In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Rhiannon Hiles, CEO of Beamish Museum.
“So our learning program, our health and wellbeing program, our environmental sustainability, to me, those are the things which make Beamish. They’re the things which are about our communities and about our people.”
Rhiannon Hiles is Chief Executive of Beamish, The Living Museum of the North.
Rhiannon leads the talented team of staff and volunteers, and is responsible for strategic development and operations at the award-winning County Durham open air museum, which brings the region’s history to life.
With over 30 years’ experience in the culture sector, Rhiannon has extensive curatorial, commercial, operational and development expertise, combined with a great passion for museums, heritage and the North East.
Working with national and international museum colleagues, Rhiannon is at the forefront of leading open air and independent museum practice, focused on sharing ideas, knowledge and supporting talent and progression across the sector.
Rhiannon has a background in architectural and design history and an MA in Museum Studies specialising in social, rural and folk life studies and was an antique dealer and museum volunteer early on in her career. Her professional experience includes the prestigious Oxford Cultural Leaders Programme, SPARK Association Independent Museums (AIM) senior leaders programme, appointment to the board of the Association of European Open Air Museums, North East Chamber of Commerce Council member, National Museum Directors’ Council, Museums Association, Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, and the Association of Independent Museums. She has been a school governor and is currently a Museums Association mentor and Director of the Melrose Learning Trust.
What will you learn from this podcast?
- The wiggly careers
- Finding opportunities that use all your skills
- Philanthropic thinking – how to use this approach to support the funding of new projects.
You can also read the full transcript below.
Your host, Kelly Molson
Our guest, Rhiannon Hiles
Kelly Molson: Rhiannon, it’s lovely to have you on the podcast today. Thank you so much for coming on. I’m very excited that we’ve got Beamish back on, if I’m honest. So I know that we’ve had lovely Matthew Henderson, one of your past colleagues, came on not too long ago and talked about creative ideas for driving commercial income. But I’ve recently experienced Beamish, which I’m sure we’ll talk about later on in the podcast. So I’m really tough to it’s lovely.
Rhiannon Hiles: It’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve been dying to talk to you as well. So this is great. We had that initial conversation, didn’t we? And so to be talking to you again today, it’s brilliant.
Kelly Molson: Well, hopefully you still feel like that after I’ve asked you these icebreaker questions. Let’s start. Okay, I want to know what’s the worst gift that you’ve ever received but you had to try really hard to kind of be grateful for.
Rhiannon Hiles: Well, I used to have a black and white collie when I was growing up. We had a small holding and we always had collies. And I had my favourite collie was called Woody. I loved Woody. Woody came everywhere with me, black and white. And I was out somewhere once and I said, “Oh, she looks a bit like a badger.” When they asked me what she looked like.
And then people kept giving me badger stuff all the time. And my house was getting full and full. I was a student at the time and had a student house that’s full of badger things. And I was always very polite because I was brought up to always say, “Thank you. Thank you very much for the present.” Inside I was going, “Not more badger things.” And when I eventually thought I was moving and I thought, I’m going to put all those badger things in a box and take it to a charity shop, and I did that.
Kelly Molson: And somebody would have loved that big box of badger rubbish, wouldn’t they?
Rhiannon Hiles: Somebody.
Kelly Molson: You get this if you’ve got a sausage dog as well. So we used to have a sausage dog. The minute you have one of them, everyone thinks that you are a dachshund mad and you’re not. You’ve just got a dachshund. But they buy you everything that I’ve got so much stuff with dachshund. I don’t know if the person that bought me is listening to this.
I’ve got like makeup bags with dachshunds on I’ve been bought, like, shopping bags and things like that. And I’m like, “Yeah, she’s cool and all that, but I don’t need to dress myself in dachshunds and paraphernalia” For now, anytime that anyone buys me anything rubbish, I’m going to put it in the badger box. Right. I love that. Okay, well, this is definitely not going to be badgers, but if you had to pick one item to win a lifetime supply of, what would you pick?
Rhiannon Hiles: It’s not really very sustainable and everyone who knows me will be like, “You are.” It sounds so vain, mascara.
Kelly Molson: Oh, yeah. No, I’m with you.
Rhiannon Hiles: Sorry.
Kelly Molson: No, don’t apologise. Mascara would absolutely be on, like, my desert island diffs. If I was put if I was sent away somewhere, I would need not Desert Island Discs. What am I talking about? If I was on a desert island and I could take one thing, I want my mascara.
Rhiannon Hiles: When I was pregnant and packing, you packed the bag, ready to go to hospital, and I was like, “Have I got everything in?” And I was like, “Have I got mascara in?” And everyone’s like, “You will not want that or need it.” And I was like, “I will.” And to be fair, I’m not actually certain that I did care, but I was safe because it was in there. Should I need it?
Kelly Molson: Yeah, at the time. Things like that are really important. Are they? Have you ever had the fake eyelashes put on so you don’t have to bother with it?
Rhiannon Hiles: Oh, not to that degree. When I was a teenager, I was a goth and I thought I was Susie Sue. So this is 1983. And I really thought I was Susie Sue. And I’d spent ages studying the way she had her ticks and her eyeliner and her eyebrows. So I spent ages perfecting that and I couldn’t get the eyelashes to work in the corners to what I wanted.
So probably from Superdrug or the Equivalent in 1983, because I can’t remember where it was in Durham. I’d snuck in with my pocket money and I bought these stick ones to go along the top. They didn’t stay on for very long. I’ve never had the ones that people actually have physically put in, but then when I see people and maybe one of them’s come out, I’m like, it looks a bit odd. Stick with your own eyelashes.
Kelly Molson: I can’t do the put them on yourself. I’m not very good with stuff like this at all. I’m not very good with makeup, but mascara is my go to because..
Rhiannon Hiles: That’s easy, isn’t it? Opens up your eyes, away you go.
