your children are on their best behaviour.

You need us most when your children are at their absolute worst. That’s when you should feel safe to come to us and go, “God, they’re having a hideous day. Water and steam, that’s what we need. Let’s go get wet in the splash zone.” Doesn’t matter if they’ve got soaked. They keep their clothes. Doesn’t matter if they’re having a screaming tantrum on the floor, Liz has got that secret packet of stickers that she gives to screaming kids.

That’s the kind of safety we want to create, and then that means for them that they know that value of that 18, 17 quid. They really understand what they’re getting in return, and it’s a good investment for them. And we’ve done this… Hounslow Council have given every household a 20 quid voucher, like an e-voucher thing, and we’ve signed up and some families have been swapping that for their adult ticket.

Kelly Molson: Ah, that’s great.

Liz Power: Yeah, it’s absolutely brilliant, because 17 quid, you could spend it in lots of different shops in Hounslow and restaurants and things, but if they spent it with us, they get something that lasts all year. That’s been wonderful to see that coming through.

Kelly Molson: That’s really smart. Liz, I don’t think that you could have sold a trip to this museum any better than you just did. It’s just perfect. It’s perfect. I’m bringing Edie, I’m bringing Edie.

Liz Power: Yeah, do it. Bring her when you’re having a rubbish day. I will happily cuddle a baby for you.

Kelly Molson: Excellent, I’ll take that. I’ll definitely take you up on that. Liz, what is next for the museum? We talked a little bit about how your offering is going to change slightly, and obviously, there is still a nervousness from people, and they want to know that they’re going to have enough space and be safe over the summer months. What comes next?

Liz Power: We’ve got to work out how to grow. Okay, so we’ve luckily not had to make anyone redundant, but we haven’t replaced anyone who’s left, and so I think we’ve kind of been in survival mode quite a long way. But I wrote a business plan in 2019, and I’ve got to trash it because we’ve leapt so far forward in everything we wanted to do, so that’s fantastic news. There’s a bit of kind of structural replanning that needs to happen, thinking about our business plan going forward, and then how do we grow back to where we were? How do we get back to the starting levels? Then, how can we do more for our community?

We’re just about to advertise for a volunteer coordinator part-time if you’d like to come work with me. That is going to be a really big thing for us, and we need to build our volunteer team back. That’s incredibly important, we have started a years’ worth of work, working on young volunteering. A lot of young people who are long-term mates, volunteering in the museum, so I’m just trying to explore every version of volunteering possible because

I think we’re a fantastic resource for skills and all the rest of it. I’m having conversations with all sorts of people that might be able to make volunteering doable for us. That’s really exciting, and then we’re again thinking about what our community needs.

I want to do some work on our outdoor spaces, which are before the pay line. We’re very lucky, we’ve got a beautiful garden with frogs and a playhouse and more children’s watering cans than you’ve ever seen, but there’s space at the back that I’m hoping that I am going to be able to redevelop into a wild play space that could be used by the local community for playing for a school. Something that’s kind of lacking in Brentford.

Liz Power: I‘d like to get open more, because I think we need to be doing more community work. So again, as you can see these things are about kind of what can we look for funding to take our work forward, while maintaining our core work of the work that we do with the communities and the work we do with our visitors who come in all the time?

So, slowly, slowly nudging forward and always just being really honest with people about where we are, and just explaining we can’t do everything, and the things we can’t do, explain why we can’t do them. Just the things we can do, being enthusiastic and going for it. We try to have an attitude of promising to everyone that we’ll say no if we can’t do something, because in some cultures, saying “no” is perceived as incredibly rude. So, people don’t ask, because they’re worried they’re going to put a burden on you. We want to have the opposite, so we operate on a promise to say no, so you may as well ask because I’m going to feel I have to do something.

Kind of continuing to listen and respond to the community, and just trying to be the most helpful, responsive, reactive museum we can, and get our reaccreditation. So, just a couple of things.

Kelly Molson: I mean, that’s not a shortlist by any means, is it? What we really need are those corporate sponsors to get their wallets out, get their purses out, and spend some money.

Liz Power: Absolutely. To spend some money, and to think about how they can support the museum because the visitor numbers will return and that income will return, but it’s going to be a slow-moving thing. There’s no rushing that, and I don’t know if we’ll ever see numbers like we did before the world changed. So, this is time to think differently, and think a bit laterally about how can we still achieve what we want to achieve? And it might work, might not work, but at least they’re going to try, and try everything.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Liz, I’ve really loved speaking to you about this, because you can see when you talk, you can see the enthusiasm that comes through you, so I just think it would be… Definitely, I’m going to come and visit, because it would be so lovely to meet you in person because you kind of… The museum just is you, you just glow when you talk about it. It’s really lovely.

Liz Power: I was very lucky. So, I’ve only ever worked in museums. I’ve never worked anywhere else, and then slowly over the 20 years of careers, I’ve made a list of all the places I would never work, which I might tell you if you come in and have a coffee. I was really, really lucky I was working so much on community engagement in museums and younger people in museums. That’s really where I felt my focus should be, is on the social purpose of museums. I’m just really lucky that when I went to the interview at Water and Steam, I pitched them this left-wing community utopia they went for it. They trusted in me and backed me, and I think it’s starting to come good.

Kelly Molson: Yeah, it is. Absolutely. All right, so something else that I want to discuss with you. Now, this is the time in the podcast where I normally ask our guest to give a book recommendation. So, something that they love, something that maybe has shaped their career, and when I asked you this, you very… No, it was really such a valid point, and I thought, “No one’s ever said that to me before, and nobody’s ever raised this as a topic,” but you basically said that books, they’re not at the top of your list of things to do, because you have Dyslexia.

