Newcastle entrepreneur behind Europe's top museum sector conference

Jim Richardson, founder of Newcastle design studio Sumo, has successfully grown MuseumNext to attract international attention

Delegates gather at the 2014 addition of MuseumNext, at The Sage Gateshead
Delegates gather at the 2014 addition of MuseumNext, at The Sage Gateshead

Few people would describe running an international conference as a “side project” but for one Newcastle businessman it is all part of the game.

Jim Richardson, the founder of Newcastle city centre-based design firm Sumo, has established what is fast becoming the top European conference for the museum sector.

From Sumo’s Westgate Road offices Mr Richardson and his team of seven staff formulated MuseumNext - a conference focusing on innovation, technology and marketing within the museum world.

The idea stemmed from work Sumo was already doing in the sector, for the likes of the Natural History Museum and the National Trust.

Mr Richardson said: “We were doing a lot of work in the museum space. Off the back of that I was speaking at conferences all over the space and writing all the time about how museums can market themselves to audiences with evolving perceptions of what museums should be.

“I was meeting a lot of interesting people from the sector and thought it would be good to create an event to bring them together.”

2008 saw some 70 delegates attend the first MuseumNext. Now six years on the conference is preparing for its 2015 addition in Geneva, which is expected to draw over 600 from around the world.

Next year’s event is expected to be a big budget affair, but Mr Richardson explained the project has gradually grown under its own steam, without outside investment.

He added: “It’s really an entrepreneurial project. Before the first one, I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to come. But I’ve been proved wrong and its really taken on a life of its own.

“Our aim is to make it the top event for the European museum sector, and we’re not far off that spot now.”

MuseumNext has not only served as useful business development tool for Sumo, but has also put Newcastle on the map.

The first conference in 2009 featured workshops in the city’s Great North Museum and the Centre for Life, out of which a $103m project at the Utah Museum of Natural History took shape.

“Technology has completely changed people’s expectations about what a museum should offer,” Mr Richardson said. “Audiences don’t want to have information thrown at them in some kind of linear experience.

“Audiences and visitors now want to be involved in the experience in a way that is tailored to their interests. It’s a more creative process for the museum-goer.”

Conference speakers look at how the proliferation of mobile devices has changed the way museums need to cater for their audiences, and how institutions can continue to play a role in their communities.

Topics covered span the breadth of architecture, exhibitions, technology, skills, collections, conservation, purpose and leadership. The overriding theme is the transformation of museums from traditional institutions to social ones.

Not content with the responsibility of Sumo and MuseumNext, Mr Richardson has also more recently launched “Ideas for the Brave” - a series of smaller bi-monthly events in Newcastle which focus on the wider business community and how brands should defy convention.

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