Kelly Molson: All you have to play like a new woman. But I have had the ones that someone puts in professionally before, which were amazing, but the only downside is when you decide that you don’t want them any, have them taken off. Your own eyelashes look so rubbish. That you look a bit like an alien because you’ve got not enough lashes, because you had loads before with the extra on. So, yeah, little tip for you, everyone. You’ll look like an alien.
Rhiannon Hiles: I’ll remember that.
Kelly Molson: Right. What is your unpopular opinion for us?
Rhiannon Hiles: I listen to your podcasts and I love hearing what people’s unpopular opinions are. And I listened to the one with Bernard Donoghue and the other two brilliant chaps, and one of them had nicked my unpopular opinion and now I don’t want to share it because they didn’t nick it, because they didn’t know that I was going to do it. But I used to live in the museum, I used to live in Beamish, and it was brilliant. At the end of the day, when visitors weren’t there, it was amazing.
Kelly Molson: Oh, this is what Paul said.
Rhiannon Hiles: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: Kelly said that the best thing about the attractions is when people aren’t there.
Rhiannon Hiles: Yeah. Now, like, during the day, I would never think that or say that, because I love being amongst all the people, but when I lived in the museum, when everyone went, when the trams went, when it was deadly quiet, it was like yet another place, and it was like, “Wow, this is amazing now.” And it was so different when the people weren’t there.
But I have to say that, for me, is an unpopular opinion, because, obviously, visitor attractions work when they’re full of people. And although I used to think, I think, “Oh, it’s so lovely at nighttime, or when everyone’s gone”, but then when it went into lockdown into COVID, it made me sad when the people weren’t there. So then my unpopular opinion kind of shifted. A very simple unpopular opinion is that I really don’t like mushy peas.
Kelly Molson: I’m with you. I don’t like peas of any form at all. No, I’m absolutely this might not be so unpopular because I’ve got, like, a group of friends that are pea haters like me, and I have passed it on to my little girl as well, which I’m trying to yeah, I know she’s not great. She’s really good with fruit, not good with veg, and I’m trying to kind of retract that a little bit, but she’s heard me say peas and make the face and now she’s like, “Peas, yucky mummy.” Yeah. I’m trying to get her to go back, but I draw the line. There’s no way I’m having mushy peas in my mouth.
Rhiannon Hiles: And I think it’s like the husky bit. Sometimes they’re not really mushed and there’s still a bit of husky pea shell in and I’m like, I don’t like it.
Kelly Molson: It’s actually turning my stomach, thinking, well, let’s see, whose side of the coin are you on? Are you on the pea lovers side or the pea haters? Come and join us on the haters side.
Rhiannon Hiles: Vote now.
Kelly Molson: Right, I want to know a little bit about your background, because I know that you’ve been at Beamish for quite a while. But what did you do prior to that?
Rhiannon Hiles: When I was at school, I was really into horse riding, I had ponies and I set my sights from about the age of ten, probably to be a riding instructor. And so I was determined that’s what I was going to do. But I was always a very good artist and I used to love drawing buildings and animals, not always in the same picture, but I loved the shape of buildings and I was just very interested in them.
And I used to travel quite a lot with my grandparents and we used to always visit museums on the continent in particular. We used to go to open air museums loads and I just loved them. We always went in the summer, really loved them. But I still thought, I want to be a riding instructor, just want to visit those museums and have fun.
And then as I went through school, you flick around, don’t you, a bit, when you’re in school? Because I love drawing, I love sketching clothes. And I was a bit of a gothy punk when I was a teenager, and I used to make my own clothes. But I also was really into how the interiors of buildings looked.
But I continued to ride horses and I did train to be a riding instructor, but I soon discovered there’s no money in that unless you’ve got really wealthy parents with your own riding school and everything. So I continued to ride, still love horses, but knew I just went on a bit of a quest and I did quite a lot of commissions of drawings whilst I was studying, while I was doing art at college, and then I went on to do architecture and design at university.
And while I was at university, I met some people who said, “Have you ever thought about studying this and have you ever thought about doing some work in museums? And what about open air museums?” And I thought, “Well, I’ve always visited them, and I love them.” So I started doing some voluntary work in museums and at the same time supplementing my living by buying and selling antiques.
So I was an antiques dealer for a while, which is good fun, actually. I quite enjoyed doing that, but I wasn’t the greatest antiques dealer because I was more interested in the history of the things than the money that I was making from them. Sometimes I’d be like, “Do you know where this is from? And I just want to buy it” I was like, “But it’s really interesting.”
Rhiannon Hiles: So I love doing that and I think it did give me a really good grounding. So I would really like scrabble around and things. I would go into skips and get stuff out and I’d sometimes knock on people’s doors and I’d say, “You’ve got this really interesting table in the skip, can I have it?” Sometimes I would just pass a skip and go ask paper, put it in my car, and then I’d do them up.
And one of my mum’s friends used to buy and sell student housing in Durham, and she used to get me to help her to get the houses ready. And she’d say to me, “I’m going to leave you.” This is in, like 1987, 88. She’d leave me with a hammer and she’d say, can you knock out that set pot in the corner?
And when I come back, I’ll just take you home, no PPE or anything. I’ll stand there with the hammer thinking I was like, I was 18, I was like, I’ll just hit it everywhere. But funnily enough, I think that gave me quite a good understanding of the ins and outs of older buildings. And I just really knew that I wanted to be involved with telling the stories of people who might have lived in those older buildings.
So when I started doing that voluntary work, I did it in a museum in Durham first, which is brilliant, great grounding. It was the Oriental Museum in Durham. There’s loads of work in their stores. And then my uncle’s friend was a curator at Beamish, and my uncle said, “Give Jim a ring, see if you can get some voluntary work at that Beamish.”
