Fraser Hale, curator of the Woodbridge Tide Mill Museum, gives us an insight into some of considerations the Woodbridge Tide Mill Museum has had to factor in over the last few months.
Ninety-four days! From the day at the end of March, when we should have opened, until early July, when we emerged from enforced hibernation. Ninety-four days, all of which were spent, to some degree, thinking about and planning for opening our doors again.
For almost every museum in Europe the first half of 2020 has been as testing a time as most of us can remember. For some it has resulted in the derailment of their careers, and consequent financial uncertainty – the sector needs to support those in difficulty where it can, and look together to a new, alternative, future.
Woodbridge Tide Mill Museum is a little different to many museums – it is also a working, tide-powered, water mill. Allowing the mill to sit completely idle for even a week or two introduces a range of engineering and maintenance challenges. We had to work out a way in which we could keep the machinery turning, and keep producing flour, which was in great demand. At the same time we needed to ensure the safety of the small teams of volunteers who needed to be in the Museum to achieve these aims.
Keeping the Tide Mill working was a challenge, especially at a time when clarity about the impact of the virus, and reliable advice about how to survive it, was in short supply. We had to make the best decisions we could, based on what we knew at any given moment. What we learned was that the situation needed to be constantly monitored; we had to cross check every piece of information, apply the new knowledge to our context, and respond in a way that delivered the best risk/return ratio. Continuing to mill did deliver, however, the benefit of an extended ‘soft-opening’, allowing us to learn a lot about the issues that we’d need to address when visitors returned.
Once the government started to semaphore that museums might soon be re-opening, we began planning in earnest. Over the course of six weeks we performed almost as many Risk Assessments, tuning them successively to our own findings and the guidance emerging from museums across Europe as they re-opened ahead of the UK. In parallel with the Risk Assessments we built a plan for re-opening – again, this was an iterative document that was adjusted and added to as things unfolded. The Opening Plan covered topics as basic as pre-opening maintenance programmes, which we perform prior to any new season, to plans for radically altering our audience’s visit planning experience.
The Tide Mill is an old building. A structure whose design was focused on an industrial process, rather than accommodating a clutch of visitors wandering its floors. Grade 1 listing means that, despite restoration work, very few changes to the building are allowed. Steep, narrow staircases have always been a challenge, now they presented choke points in our efforts to development a safe visitor flow plan. Our testing and learning led us to a control protocol that meant that the number of visitors in the museum at any one time needed to be significantly limited. In order to manage this we would need to move from a walk-in, pay-on-entry philosophy to online ticket sales for pre-booked timed visits. This was a major departure for a small museum, dependent on ticket sales for revenue, used to welcoming casual visitors drawn to Woodbridge’s various riverside attractions.
Limiting visitor numbers, and imposing the extra costs of an online ticket sales system, raised the next tough decision – is it commercially viable to re-open? Most museums carry significant fixed running costs and overheads. Any revenue that can be generated may help to offset these costs. Variable costs associated with re-opening, though, might cancel out any of this benefit. For the Tide Mill the only model that made sense was to concentrate our offering on weekends – to maximise visitor numbers for minimised variable costs. At present, we have little understanding of how long this situation will continue. If the museum is to survive, we need to re-invent the way that visitors can interact with the museum building and collections.