Case study: Leading the Sector, People’s History Museum

This case study is part of a set of resources from Developing digitally literate leadership in heritage organisations.

About the participant:

Name: Katy Ashton

Role: Director

Organisation: People’s History Museum

Jump to:

What did you want to find out or achieve as you tried things out? | What did you do? | What was difficult? | What surprised you? And/or was new? | What’s next? | What 3 quick takeaways would you give other heritage leaders? | Has thinking about and developing your own digitally literate leadership changed your overall leadership style? | Covid-19 gave the heritage sector’s digital transformation a kickstart – how do heritage leaders build on that? | Any further reflections around digital leadership that you’d like to add?

What did you want to find out or achieve as you tried things out?

Our experiment was about making better use of data and information to shape the work of People’s History Museum (PHM) – for staff across the team to feel more confident and more excited about collecting, analysing and using data. We wanted to be more aware of the importance of data in measuring the impact of our work, understanding where to invest our resources most effectively, and when making decisions about the museum’s current and future work.

What did you do?

Covid-19 actually presented us with new opportunities to collect and use data – with registration for tickets in place when we were open for a couple of months in 2020. And the time spent working remotely and delivering more online activity, gave people more interest and more need to interrogate information about our online audiences and activity. Different members of the team became champions for sharing and using this data and were able to present it in interesting and visual ways to the rest of the team and to the Board of Trustees. The change in ways of working driven by the pandemic, escalated this area of work (along with other digital developments) in unexpected ways and with more staff engagement (and less resistance) than might have been expected.

What was difficult?

It was difficult for me to follow the plan I had put in place for the experiment at the start with staff working remotely, staff on furlough and reduced capacity across the team. This, however, didn’t prevent us from moving forwards and achieving what I hoped from the experiment.

What surprised you? And/or was new?

It surprised me towards the end of the process that although we might not have followed the plan I had developed at the start of the experiment, we had achieved a great deal in this area. The context of the pandemic proved to be an enabler to thinking differently about data – to collecting, using, and sharing it in different ways. Having to think differently about measuring and sharing the museum’s impact (while our doors were closed) was actually really positive in engaging staff with this piece of work and increasing everyone’s understanding of what data can and should be used for across the museum.

What’s next?

The next step for PHM is to embed this way of working and ensure that staff continue to collect, analyse and use data in different parts of the museum. This will be mapped against the museum’s new business plan and has been mapped on a Trello board for the senior team to have oversight of all the data across the organisation. Senior managers need to think carefully about the data they want to see on a dashboard for PHM and which data will help them to make more informed decisions with a focus on delivering business plan aims and achieving the museum’s new vision. This will form an integral part of 2021/22 planning as we’re just looking at cascading objectives from the business plan aims to departments, teams and individual staff. This will map against targets and evidence and the use of data and information to demonstrate impact and performance will be essential.

What 3 quick takeaways would you give other heritage leaders?

  • Be clear about the outcomes you want to achieve through digital leadership and be prepared to flex, change or ignore the process you had planned. 
  • Digital data can be exciting and interesting when presented in a way that is relevant to your audience and uses visuals and graphics well. 
  • Celebrate positive digital change even in difficult circumstances and share learning and success internally as well as externally.

Has thinking about and developing your own digitally literate leadership changed your overall leadership style? If so, how? And… Has it changed the way you view your organisation’s mission or objectives?

Thinking about my own digitally literate leadership has reminded me that some of the most important roles I play as the leader of the museum are to: 

  • Ask good questions (interrogating the data and always connecting the data back to the museum’s vision and mission)
  • Be a positive champion for change and innovation (taking advantage of the changing external environment even when that’s challenging)
  • Recognise my own strengths and skills (and weaknesses) and those of others
  • To make best use of our collective digital skills and abilities to achieve our goals 

As we’ve developed a new Business Plan for 2021/22 the way we view our mission and objectives has also included a better awareness of how digital transformation underpins everything we do. We have moved from having a separate digital aim in our business plan to having it as an underpinning theme. Hybrid working is reflected across the new Business Plan and I feel more confident in embedding and championing a more integrated way of working. Thinking of digital as a separate area of work has felt problematic in the past – so making it more central to everything we do and everyone’s roles feels exciting and a good next step

Covid-19 gave the heritage sector’s digital transformation a kickstart – how do heritage leaders build on that? And…Has your experience during the pandemic changed the way you prioritise digital transformation? And… Where are the main challenges and opportunities for digital leadership and transformation in heritage arising from the Covid kickstart?

Covid definitely escalated and changed things at speed for PHM and for others. I think as leaders we need to celebrate that success and spend time reflecting on the positive changes while also acknowledging the difficulties – so that we can best build on that success and maintain the momentum in a more sustainable, long term way. 

One of the challenges has been how teams have responded differently to the way the pandemic has affected digital transformation – some embracing it fully – others resisting in some areas – and people feeling that the speed of change has been overwhelming and has needed to be reactive rather than proactive. This has led to work being developed quickly and iteratively which feels uncomfortable to some – and it feels important as leaders to recognise that plans have had to be relaxed or ignored over the last year – but that the outcomes have been positive and the change gives us something to build on. 

There is a real opportunity for us all to take what has worked well over the last year – where impact has been achieved – where audiences have been engaged – where working practices have been transformed – and to continue to invest in those areas as part of our recovery plans looking ahead.

Any further reflections around digital leadership that you’d like to add?

I’ve been thinking about how important it is for digital leaders to understand the context and potential impact of digital change without necessarily having the skills and expertise to deliver it all themselves… I know I am not the most digitally literate member of our team at PHM (but equally I am not the best person for collections management or conservation work) – but I do understand how digital is integral to our ability to achieve our vision and deliver our business plan. This has helped to alleviate some of my own fears and boost my confidence in knowing how I can best support and enable my team with their own digital skills, knowledge and understanding. 

This process has been brilliant and thought provoking in this respect – engaging me in new areas of thought and practice – challenging some of my own fears and concerns – creating clarity around how I can make the biggest difference to PHM and the sector as a digital leader (in the way that I define that for me).

Supporting material

*This case study was created as part of ‘Leading the Sector’ , a professional development course in Digital Leadership for a cohort of 16 leaders from medium-to-large heritage organisations across the UK. The course was part of The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Digital Skills for Heritage and ran from April 2020 to May 2021. Project partners were Golant Innovation/The Audience Agency and specialist advisors were Professor Ross Parry, University of Leicester and Dr Nick Winterbotham.

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence. Please attribute as “Case Study: Leading the Sector, People’s History Museum (2021) by Culture24 and Katy Ashton, People’s History Museum supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0