So I rang that Beamish up and I said, “Could I get some voluntary work?” And it kind of started from there, and I thought when I went, I was like, I’ve always visited here. Didn’t really cross my mind you could work here. And I just kind of loved it right from the start. I became immersed. I found a picture of me recently when I’m a bit older.
I’m 21 by then, and it’s just before I started working at the museum, because it’s when I was doing my undergraduate degree, and I’m like, I’m in one of the cottages and I’ve got all my glass stuff on and I think I’m dead cool. I’ve got my camera, but I can tell in my face that I was like I’m like, “Wow, I’m in the opening.”
Kelly Molson: This is amazing.
Rhiannon Hiles: Yeah. So I think I had a bit of a, like, I don’t know, was I going to be a horse rider, was I antique stay there, was I an artist? But then when I went into open air museums, I just knew I just had this fire in my belly, whatever you want to call it. I was like, this is where I need to be and this is what my quest is. This is where I want to lead one of these I want to be responsible for one of these fantastic places.
Kelly Molson: Oh, my God, what an incredibly wiggle. I love that. So I really like hearing about where people I think the skills that people have and how they then apply them into the roles that they’ve ended up in. I was so shocked when you said about antiques, because I love that. I love nothing better than a Sunday morning mooch around a vintage shop or just like, scouring charity shops for any kind of bargain that I can find. And I was like, “She’s literally living my life. That’s amazing. I’d love to do that job.”
Rhiannon Hiles: I think, briefly, because I used to go so a friend of mine who was at university with, he said, “Well, if you’re dealing in antiques, why don’t we set up together? Why don’t we get a van together? Have you got any money?” And I loaned 500 pounds off my mum and I said, “I’ll give you it back.” I don’t think I ever did. And we bought this really tatty van, bearing in mind this is, like, in the late 1980s, and we used to do, like, Newark. We used to go up to Isntonton in Edinburgh near the airport. We used to go around the country doing all the really big antique spares and camp and sell our goods really early in the morning to the dealers and then all the public would come in.
And then I started to be like, semi all right at it. And a friend of mine had a pub with a little what had been a shop attached to the pub in York, and she asked me if I wanted to sell some of my antiques in that little shop attached to the pub. So I did that for a little bit and then I thought, I think it’s not quite working for me, there’s something not quite right.
And it was because I wanted to tell the stories of the things. So I enjoyed doing it and I learned lots doing it, but I wanted to be a curator, basically, and I hadn’t clicked at that point. And then when it did click, I was, “It’s clicked. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Kelly Molson: And then you stayed at Beamish and you’ve just progressively worked your way through all of these different roles, up to CEO now.
Rhiannon Hiles: I know. That’s amazing.
Kelly Molson: It is amazing. But you hear that quite a lot, don’t you, where people, they find the place and then they stay there because it’s got them basically, it’s just got them hooked. And I totally understand this about Beamish. Were talking about this just before we hit record, but I visited Beamish a couple of months ago and had such an emotive reaction to the place.
It’s an incredible experience. It’s the first living museum that I’ve ever been to. I knew what to expect, but I didn’t know what to expect, if that makes sense. I knew what was there and I knew what was going to happen and how were going to experience the day, but I was not prepared for how completely immersive it is and how emotional I got, actually, at some of the areas. So can you just give us an overview of Beamish for our listeners that haven’t been there. What is Beamish?
Rhiannon Hiles: Yeah, I think you’ve described it really well there about it being immersive and emotional. So those elements will perhaps occur for the visitor. They might not. It depends what people want to get out of their visit. But you and I were talking about how increasingly, as we have more living memory that we represent in the museum, that people will have emotive responses.
And I think that goes back to one of the founding principles of why Beamish was originated. So our first director, Frank Atkinson, in the 1950s and 60s had traveled around Europe looking at different types of social history museums. He was a social history curator and he’d come across open air museums in Scanson, in Stockholm, in Malhagen, in Lilyhammer.
And he was just mesmerised by how they told the stories of the people of the locality in a meaningful way that represented the normality, the ordinary, the typical, rather than being the high end stories of lords and ladies in aristocracy. And he wanted to recreate something similar back in the north of England because he had seen disappearing stories and communities and lives.
And he foresaw that there would be more of that disappearing as he foresaw that coal mines would begin to change or close. And people laughed at him sometimes when he said things like, “I want to recreate a slag heap of coal.” They went, “Why would you do that? There’s lots.” And he said, “Because there won’t be any soon.” And he was right.
So the reasoning behind the creation of Beamish was to tell the stories of the rural, the industrial, the social history of the people of the north of England in a similar way to those that are told about the fork life, which is the lives of the people that you see in museums on the continent. So that’s what inspired Frank. And Frank’s founding principles have stayed strong throughout the museum’s ups and downs.
And I’ve seen ups and downs across the years. The 27, 28 years that I’ve been at Beamish, I’ve seen lots of ups and downs. But if ever I’m thinking, what should I do next? I always think, what does the visitor want and what would Frank think? And I don’t always agree with what Frank would think. Sometimes I think,” Would I agree with Frank?” But I always have those two things.
Rhiannon Hiles: I think, what would Frank think and what does the visitor need to see now? And I was watching there’s a YouTube film called The Man Who Was Given the Gasworks, which is about Frank and his ideas. It was filmed in the late 1960s and it’s really funny to watch, very BBC when you watch it, but it tells you a lot about where the ideas came from.
But some of the things that he’s talking about and the people that he’s meeting in Scanson in the continent and he’s interviewed by Magnus Matheson as a very young man, which is quite interesting. They still ring true and they still have this philosophy that all school children would visit from the locality to their open air museum.
And that’s still a strength that’s still very important to myself, but also to our museum, but also to other open air museums that I know. So Beamish kind of evolved as a concept, and then Frank found a site to build this big open air site which would tell the story of the people of the north of England. He was shown lots of different sites around County Durham.
