|Proud history with a bright future|
|Friday, 25 November 2011|
The Lister Centenary is set to increase interest in the College’s museum and its extensive Lister collection. Chris Henry explains how the RCSEd’s heritage is being made more accessible to the general public
It’s not often you get the chance to observe a project developing that results in a quantitative improvement in your working environment. I have been privileged, over the last year, to see how our strategic plans can come to fruition.
This year, we have concentrated on a campaign to bring more visitors to the museum. I have often heard it said that the museum is a ‘hidden gem’ or one of Edinburgh’s ‘best kept secrets’ and this led me to believe that much greater awareness of the museum could be created by improving aspects of marketing and events. After all, the museum resides in the centre of Edinburgh and is part of the Edinburgh world heritage site. The key to raising the profile lay in the promotion of supporting events, networking and improved marketing.
“The Lister project has the difficult task of ensuring that the Playfair building remains true to its 1832 origins and introduces new forms of technology and interpretation”
The museum still operates in a dual mode; it shifts its role between a private institution and a public access space. The Heritage Committee and the Council have made it clear that they support greater public involvement. It is interesting to see the difference between the present day and the nineteenth century when in 1839, the museum was visited by 10,256 people of which 7,926 were public visitors (Cresswell, 1926). The encouragement of public visits was not always so well supported at the College, in 1852 after Christmas opening it was reported that, “There was necessarily great confusion, and much dirt and dust deposited. Four policemen were in attendance to keep order. The only damage done was one preparation jar broken, but the preparation itself was not injured. Some of the skeletons were damaged, but the mischief could easily be rectified.[!]”
In 2009, there were 14,000 visitors but the museum has restricted opening hours (12-4pm, Monday to Friday) and were it to open on a seven-day-a-week, seven hours a day, basis this would translate into about 18-19,000 visitors a year. It has become obvious that many visiting tourists and people in full-time education would prefer to visit at the weekend when traditionally the museum has been closed. This is a fundamental issue and so we decided to look into opening at weekends between 12-4pm seasonally. Additional part-time staff were recruited and the museum opened between April and October in 2011. The result was instantaneous and we found that an additional 5000 visitors have been to the museum on weekends. In marketing terms, the traditional form of communication is a leaflet and so we have increased the number of leaflets produced to be circulated around the city. Secondly, we have maintained a constant stream of information from our website, but more importantly we have ensured that the museum has a presence on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. In addition, more and more people are using evaluation sites like Tripadvisor and the museum has had glowing reviews from that quarter.
It has not just been the weekends that have been helping to raise the awareness of the museum. In fact, visitors are on the increase and visitor numbers passed last year’s total in September and the likely figure for the end of the year will be 25,000.
Events have played a part in ensuring that visitors know there is a constantly changing programme that they can attend, dealing with wide-ranging subject matter. This year, the subjects have ranged from facial anthropology workshops to lectures, art classes and live historic interpretation and the programme relies on engendering the interest of a varied audience to keep it interesting.
Before 2010, there were very few events and activities at the Museum. The private tours and school groups were popular. However, the Museum was being thought of as a place to be seen only once and visitors were not being given an incentive to return and explore the collections in depth. Other barriers to visitor participation and rising figures were the common misconceptions that the Museum was only for specialists or that the subject area would not be suitable for the average museum visitor or younger person.
By exploring the Museum objects and looking at the research, teaching and cultural activities happening throughout Edinburgh and the UK, many themes could be drawn out and used to show different perspectives on our collections. Museum visitors have responded well to the new programme which investigates different aspects of the collections through subjects such as medical history, social history, current health issues, art and music. By initiating this programme of events, we increased the audience to which we could market the Museum and were able to reassess our marketing plan and expand into social media. Therefore, we have seen an increase in return visitors and have attracted many new visitors, including family groups, who have realised there are many opportunities for them through increased accessibility to the collections.
From a small programme of events in 2010, this year the Museum events programme has expanded. In 2011, we have participated in many festivals which have included a series of art and anatomy classes during the Science Festival, a skull identification night during The Festival of Museums and a series of talks during the Edinburgh Festival given by our volunteers Mr Iain Macintyre, Ms Christine Short and Dr Alan Mackail. As a result of our ‘Healthy Mind and Body’ event for Edinburgh Doors Open Days, we now have five new physiotherapy volunteers, with whom we will be developing our new ‘Body in Motion: Disability, Disease and Damage’ tours for the Science Festival and London 2012.
A great part of the events development has been done in collaboration with academic institutes, writers, artists, musicians and our own volunteers who have come in to take lectures, talks, classes and workshops on an increasing variety of topics. By forming partnerships with academic institutes we not only aim to widen our visitors’ knowledge, but endeavour to continually increase our understanding of the collections and encourage new research projects.
Any museum will also need to change its exhibition programme. This can be a time-consuming and complex process and with a small team a lot of research is required. This year the department has installed two new exhibitions, the first, The Accoucheur: Sir James Young Simpson, examined the life and work of James Young Simpson. This exhibition was carried out as part of the College’s celebration of the life of Simpson and gave us a valuable opportunity to bring out historic objects and specimens that had not been on general display. We also had the opportunity to interview Professor Andrew Calder about his work thus linking the present-day Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology with Simpson, who was the youngest holder of the Chair. This interview was recorded on film and is now part of our touch-screen displays. The second was an exhibition designed to support the Scottish Ophthalmology Club. Sight for Scotland: 100 years of Ophthalmology is now installed in the upper gallery of the Jules Thorne building. The Scottish Ophthalmology Club was founded in 1911 and this exhibition celebrates 100 years of the club, exploring current eye conditions and tracing the early history of eye surgery around the world. It has several ‘interactives’ and was designed with ophthalmologists Mr Geoffrey Millar and Mr Alistair Adams.
Although the number of visitors to the museum is important, the quality of the visit is as important. There is no doubt that visitors are fascinated by the human body, but they expect more and more technology as we immerse ourselves in the digital age. Earlier this year we installed touch screens into the Pathology Museum in selected areas. Each screen shows filmed explanations by Senior Fellows of various artifacts that are on display. This has been a very popular system and we intend to enhance the use of technology by introducing short, guided tours in four languages. The interesting thing about this project is that it will be mobile phone-based and operated by QR codes. If you are unsure what a QR code is, then the easiest way to describe it is as a bar code in a square. Basically the visitor puts their smart phone in front of it and they get a short guided tour in their language of some of the more important objects in the collections. We expect to have tours in Spanish, Italian, French and German. This system is likely to be in place early in 2012.
Although we try to introduce as many new concepts as we can, space limits the opportunities for interpretation in the present museum configuration. Therefore my main focus for the future is a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to transform the museum and its contents providing new access via a lift shaft directly behind the main entrance. This project, the Lister project, has the difficult task of ensuring that the Playfair building remains true to its 1832 origins and introduces new forms of technology and interpretation. We do not intend to radically change any aspect of the Pathology Museum, rather enhance it by the use of audio-visual techniques that can be switched off when required. The project is an amalgamation of physical access, redesign and conservation and is too complex to go into here so we hope that a future article for Surgeons’ News will give details of our plans.
Christopher Henry, Director of Heritage