Liz Power: Yes.

Kelly Molson: Let’s talk about the… museum and cultural world is extremely academic. How do you deal with this? What’s your strategies?

Liz Power: Well, it’s super academic, isn’t it? And I’ve got a terrible degree in drama. I could be a tree, but that’s kind of where my academia ends. And as I made my way through my career, I was very aware that you just… Goodness, people are clever, aren’t they? And they’ve done all sorts of qualifications and all the rest of it, and my idea of hell is doing an MA. Sounds horrific.

Kelly Molson: Same.

Liz Power: Degree in drama was bad enough. I’m not a studier, I hate it. The day I worked my first job, which was at Buckingham Palace, I worked in the security team. Literally, I was like, “Oh, I’m a worker bee. I’m happy. I don’t want to study, I just want to work,” and it’s not been easy, because there is this presumption that you come from this academic background, and that you will gain your knowledge about the sector through reading and absorbing this.

I could read a textbook on museum practice. I am not going to remember it, I’m not going to be able to take it in, and I won’t understand the majority of the words, so my reading and writing age is about that of a 12-year-old, and that is not what museum books are written for. Though I am excellent at editing texts for exhibitions because 12 is what we should all aim for.

So, I’m not a natural museum person like that. I also don’t particularly like exhibitions, because I find reading hard, and so why would I choose to do that, stood up? If I’m going to read, and I do read for pleasure, I will be sat somewhere snugly, and so I can give my full concentration to it. Certainly not in a room with other people stood looking at a wall. So, accessing information throughout my career has kind of come from two places.

First of all, from being brutally honest about my abilities and my limitations. My dyslexia affects my short-term memory, it affects my processing skills, it obviously affects my reading and writing skills. If I had to read something, then I need to kind of set aside time to actually do that, and be in the right environment to make myself read it.

Liz Power: My own learning has mainly come from people. I mean, the best source of learning, they are. They are the people that write the books, after all, so you just go talk to the person. Skip out the middle page. I’ve done a lot of kind of following and networking and chatting to people. I’ve worked with some extraordinary people, and being so lucky to manage some brilliant people who have really challenged me in what I think and do, and if I’m able to kind of share how I need to work… If you’re going to be managed by me, this is what you need to know. If I’m going to report to you, I mean, my poor trustees, what a learning curve.

This is how this information will be coming to you, and best of luck deciphering this. So, I do do written reports, but they will quite often say, “Well, we’ll have a verbal report on that one. Have a verbal report on that.” And we only do one basic written report, so like our board meetings, that’s majoritively kind of bullet points and things like… They kind of adapted to my issues, but the massive, massive plus side, and the reason I wouldn’t turn off my dyslexia even if I could, is you choose me to be part of the team.

You get all that hard work, but you also get an incredible dyslexic superpower, which I that I can see something complete. I can see what Water and Steam will be. Not might be, not could be, but will absolutely be. I can see the people walking through the door, I can see the interactions, and then what I can do once I can see something, I can take it apart and work out how to get there.

I didn’t realise this was a superpower until a former line manager said to me once, “You have three good ideas a year, Liz, and that’s what we keep you around for.” I said, “I do actually.” But my ideas come fully formed, and that’s really unusual to go, “I have a fully-formed vision of this.” I woke up the other day and I had a fully-formed vision of how I would revolutionise sports engagement for the under-16s. I mean, for God’s sake…

Kelly Molson: Is there nothing that you can’t do, Liz?

Liz Power: No. Well, I’m not going to do it. But it’s like, seriously brain, could you just switch off? That’s the plus side of my dyslexia, is that I see things in a very different way to a lot of people, and then I have the ability to kind of undo it all. Yeah, so super dyslexic, now parent to two, potentially three super dyslexic children. I was lucky to be brought up in an incredibly dyslexic-positive household. My dad’s dyslexic, my brother’s dyslexic, my poor mother dealing with us all. It’s got lots of downsides, but the upsides are so totally worth it. But it does mean I can’t recommend a book.

Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s fine. Liz, this has been better than a book recommendation, because the fact that you’ve been able to kind of speak so openly and humorously about the subject, that’s going to help more people than reading a book.

Liz Power: Yeah, absolutely. If you have somebody who’s dyslexic who’s joining your team, or you’re going to be working with them, there’s a lot of resources from the Dyslexia Association that can talk to you about managing somebody with dyslexia or working with somebody with dyslexia. That really helps. It’s a neuro-difference the same as any other, so get yourself clued up, work out what the plus sides are, and adapt as best as possible. I wouldn’t change it, it doesn’t make life easy, but it certainly makes it more interesting. I definitely couldn’t do my job if I wasn’t dyslexic. No chance.

Kelly Molson: Amazing. Thank you for sharing that, Liz. Again, we will pop all of the links to the Dyslexia Association in the show notes as well, so if you haven’t ever gone and looked at their website, go and browse it. I’m sure there’s a lot of things on there that would be able to support your teams. Liz, it’s been brilliant to talk to you. Thank you. Wishing you all the best of luck as you head into the winter months, and I’ll check back in on you in a few months, and see how it’s all going if that’s okay.

Liz Power: I would love that, and you must come in and have a coffee. And anybody else who wants to come in and abuse my brilliant coffee shop, then just send me a message on Twitter, and yeah, everyone’s welcome. The more people I can show my museum to, the happier I am.

Kelly Molson: Well, you heard it there, folks. Everyone needs to head over. Please, I know we did mention it earlier, but don’t steal anything from the gift shop.

Liz Power: I will catch you.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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