And the story goes, and I’ve talked to his son about this, and his son says, “I think that’s what dad did.” His son’s about the same age as me. So he wasn’t born when Frank had this idea, but apparently he got to where you come in at the car park underneath the Tiny Tim theme hammer.
The story is that when Frank arrived there and the trees hadn’t grown up at that point, that he looked down across the valley and turned to the county officer who was saying, “Do you want this site?” And said, “This is it. This is where I’m going to have a museum of the people of the north.”
He said it was the bowl and the perimeter with the trees, so it could be an oasis where he could create these undulations in the landscape and tell the stories through farming, through towns, through different landscapes, through industry, through transport. He did at one time have a bizarre idea. Maybe it wasn’t bizarre to flood the valley and tell the history of shipbuilding. I’m kind of pleased that didn’t happen.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, me too. It’s really spectacular when you do that drive in as well, isn’t it? I got this really vivid memory of kind of parking my car, walking across to the visitor centre and you kind of look down across the valley and the vastness of the site, the expanse of it is kind of out in front of you and it is just like, “Oh.” You didn’t quite grasp how big that site is until you see it for the first time. It is really impressive.
Rhiannon Hiles: It is. And actually, I’m taking trustees, our new board of trustees. I’m taking them on a walkabout. And that’s one of the key things. You just explained it perfectly. I’m going to use your quote tomorrow morning. I’m going to say, this is the Kelly Molson view, because I’m taking them to that point and I’m going to say, “Look across the vastness of the museum and the woodland.
We look after all the woodland, all the footpaths through the woodland.” So it’s the immediacy of where the visitor comes into the museum is more than that. And so I think we are a visitor attraction and we are self sustaining, but we’re sustaining environmentally as well, in terms of what we do, looking after all that woodland and farmland as well. And I think that there’s a lot more still that the museum has left to do.
I think it’s almost like it will continue to evolve and change. There’ll be ever changing. Someone who I know, who runs a museum on the continent, I was saying to them, “What are you going to develop next?” And they’ve done a lot of development very quickly and they get some very good funding, which is brilliant for them, but they have to stop developing because their site is so small, they can’t develop any further.
They’re in the middle of a city and they represent an old town and their site is constrained by its size. And they said, “We’re very jealous of Europe Beamish, because you’ve got so much space.”
Kelly Molson: Just carry on. Well, the self sustaining thing is actually it’s part of what we’re going to talk a little bit about today. So think it was last season we had Matthew Henderson, come on, who was the former head of commercial operations there, and he talked quite a lot about creative ideas for driving commercial income. So all of the amazing things that Beamish have done to really kind of expand on the Beamish brand. I mean, I’m sitting here today and in front of me I’ve got Beamish sweets,
I’ve got a tin of lovely Beamish jubilee sweets sitting in front of me. And Matthew talked a lot about the things that you did during lockdown and how to kind of connect with the audience when you couldn’t be open, but just expand on that whole kind of product base that you have.
And that was something that I was super interested in when I came to visit Beamish as well. Because your gift shop is phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal. But all the way around the sites as well, the things that you can buy we talked about that immersive experience, but you can buy products where the packaging of those products, it hasn’t just been created. It’s been created from things that were in use and used as kind of branding back in the 50s and back in the18 hundreds. And that is just amazing. I guess I want to kind of just talk about Christmas. So we’re on the run up to Christmas now, aren’t we?
Rhiannon Hiles: We are.
Kelly Molson: I want to talk a little bit about how you drive revenue at what is often considered quite a quieter time of year for attractions because you’ve got quite a good process of doing that. Is that part and parcel of the hard work that you did during the pandemic to get these products developed?
Rhiannon Hiles: Yeah. So just prior to the pandemic, Matthew and I, and Matthew talked to you about this. We had started to think about how we would turn the museum into a really good profit centre without us looking like were selling the collections, because obviously you’ve got to be really careful, we’re a designated museum and all the rest of it.
There are really easy ways to do that without it being a barrier. And we came up with all these sort of ideas and then went into pandemic, into the pandemic, and it sped it all up for us. The things which we’ve been thinking about, would we do it or would we not? We just said, “Look, we’re going to do it because what else have we got to lose?” And Matthew did talk to you about that.
So we entered into this, what are we going to be doing? What are we going to replicate? Who are we going to work with? What are the things we’ve already got? And Matthew had been working on, for example, the monopoly, he’d been working on that just prior to the pandemic. We just sold out of that during the pandemic because everyone was at home and wanted to buy board games.
So we had thought, everything will sit on the shelves, but it didn’t, it flew out. We didn’t have an online shop, but then we suddenly did, like, overnight and so we talked about having an online shop and were sort of getting there and then went into pandemic and like a lot of folks, it just sped everything up. It really did.
So some of the work which we’ve been doing, which was taking us quite a lot of time, I think the pandemic silver lining and people talk about the negatives and the positives of the pandemic. The silver lining for our retail and our product ranges was that it really allowed us to move swiftly through ways of helping the museum to be self sustaining through our immersive sales.
When you were in the museum, you’d have been on the town street and we have stalls in there. It’s a market town, you would expect to see stalls outside. And all of the products on there are all Beamish products and they’ve been made either in the museum or they’ve been made by local suppliers who then are only selling through us.
Rhiannon Hiles: Our ice cream is produced by a local ice cream maker, but the method and the flavours are only sold at Beamish. You can’t get them anywhere else. So it’s bespoke to us, but I’m thinking about how we move us into the next phase, which is all those things which we only sell. For me, there’s a lot more that we can do in terms of we’ve talked about brand licensing, things like that, but in terms of the Beamish reach. So during lockdown, the Harrods of the North, Fenix contacted us and said, “Can we sell Beamish products?” And were like, “Yeah, Fenix have rung us up.” We were like, “Fenix are on the phone, we’re so excited.” And we thought, “We’re going to sell through Fenix.”
