How do we measure success in a museum? This has long been a conundrum for museums, with shifting views through time, reflecting wider social and political agendas. I first grappled with this issue in the 1990s when I was a Lecturer in Museum Management and Marketing in the Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. Measures, both quantitative and qualitative, have become increasingly complex, leading museums to spend too much time measuring what they do, rather than simply doing it.
There is no question that the National Football Museum for England during my time as CEO, from 1997 to 2017, was an outstanding success. Let’s look at this through what I regard as the 7 key measures for any museum: collections; research; exhibitions; events; learning; inclusion; and impact.
Collections are the basis of any museum. When I joined the project to create the National Football Museum in 1997 there was almost no collection. When I left in 2017 the Museum held the greatest collections on football in the world, including the FIFA Collection. Acquisition of the FIFA Collection, in itself the greatest single historic football collection in the world, was the basis of the grant award of £9.3 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund) to create the Museum in 2001. The collections grew greatly in size and quality in the following years. The outstanding national and international significance of the collections was recognised in 2013, when the collections were awarded Designation Status by Arts Council England. The National Football Museum was the youngest Museum to have its collections Designated. In 2016 we acquired the best collection in the world on the history of women’s football, the Chris Unger History of Women’s Football Collection, thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and lottery players.
The National Football Museum had a comparatively small curatorial team. Yet by working with a range of universities and academics, and securing funding from a wide range of sources, a great deal of high-quality research on the collections was undertaken. This included 17 fully funded PhD studentships. The Museum’s research partnership with the University of Central Lancashire, the International Football Institute (IFI), headed by Professor John Hughson, developed into a major international centre, with a very extensive range of publications.
The public face of the Museum, its exhibitions, received an outstanding reaction from the public, from academic reviews, and from the media. For its displays at both its original site in Preston and then at its new site in Manchester, the Museum reached the final shortlist for European Museum of the Year. The projected visitor target for the Museum in Manchester was 350,000 each year, but the Museum soon attracted over 500,000. We were invited to join the UK’s Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) in 2014, and became the UK’s highest rated attraction by visitors in the 2014 ALVA survey! The Museum also created and contributed to over thirty exhibitions in fifteen countries around the world, attracting an audience of over two million people.
The Museum developed a very exciting and inclusive programme of public events, working with a wide range of partners, ensuring that there was an event almost every day. Examples included: hosting the major Football v Homophobia conference in 2015; BBC Two’s Match of the Day: The Premier League Show filmed live; an evening with David Beckham;and Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
A bold and highly successful learning and community strategy used the power of football to reach audiences that most museums struggle to reach. From over 100 babies setting a world record for a football physical activity together, to a group of Asian heritage young women creating a film about the hidden history of women’s football, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to using football memories to help people with dementia, we sought to reach and engage with the widest possible audience, in new and imaginative ways.
Under my leadership, the National Football Museum attracted a highly diverse audience. The percentage of working class visitors was higher than at any major museum in the country. The Museum attracted all ages, including relatively hard to reach age groups, such as teenagers. The focus on the issues of racism, sexism and homophobia in the game in exhibitions, events and learning programmes, challenged stereotypes and brought new and diverse audiences. For example, the Museum held the world’s first exhibitions on BAME footballers in 2003 and women’s football in 2005. The Museum attracted visitors from over 150 countries.
In attracting over 500,000 visitors each year, the museum made a substantial contribution to the economy of Manchester. The was calculated at over £26 million each year, indirectly also creating hundreds of jobs. The Museum also made a considerable social impact, through, for example, the learning, health and wellbeing agendas.
Above all …
Above all, in my time as CEO the Museum attracted over 5 million highly satisfied visitors.
Their experience was not just in a celebration of the game, but from a critical standpoint, challenging visitors to consider what they thought and felt about the game, past and present, and how they could help to shape the game in the future.