September 2020

Barnsely Museums, owned and operated by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, represents Cannon Hall, Worsbrough Mill, Cooper Gallery, Elsecar Heritage Centre and Experience Barnsley. The team has been telling us about their experiences adjusting to these unprecedented circumstances, what their COVID-19 response strategies are, and how they are playing out. Barnsely Museums' five-point Community Story covers:

  1. Life in Lock-down
  2. Adapting to New Approaches
  3. Considering our Comeback
  4. Data-led Decision Making
  5. Navigating the New Normal

Life in Lock-down

Barnsley Museums, like all culture venues, have been massively affected by the pandemic. Our visitors and the communities that we reach are at the very heart of what we do and the stories we tell, which has made closing our doors particularly difficult. Our spaces are invaluable for many, often offering a safe, relaxing and stimulating place to spend time with friends, family and loved ones. And it is not just inside our buildings that we engage with people - the work we do out in the community brings people together with opportunities of companionship and connection. So for all this to stop so suddenly was shocking for team members as well as residents and visitors.

Although our inside spaces were closed, our outside spaces became even more precious as people sought to spend time in the natural environment during the pandemic. They became a safe haven and offered moments of reflection and relaxation at a time when people needed them most. The outside spaces have attracted high levels of visitors over the last six months - much higher than in previous years. We've also noticed that the behaviour patterns of people coming to the venue have changed. Visits are no longer focused on particular times or days – it has become a much more general pastime and is spread out across the week, rather than condensed into weekends.

From an organisational perspective, used as we were to working in a very creative and collaborative environment, pivoting to remote methods was daunting. But using Teams, Zoom and other similar platforms, we have been able to create some actually very strong and adaptable way of working.

One of the biggest impacts the pandemic-necessitated closure has had on Barnsley Museums has been the financial. With shops shut and venues closed to visitors and their donations, there has been little revenue to support the museums' work. We've had some residual financial support from car parks and an increase in flour sales for Worsbrough Mill, but this is a small proportion of the museums' usual income.

Adapting to New Approaches

After realising that the closure would likely be months rather than weeks, the Barnsley Museum team adapted quickly – moving rapidly from a full and varied physical programme to an exciting and engaging digital one.

Already invested, as we were, in digital work, ambitions were accelerated and plans moved forward to ensure we were able to continue connecting with our physically absent visitors. Working collaboratively as a service (including senior management, marketing, digital, curatorial, commercial, learning, volunteering and front of house) everyone came together to share ideas and plan how the new way of working would take shape.

We wanted to continue offering the same high quality and engaging content as ever – only now, on digital platforms. To that end, we:

  • Invested in creating new digital content e.g. films and images.
  • Offered virtual experiences such as 360 tours, live Q&A’s, jigsaws, games, wellbeing, learning and reminiscence experiences.
  • Planned a whole programme of online family experiences.
  • Hosted live events in new and creative ways – experimenting with tech to find the best solutions.
  • Worked with media partners to make sure our messages were heard loud and clear.
  • Reached digital audiences around the globe and closed the gap between user and non-user.
  • Developed an outreach programme in preparation for children’s return to schools.

All of the projects, and the data we captured off the back of them through the Digital Audience Survey, offered us an essential learning experience to build on. We have subsequently developed our techniques in how to present content and showcase collections, strengthened our digital platforms, become more comfortable in hosting live events, been bolder in investing in digital content and expanded our skill sets as a team.

Considering our Comeback

As we have discovered in the last few months, the situation surrounding the pandemic is very unstable. Policy, procedures and positions are changing daily and we as a team have learnt to be adaptable. We have a phased approach to reopening and will be doing so in a cautious and careful way – ensuring the safety of our visitors and team is of utmost importance.

We have produced a 'welcome back' film for each of our five venues, highlighting the new visitor experience, the changes people will expect to see and what has been put in place to make it safe. This messaging has underpinned our social media and on other digital platforms. We were keen to be responsible in our messaging and only encourage visitors to return when the time is right and in line with government guidelines.

We are also thinking more about how we can use our outside spaces as a safe way to attract visitors back to our sites. That said, our digital offer remains as important as ever, not only in terms of enhancing the visitor experience but to engaging with those who are still not able to visit in person

Data-led Decision Making

The digital data we have captured through the Digital Audience Survey over the past few months has done three key things:

  1. Informed how we move forward with our digital work. This feedback has given us a better understanding of our digital audience as well as our non-users. People have been very generous in terms of sharing their thoughts on our work and have given us an indication of what works/what doesn’t, what people like/what they don’t.
  2. Helped us to rethink our overall Audience Development Plan, which we are in the process of reviewing on the back of the pandemic
  3. Increased our confidence in working digitally and raised our ambitions in what we can do in the future

Navigating the New Normal

Some of the changes put in place during the pandemic have now been imbedded into the long-term future of Barnsley Museums. Digital, rather than being an add-on, is now an essential part of everything we do - from marketing, collections, exhibitions, events, and commercial practices, to volunteering, learning and engagement.

We could be operating in uncertain times for many months to come and we will need to maintain our flexibility and adaptability to be able to continue to offer a high-quality service. The behaviours of visitors and users in some cases will have permanently changed and we are very aware that we will, in turn, need to change with them.

Large parts of our offer are no longer available - such as interactives, close contact events and tours - all of which we have rethought into a virtual offer. The work we are doing digitally is future proofing how we display our collections and tell our stories in these unsettling times. Our digital platforms - website, social media channels and e commerce - have become more invaluable than ever.

The importance of our outside spaces has really been highlighted during this time and we are especially keen to continue considering how we can use them to ever-better advantage, so that they can become a regular part of people’s routine in the future.

Interested in contributing a Community Story of your own? Download the template HERE.

If you have any questions or are ready to send over a story, please get in touch with