But for me, that’s the start of what we can do with our brand name becoming a high street name, but a high street name that has got some gravitas behind it. So I would want to make sure that we didn’t sell ourselves out, we’d want to place ourselves in appropriate places, if that makes sense. So what I wouldn’t want to see is that our brand became lessened because we’d maybe chosen the wrong partner or whatever that happened to be. But I think that the Beamish Museum brand is strong and I think it could stand on its own, two feet as a brand, not just at Fenix, and it does at Fenix, so that’s brilliant. But elsewhere as well.
And I’ve got some conversations lined up with folks to do with High Streets and how we can link up and partner with High Streets locally and perhaps that grows and develops as well, but also in terms of what we can do through our online sales, because we’ve lessened our impact there, I think. But that’s probably because the items which people were buying at home during the lockdown, they can now go out and get, they can come into the museum and buy and they want that in the museum experience. But I think there’s other things that we could do, like we have a lot of enamel signs and posters. We wouldn’t need to hold all that stock in the museum.
We can work with companies who can then just download that and then sell that, rather than us having to say we have this massive space where we just hold loads of stock. And for any museum, that’s a challenge. Where do you store things, let alone where do you store shop stock as well? So I think at this stage we’re on the cusp of something quite exciting, but we don’t know what it is yet.
But we’ve got showed Jamiejohn Anderson round, he’s a good friend of ours, he’s the director of commercial at National Museums Liverpool and he’s brilliant. I use him as a bit of a mentor. He’s great and I was walking around with him and he’s done work at Warner in the past with the Butterbeer and all the can. What can we do? There’s just so much lists and lists of things that you could brand license and you could sell and that would bring that in.
Kelly Molson: Does that make it harder, though, to make those decisions about what you do? Because there’s so much it’s so much that you could do. There’s not an obvious kind of standout one, there’s just vast reams of things that you could do.
Rhiannon Hiles: It is. And we’ve got a commercial manager who took over after Matthew left and she’s brilliant and she’s still in touch with Matthew. They talk a lot about how we would move this forward and which product comes first. And our collections team are really excited. I mentioned just now about the post, the railway posters and the enamel signs that we have. People would love those.
And the collections team are like, “We need to do those first because they’re brilliant and they’re easy and we could do them.” So it does make it hard. And everybody has their own version across the museum about what they think we should do first. So, yeah, it is tricky. And we’ve just dipped our toe in. And there’s other sides of things.
When we enter into our accommodation, which will be the first time we’ve done this at the museum, we’ve done overnight camping at the museum for a while, and that’s really successful. But to have our own self catering accommodation is coming on next year. And I would like to feel that if you’re staying in one of those cottages that the soap, the welcome pack, the cushion, whatever that is, that you would be able to get that, but that it’s bespoke to us. But you will be able and it’s not at a ridiculous price either, that it’s accessible to people, but that people will be able to get those items should they wish to.
Kelly Molson: This was something that was really exciting to me when I came to visit. Well, there’s two facets to this. One that was were taken round a I want to say it was a 1940s. It might have been the 19 hundreds, actually. So forgive me if I’ve got this completely wrong, but there’s an artist’s house, 1950s house. Sorry, I’ve got it completely wrong. I said 40.
So were taking around the artist house, and what struck me is how the design and the interior design of that house, how similar it is to things that I see now. So interior design is a bit of a passion of mine. It’s something that I spend hours scrolling at, looking at, on Instagram. But there were things that were in that house that are now back in fashion.
So things, they just come full circle, don’t they, with design? And so that was really interesting to me. And I remember at the time having a conversation and saying, “I’d buy that wallpaper that was on the wall. I would buy that wallpaper. I would buy that rug that they’ve got, that throw that was across the bed.” And it was just like, “Yeah, I absolutely would do that.”
I know so many other people that would do that as well, who really want that authentic look in their house. I mean, this is a 1930s house that I live in, but I would love to have more kind of authentically 1930s elements to it. Art deco, mirrors, et cetera.
And you can kind of imagine that not only being popular with the people that come and visit, but actually extending that into, well, interior designers that are styling other people’s homes. They haven’t necessarily been to Beamish, but they know that they can get this incredible thing from Beamish because they know how authentic that’s going to be. And then that translated into Julian telling me about the overnight stays. And I was like, “But I want to stay here now, I could stay potentially in this room.” How amazing would that be? That would really fulfill my interior design passions completely. So that’s the next step for you?
Rhiannon Hiles: Yeah, it is. It was the number one thing that came out of the market research that we did with people when were looking, just before we launched Remaking Beamish over ten years ago now. When went out and asked people what they would like to do, what’s the most important thing to you? They all went, “We want to stay in the museum. We want an Immersive, we want to be in it.” So we thought, “Well, okay, we can do that.”
We thought about where that might be and it went through lots of different sort of ideas as to what it would be. It was going to be a hotel. And then we thought, “Is that going to work? Is it a hotel?” And then we had some buildings which had been unused and weren’t part of any future development plan.
A beautiful row of workers cottages and some stabling and courtyard up Apocalypse, which were outside of the main visitor area with already a courtyard, stabling and cart shed. So I thought, “Well, let’s do it there.” Talked to the lottery. They were over the moon with that idea, because it’s more environmentally sustainable, because they’re existing buildings, brings more of the existing museum into the public realm and it gives us an opportunity to use areas which, to be honest, how would we do something with them going forward, but also enables people to stay in the museum.
So a night at the museum, literally be it’s going to be phenomenal. There’s so many people saying, “I want to be the first tester of the first one that’s open.” There’s like a massive queue of people who want to come and be the first to stay.
