A Director’s view – Steve Gardam of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

Steve Gardam, Director of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre shares his perspective on the challenges of museum life in lockdown.

“The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre opened in 2005, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, Roald’s home village for 40 years and where he wrote all his most famous children’s books. Visitors can see the preserved interior of Roald’s famous Writing Hut, and items from his remarkable archive of notes, ideas, drafts and letters: a peek into the creative process of a storytelling genius.

As Director, concern at losing income held me back from rushing to prepare for the Coronavirus threat, not sure how serious it would be. In practice, our last visitor day was 15 March: staff began to work from home, and prepared to shutter the Museum. Lockdown was confirmed on 23 March; we quickly bought some laptops for those staff without home computers. However, the advent of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) made it obvious that we had to furlough almost all our staff, and place the Museum into a kind of hibernation. At present, CJRS grants are the only income we have, slowing the drain on our reserves.

We looked carefully at the emergency funding schemes from ACE and NLHF, and decided that – with decent reserves, built over years for an intended capital project – it was not right to compete with other organisations in more immediate need. Of course, this simply means our financial crux lies further ahead, and that longer-term Government help will be needed for many museum charities.

I have found myself tweeting far more than before, trying to support AIM’s advocacy for the independent sector, to remind people in power that not all museums are publicly-funded cathedrals. AIM’s voice has been and will continue to be vital.

Doing the right thing in difficult times, we also decided to keep our staff at 100% pay for as long as we can afford it. Unfortunately, we have not been eligible for the local authority grants as our site’s rateable value is too high. However, the moral and informational support from our local stakeholders – especially our local councilor, local Destination Marketing Organisation and business growth hub – has been remarkable, and with their help we hope to bring in small grants to offset some costs of recovery.

For my own sanity, filtering out much of the flood of coronavirus-provoked information (all these webinars!), has been one of my biggest tasks, with the concern that I might miss something crucial. After daily emails at the start of lockdown, we have kept up weekly team meetings, on Zoom, to share our interpretation of the latest information from Government, and acknowledge where we simply don’t yet have an answer. These calls can be a bit painful (asking ‘how is everyone doing?’ feels polite but weird) yet are clearly necessary. Staff teams are keeping up with each other less formally, I’m speaking with my direct reports weekly and our trustees are on call.

Our eventual reopening depends on changes to lockdown, and the CJRS grants. For as long as those grants last, they likely mean more reliable income than we could expect from visitors. However, with any kind of social distancing rules in place, we anticipate offering personalised guided tours per family, as the only way we can provide a great, safe experience. Much detail needs to be worked out how we do this ‘COVID-secure’, and we already know it will not make enough money, as it limits capacity. But developing this new approach will give us focus as a team, and – with luck – buy us more time in which public health and confidence can rise before our reserves run dry.

Our lasting challenge comes – ironically – from those qualities that have been our strengths. We are a small site around a cosy courtyard. We are a place enjoyed by children. We are a highly interactive, communal and hands-on visitor experience for an audience of families and schools. Those qualities now feel . . . different.

We have great name recognition, and this gives us hope that we can find a way to move our work with schools online, if we can find funding to undertake that development work. We know that we can still give future visitors a great experience, if we can persuade them to come. For the entire sector, that is the uncertainty we all face.”

Hear more from Steve Gardam and the reopening plans for the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre at AIM’s virtual conference. Book a place for ‘Preparing to reopen; case studies from independent museums’ on Friday 19 June.