Five minutes with...Helen Bonser-Wilton, Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust

Five minutes with...Helen Bonser-Wilton, Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust
Published: 8 July 2020

The Mary Rose – Henry VIII’s warship, lost in 1545, recovered in 1982 and now on display in a dedicated museum in Portsmouth is one of the UK’s most important heritage assets. In the latest edition of our ‘Five minutes with…’ series,  Will Pringle, Berwick Partners’ Head of Charity, Arts, Culture & Heritage Practice practice speaks to Helen Bonser-Wilton, Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust about the challenges she and her team have faced over the last three months, and the future of the museum.

Helen began our conversation by discussing the impact of lockdown and the closing of the museum: “The Mary Rose had seen a significant reduction in visitor numbers from the beginning of March and after the Prime Ministers announcement in the middle of the month, I sat down with my team and we made the decision to close the museum with immediate effect. The decision to close was partly down to the need to protect my team, but also quite honestly I felt that we needed to grab the opportunity on the media front and get in early, to raise the profile of the fact we don’t receive any government funding and how we had now lost our ability to generate any income and would need significant financial help and assistance in order to survive.

That plan paid off and we quickly received significant national media coverage, which allowed me to get my foot in the door with senior people at the lottery and DCMS to explain our situation and how critical it was that we received assistance.

I also took the opportunity to campaign and take a leadership position flying the flag for the wider independent museum sector because this situation has been particularly acute for those organisations who receive no government funding and rely wholly on the income generated from visitors.”

Helen continued by telling me that she felt that there was an initial lack of understanding from the Treasury around the different dynamics of the arts and cultural sector and therefore what solutions were appropriate: “For us, the option of taking a business loan is not viable. Heritage organisations already struggle with the annual costs of caring for their collections simply can’t service the debt.” However, Helen remains hopeful that support will come and be distributed to those in need before it’s too late.

Helen went on to explain “In closing the museum, we furloughed 82% of staff, leaving eight of us working. Those of us remaining are therefore each covering about five roles. For example, I am doing everything from raising money, to lobbying government through to writing all our HR letters. It’s the same with my Head of Conservation and Collections Care, who is doing things like filling tanks up and emptying air conditioning units through to delivering high level academic research. It has been a bit of a challenge and everyone has been great.”

Helen also discussed where else the Mary Rose has accessed support, “Historic England have come forward to support us with some of our collections costs, otherwise we have been focussed on going to charitable trusts and philanthropists, because up until this point government support for our sector has been missing.

One of our key funding foundations has generously supported us with a £300,000 gift and we’ve submitted a bid for £250,000 to the Lottery. Two philanthropists have also come forward with hugely generous gifts of £300,000 and £100,000 respectively. The public have reacted with a great deal of generosity and have raised over £25,000.

As a result of this generous support, we have moved from a position where we would run out of cash by June to one where we can survive until Autumn. We are hopeful of raising the remaining money to survive the year, as government support for the cultural sector comes forward. We can then re-open during the summer, however, this does not provide a silver bullet to financial woes.”  

Looking at the near future, Helen commented: “Consumer research from organisations such as ALVA have shown that only 12% of people would consider visiting an indoor museum before the end of September. With this low consumer confidence and actively limited numbers to enable social distancing, we are forecasting getting 10% of our normal visitor numbers in August and only 20% in September. The fact is that we have lost almost the whole of our visitor season to COVID and during the autumn/winter period, visitor numbers are low, and we are unable to make money.

The even bigger challenge will be how long it takes for these numbers to recover to usual levels and what impact this will have on 2021. We fear they almost certainly will not, particularly as many of our visitors are older and may await a vaccine before visiting.” 

Our conversation turned to how the pandemic may impact the sector over the long term and Helen noted that as long as people were fearful of being around others and needing to be ultra-careful with hygiene, this would affect the museum experience: “Museum experiences are all about interaction, people, being hands on with collections. COVID-19 has dealt a significant blow to the ‘arms open’ approach that the sector has been working so hard on for the past fifteen years, affecting things like handling tables and all the interactives. This whole situation could adversely affect the story telling and interpretation a museum can deliver for quite some time.

If you are unable to handle things and talk freely to guides it could make the whole experience very sterile and you do have to ask if people are going to want to come and see that.”

Our conversation then moved to Helen’s view of digital and she quickly reminded me that “Heritage spaces are all about a sense of place and standing in the place where history happened, seeing the real thing and you just can’t reproduce that authenticity digitally.”

For many organisations like Mary Rose, with so many staff furloughed, there was simply no resource available to work on a substantial digital offer, as those working were focussed on getting the money in to pay the salaries for the next month. She also expressed the observation that it has been very difficult to monetise digital content as people have the expectation that it should be free.

When considering her approach to leadership in lockdown, Helen told me of her experience: “It’s been a challenge of course. But lockdown for me personally has not been a trial, as an introvert, I’ve quite enjoyed it, but clearly, it’s not been that way for all. I’ve had to adjust my style and check in with people more regularly. I have also written a weekly blog to staff members and the board to keep them aware of what’s been going on. We are also going to start embarking on a series of webinars as we approach reopening to explain how the environment will be different for those who return.

Bringing the conversation to a close I asked Helen if she had any words of wisdom for emerging leaders, dealing with a crisis: “See a crisis as an opportunity to achieve things that may not previously have seemed possible.  For example, we have now got a direct line into DCMS about funding for the first time and have realised that many staff can work from home very effectively, which may mean we can reduce our office footprint and therefore costs. The crisis has given us much greater media coverage and exposure and opened people’s eyes to our situation and the vulnerability of an organisation such as ours.”

The Mary Rose will reopen in August.

For more information please contact Will PringleHead of the Arts, Culture and Heritage practice at Berwick Partners.

Categories: Arts Recruitment

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