Kelly Molson: I want to add my name to the list. I don’t need to be the first. Put me on the list. What an amazing experience. I mean, you’ve lived in the museum, so you’ve actually done this yourself. But yeah, I just think to be able to extend your visit to do that would be phenomenal, because I know that you’re building a cinema at the moment as well. So come in. Come for some dinner to the cinema.
Rhiannon Hiles: Exactly.
Kelly Molson: Stay overnight.
Rhiannon Hiles: Exactly. And we had some European museum friends across. We run a leadership program across the continent and ourselves, myself, Andrew and some others in Europe, and some of them were over last week and we did a lovely dinner for them up at Popley. And I didn’t know if you got time to go up to Popley when you visited.
It’s beautiful up there. It is magical up there. And we have this young lad, he’s been a trainee chef and he’s brilliant. He loves historical recipes, he loves preparing in the old style. But to make it edible, to make it something which can then be eaten in a venue. And he spent ages thinking about what we would eat and how we would describe it. And it was beautiful.
And as the light was going down, I thought, “This is what’s going to be like for those folks who were going to be staying just across there, just right near Popley.” So I started thinking about all the ways we could make additional revenue. People will want to pay for this. They’ll want to pay to have Connor come in and do them a period dinner while they’re staying.
There’s so many other additional add ons that we can attribute to the overnight stay, should people wish to. I think that the list is endless. You’ve mentioned the cinemas, cinema nights, there’s music, there’s dance, different experience of different cuisine as well. I think there’s so much that people will get from the overnight stay. Not least that you’re going to be inside an exhibit staying overnight, which is really exciting in itself, isn’t it?
Kelly Molson: It is magic when you think about it. And I think what’s nice is the way that you talk about that. There’s so much opportunity, but it’s the opportunities that people want. You do a lot of work about, we’re not just selling things for the sake of it. What does our audience really want? And you ask them and you get their feedback from them, which is absolutely vital. Something that you mentioned as well was the lottery. So you spoke to the National Lottery about funding for what you were doing, which is brilliant, because one of the things that we said we’d talk about today was, I always struggle to pronounce this philanthropic thinking.
Rhiannon Hiles: Philanthropic thinking?
Kelly Molson: Philanthropic thinking. I had to say that slowly, so I got it out right. So we know what philanthropy is, we talk about it. It’s charitable works that help others as a society or as a whole. What does philanthropic thinking mean to you? And how do you use this approach to support the funding of new projects? Because that’s vital for you, isn’t it?
Rhiannon Hiles: It is, absolutely is. It’s vital and we can and need and should do much more of it. And it’s something which I’m exploring further. We have got a new Chief Operating Officer, we’ve got a new board, and I’ve talked to them about this and how this will help the museum to prosper for the future for our people. It’ll allow us to invest in some of the what I would see as perhaps enough of us might say as core activity. So our learning program, our health and wellbeing program, our environmental sustainability. But to me, those are the things which make Beamish. They’re the things which are about our communities and about our people.
So if we can have partners who will invest in us to work on those strong elements of what makes Beamish, then that will help us substantially because that will enable those programs to grow, to develop, to add value to people’s lives. While we can then use our surplus that we make through our secondary spend, through our admissions to put into those things which people don’t find as interesting.
And I don’t like the word when people say, “Oh, it’s not sexy.” But people don’t find toilets that interesting. But if you don’t have good toilets in a visitor attraction, if your entrance is clunky, if the admissions and if you’re walking around and everything looks a little bit like it looks a bit tired.
So I think that all those things which are so fundamental to enhance the visitor operation but need to have that money spent on them, will be able to be spent on because we will have developed those other relationships. And I’ve seen really good examples just recently that have made me feel that there’s a lot of opportunity out there. The Starling Bank has been sponsoring the whole summer of fun activity for National Trust. There’s the wonderful philanthropic giving from a foundation to English Heritage to fund their trainees and apprentices. That’s amazing.
Kelly Molson: That is amazing, isn’t it? I’ve read about this numerous times now and I just think, one, it’s a fantastic opportunity for people that are going to be involved, but what an incredibly generous thing to do. So those traditions don’t die out?
Rhiannon Hiles: No, not at all. And I just feel that when there’s more and more competition for less and less grants and foundations, which I get, and I understand that there’s no point just sitting around feeling sorry for yourself on your laurels because all that will end up in is blah. And I’ve been in the museum where the museum sat on its laurels and expected things to happen and expected people to come and it didn’t. And it had a downturn and you’ve got to be proactive. You’ve got to be the one who goes out there and talks to people and expresses what you can do, that you’re a leading light.
We’re seen as a leading light in the north of England and that’s because of the work that we do with our communities and the fact that we are a little bit we’ll take risks, we’re entrepreneurial and we’re always thinking about how we can improve the museum, improve the offer and also be there for our people. Because fundamentally that’s what we’re about.
Right at the beginning of this conversation, were talking about unpopular opinions and how when nobody was there, I was like, “Oh, it’s quite nice.” But then during COVID when nobody was there, it was awful because that’s not what the museum is about. The museum is fundamentally there for people. People are what brings it to life. The hug, the buzz. It’s about all of that dialogue that happens on a day to day basis and that’s so important.
And I think we already have folks who get really excited by what we offer. The Reese Foundation who are from an engineering firm, which is in Team Valley, already fund our STEM working program, because they get that. They get the work that we do. So that is an element of already successful pocket giving that we’ve had in the museum and I want to do more of that. We’ve got opportunity over the next period to really turn that around.
Rhiannon Hiles: And I think when you talk to Funders now, they expect a proportion of that to be happening. The Arts Council are talking to us about how you can be more philanthropic or work with philanthropic partners. And so even before were thinking or aware that they thought like that, we’d already had that in our mind, that’s how we would work going forward.
