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What it is like being head of commercial at a museum

Ilona Harris has been Head of Commercial at Weald and Downland Living Museum in Sussex four years.

Essentially my job and that of my team is to generate income for the museum and to do so in a way that reflects the museum’s ethos, community and core work.
The income that we raise supports the conservation and upkeep of the museum’s collection of historic buildings and structures. My team covers seven areas of the museum, five of which are income generating – catering, retail, fundraising, membership, venue hire – and two of which are support functions – site Maintenance, marketing.
 
With catering, our primary purpose is to serve the museum visitors in our lovely waterside café. We are purposeful in seeking out local suppliers so the food and drink we offer reflects the rural roots of the museum and supports the makers of the Weald & Downland Region. We are supplied by Caroline’s Dairy, a dairy farm in Sidlesham who make their own amazing ice cream, and our coffee comes from Edgecumbes, a coffee roastery in Arundel; just two examples. 
 
With retail, again we want to reflect the museum’s values and geographic remit. The Weald & Downland region spans four counties – Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Kent. We teach traditional crafts and trades to ensure their preservation. We reflect this in the shop by hunting out independent producers, makers and craftspeople from these counties. By the nature of their production practices these makers are also environmentally low impact, something we advocate for in the retail choices we make.
Some of my favourite products we have at the moment are tote and wash bags made from our old promotional vinyl banners. These have been made into bags for us by Alice of Arundel, a local handmade accessories business. A great, practical and good looking upcycling project that supports a small scale independent maker.
 
Our members and donors provide much needed funds for the museum. We are entirely self-funded and must generate the income we need to maintain our collection of houses and artefacts. Our aim here is to provide our members with a quality of experience and make them feel that they are part of something valuable, and supporting something worthwhile.
 
Finally with our venue hire we get to be involved in lovely things like weddings for couples for whom the museum holds special memories, or interesting film projects that see the museum represented on tv and the silver screen. We’re careful here to make sure that these projects don’t detract from the visitor experience which is our primary purpose and (hopefully) can actually enhance it; who doesn’t want to have a sneak peak of a tv series or movie being made? 

What I love about working at Weald and Downland

 We are a small team who can achieve a lot. That brings with it a variety to a working day and a sense of every one mucking in. One minute you could be in a field talking about where to set up 40 yurts, the next will be helping carve pumpkins for Halloween half term.
On a sunny day, in fact even in the pouring rain, it is a beautiful place. As a small team the opportunity to have an idea and try it is also more readily achievable then it can be in larger team.
Every building at the museum, with the exception of one replica build as part of an archaeological project, has been rescued from somewhere else, taken down, tile by tile, brick by brick, and timber by timber and moved to the museum.
That’s quite an amazing thing when you think about it. These are not the houses of rich aristocracy.
These are not the homes that we are used to seeing protected and preserved, which is why they were at threat of demolition in the first place. These are the homes and work places of regular people, like you and me. Their stories, their lives and their history is worth knowing and worth remembering. And that is what the museum is here for.
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.
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