And I think that it isn’t just about taking money, it’s about having that relationship with the partner and showing how what they’ve invested in. And generally it’ll be something that means something to them and that’s why they’ve made that decision to do that. So if you can show back to them we’ve been working with a brilliant social enterprise locally called the Woodshed at Sacrosant, which is about getting young lads and lasses who aren’t in mainstream education as they come out of skill, or maybe for them, it’s not working. And they have done great work together and we have been doing work with them back in the museum.
So those 1950s houses that you went into, they’ve done some of the woodwork inside there and they did the pitch and put golf and then they came along to the opening of the 1950s and two of the lads came up, they were like, “I like, you yelling. ” And I said, “I am. How are you doing?” They said, “I feel like this might be what you would call it, a graduation.” And I was like, “It’s my last weekend.” And I thought, “Oh, it’s exciting.” For him, it’s also sad. But he said he was moving on to get another placement with a joiner. And I was like, “That’s brilliant.” Another lad’s gone on to do Stonemason up at Raby Castle. So it opens up pathways, it opens up journeys, it has so much benefit.
Kelly Molson: Oh, goodness, do you know what? That’s so weird because that kind of goes full circle to what were talking about at the beginning, doesn’t it? And you had all these different skills and then you brought them together and actually they all fitted really well into the museum sector. You’ve just done the same with these kids who have now got these skills and they’re going to take them back into the heritage space. That’s amazing.
Rhiannon Hiles: Yeah, it’s dead exciting. And sometimes people say to me, you’re opening up opportunities, people are coming along and learning, and then they move on. And I’m like, “That’s okay, that’s absolutely fine.” If they come and learn here, and if there is something for them here, that’s brilliant. If there’s not, or for whatever reason they choose to go elsewhere, they’re taking that skill set and they’re still contributing to the economy, to their community, and that is brilliant. So I never look at it as kind of like, “Oh, why is that?” I look at it as like, “That is a real opportunity for them”, for the museum and for the economy, for the region as well, for the visitor attraction.
Kelly Molson: Ultimately, with that in mind, that you want to get more people on board is a big part of your role actually going out and talking to organisations about what Beamish is? And if they don’t know about you already, I’m sure that you are incredibly well known around Durham, but you have to go out and engage with those organisations to kind of see where those connections can be made. Have you got like, a targets list of..
Rhiannon Hiles: I want to go and talk to.
Kelly Molson: In front of these people and have these conversations, but I guess that’s a creative element of what you do, isn’t it, is making those connections and kind of looking and seeing how you fit with them?
Rhiannon Hiles: Yeah, it absolutely is. And I think there’s other elements which are really critical for museums, for charities, for the sector, with regards to how those conversations can better enabled and how businesses can feel more comfortable in then donating or becoming part of. So some friends of mine who are in Denmark, it’s very usual for big money making businesses, when they get to a certain threshold, they’ve got no choice. It’s a government responsibility that you then have to choose a charity or a museum or a culture sector organisation that you give money to.
So my friend Thomas, who runs a brilliant museum, has had a lot of his developments funded directly through a very big shipping company, who I probably won’t be able to say now, but a huge shipping company fund their development, basically. And I was like he’s like, “Oh, does this happen for you?” And I was, “No.”
Kelly Molson: We have to go and hunt these people down.
Rhiannon Hiles: I was, like, brilliant. Could you imagine? Look, but for me, Bernard’s brilliant because he can get in there into cabinet and he’s a lobbyer and I think there’s some additional work that we as individuals in the sector can do. So I’ve talked to Andrew at Blackcountry about this and what our responsibility is to help to change policy.
And if nothing else, if you’re part of that change and if you are able to voice how that will then impact on people’s lives, then that is so important and so critical. It just depends on different parties approaches to what that impact on lives means, I suppose.
But at the moment, with all the parties conferences going on at the moment, we’ve got the ideal opportunity to go along and listen, but also to have a little pointer in there and say, “Don’t forget, and this is how important we are.”
Kelly Molson: That’s a skill, isn’t it, in itself? I can remember a conversation with Gurdon Morrison from ASVA. Sorry, formerly from ASVA . He’s now ACE, when we talked during the pandemic and he talked a lot about how he’d kind of taken some learnings from Bernard in the sense that Bernard, he’s quite strong politically and he’s a really good campaigner. And Gurdon said that they were skills that he’d had to learn. He wasn’t a lobbyer, it wasn’t his natural kind of skill set. And I think it’s really interesting that you said that, because that might not necessarily be your natural skill set either, but it’s something that you’ve now got to kind of develop to be able to shape policy, because if there’s an opportunity, take it.
Rhiannon Hiles: That’s right. And it’s not my skill set. But when you have a strong desire to see something work through change, and you can spot how that change can come about through having the right conversations, it’s who you go to for the right conversations that can also be the skill set. So that can be quite tricky. And when were looking for our new board of trustees and when were looking for a new chair, one of the key things were looking for was somebody who would have that kind of skill set.
And we have got that in our new chair. He really does know how to do that. So I constantly feel like, “Where’s he going to now and who’s he going to talk to next and who’s he going to get me linked up with?”
And that’s brilliant and he knows how important that is. But we also know that we have to take it at the right gentle time. Yeah. So he can open doors. And I think that’s so important. And our trustees, we’ve got a really strong set of trustees who can open doors for us. And again, that was deliberate in our approach that we took, to have a very diverse and representative board, to also have board members who can open other doors that we wouldn’t normally be opening, because we have a strong set of doors.
We open regularly and close regularly. But also the pace of it is so important that all of this is really needed. Because we’re an independent museum, we got to make sure that we are self sustaining.
Our main money comes from what we make on the door, but if we want to develop, we’ve got to make sure that we continue to get brilliant secondary, spend brilliant revenue. But on the other hand, we’ve got to make sure that we bring our people with us, whether they’re the staff, the volunteers, our visitors. We don’t want to be garping so fast that they’re not behind us when we worry about Crown. So it’s very exciting times.
Kelly Molson: Isn’t it? Lots of exciting changes happening. Well, look, we can’t have this podcast without talking about MasterChef either.
Rhiannon Hiles: Oh, yeah, that was brilliant.
Kelly Molson: So that’s an incredible opportunity. So you’re recently on MasterChef, where they came to Beamish. What an opportunity.
Rhiannon Hiles: Oh, it was amazing. But the thing was, they said, “You cannot talk about it, you cannot say anything.” So, literally, for months, were like, were dying to say that we’ve been a MasterChef. And they were like, you can’t tell anybody. But I don’t know how this managed to keep under wraps, because there was literally over 200 staff and volunteers were eating all the stuff that had been prepared. How they managed to keep that under wraps is beyond me, but at the minute seemed to work.
Kelly Molson: How long was it from recording to that going out as well?
Rhiannon Hiles: It was from February up until just the recent airing. So that’s quite a long time to keep it to yourself.
Kelly Molson: Well done that team.
Rhiannon Hiles: It was really hard. Like I said, “Julie, when are they showing it because I can’t keep it in any longer “, because it’s Julie, who you met, who was nope. They’ve said, “It’s tight lit, but it was brilliant.” And it’s great for us, for the museum. It was great fun taking part, don’t get me wrong. And I was in the local court recently and the lady behind the counter kept looking over and she went, “Are you a MasterChef?”
Kelly Molson: I wasn’t cooking, but yes.
Rhiannon Hiles: Yes. So I think my new quest now, I’d like to be a presenter on Master Chef. I don’t want to cook, but I’d quite like to be a presenter.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, I could do that. I could do the tasting, not the cooking. The cooking under pressure. It’s another level of stress, isn’t it? I like to take my time, read the instructions.
Rhiannon Hiles: Don’t need the pressure. It looked lovely, though. They’d used the school, they’d taken out all the benches that are in the school, in the pit village, and it turned into it looked beautiful. They’d use really lovely. I suppose they wouldn’t call them props because they brought them in, but they were in keeping with the school. It looks so lovely. I mean, you probably watched it and that scene of all the staff of volunteers coming in to sit down to their meal, the lovely tables, the bunting they put up. It looked right. It was brilliant. Yeah. They had some interesting takes on some local cuisine as well. Peas Pudding ice cream was one strange one, but got peas in it, Kelly. You don’t want it.
Kelly Molson: Giving that one a swerve in that one. Right. What book have you got that you’d like to share with our listeners?
Rhiannon Hiles: Oh, well, one of our trustees called Rachel Lennon, has written a really brilliant book called Wedded Wife, which is a great book, and I’ve just started reading it’s about the history of marriage, and it’s really interesting, so I would certainly advocate that one. I have a favourite book, which I go back to quite regularly, which is a childhood book and perhaps nobody ever would read it, but I love it and it kind of sums up for me what I was like as a child and what I continue to be like as I’ve gone through my career.
It’s called Wish For A Pony, and I really wanted a pony when I was between the ages of six and seven, and then I wished my wish came true. And from then on in, I believed that anything I wished for would happen.
And I still have that kind of strange, I often think I’m just going to wish that to happen, but I think it’s not just that, it’s holistic. I think if you really want something and you set everything towards it, yes, of course some people might say, but then you potentially set yourself up for great disappointment and failure. But I kind of think that you can’t do something without taking that risk.
So I just tend to think if you want it and you wish for it that much and that’s what you’re really aiming for, just go for it and do it. And perhaps the environment in which I’ve been brought up has enabled me to do that. And I completely understand that for some people that is probably difficult and challenging. I do get that.
So I feel that if I can help others who maybe haven’t got that kind of environment to help them like those lads and lasses from the Woodshed at Sacrosanct and folks like that if we can provide spaces where they really want to try something but they’re not sure how to do it then I think then we’ve achieved something.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, that’s lovely. Do you know what? So I’m reading the book at the minute I’ve read the book Manifest, and it is about visualisation and the power of our thoughts and how we talk to ourselves and the things that we kind of want to bring into our lives. And there was a little bit of it that I was kind of going, “Is it the power of the universe?”
It felt a little bit way woo to me, but then I kind of reflected on it a bit and went, but this is about taking action, really. It’s about going, “I want this to happen in my life.” And it’s not about sitting back and hoping that it might happen just because you’ve put a picture of it on your wall. It’s actually about going out and doing the bloody hard work to make it happen.
So have those conversations with the right people who are the people that can open the doors for you. Go and meet them, ask out to them. And I think that’s a really important element of the whole. Yes, you can wish for something to happen, absolutely. But you’ve got to put the legwork in to make it happen. What a great book. All right, Wish for a Pony.
Rhiannon Hiles: Wish for a Pony.
Kelly Molson: Listeners, as ever. If you want to win a copy of Rhiannon’s book, if you go over to this podcast announcement on Twitter and you retweet it with the words, I want Rhiannon’s book, then you’ll be in with a chance of winning it. I’m maybe not going to show it to my daughter because I’m actually terrified of horses.
Rhiannon Hiles: You don’t want a horse to appear in your garden.
Kelly Molson: Her cousins have got a pony. She can do it with them and not at home here. Rhiannon, it’s been so lovely to have you on. Thank you. I feel like this is one of those chats that could go on and on for hours. So I want you to come back when the accommodation is open. Yeah, because I want to know all about that. I’m going to visit that cinema. But, yeah, I’d love you to come back on and tell us how it’s gone once you’ve had your kind of first guest and stuff. I think that’d be a really great chat.
Rhiannon Hiles: I’d love that. All right.
Kelly Molson: All right. Wonderful. Thank you.
Rhiannon Hiles: Super. Thank you, Kelly. Thank you.
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