Beamish Museum director Richard Evans talks of ambitious plans

Beamish Museum director Richard Evans has doubled visitor numbers - now he has ambitious plans for the future

Richard Evans of Beamish Museum.
Richard Evans of Beamish Museum.

Richard Evans’ office is just a few doors up from his local pub, with a dentist’s, a sweep shop and a haberdasher’s close by too.

The upstairs room also has lovely views of a small park and lets him keep an eye on the ever-growing number of visitors who are coming to the business he runs, Beamish Museum.

That Mr Evans has moved his office from a modern office block on the edge of the museum to an upstairs room in the middle of the Town at Beamish is emblematic of the way he has thrown himself into the running of the open air museum since taking over there six years.

Not afraid to don period costume where the need arises, he has also overseen a re-birth at Beamish that has brought significant results: visitor numbers more than doubling, turnover up by a similar amount, volunteer involvement increasing to an even great degree and exciting developments ahead where once the future was not so clear.

Richard Evans of Beamish Museum
Richard Evans of Beamish Museum
 

“In 2008 we had 297,000 visitors. This year will be about 630,000 so we’ve doubled in size over the last six years and we’re really proud of that,” he said.

“I try not to be too critical in the past, it’s easy to do that, but I think that it was a difficult time. 2007, ‘08, ‘09 - that period was difficult for us.

“We were coming out of a period when the museum had been run by the local authorities and funded by them to a time where we were run as a charity and we needed to change the way we worked. We still got on with the authorities but it’s just that they couldn’t be the source of our funding.

“In 2008 we faced an operational deficit of £250,000 out of a turnover of £4m. You don’t need to be a statistician to work out that that’s not sustainable.

“So we made the decision to fix that ourselves, and the team here have done a fantastic job over the last five or six years to make that happen.

“We had to cut costs but we also reinvested back into the museum. There are new things to come and visit all the time and there are lots of different activities and that’s through a programme of reinvestment.

“We’ve reinvested £5.5m into the museum over the last five years. Most of that has been self generated as profit over that time. As opposed to a public sector operation, we look to produce a surplus. So for example at the moment over in our 1820s area we’re restoring a medieval church that’s been funded entirely by our profits from our catering operation. People can see the fruits of their own labour because it’s being built by our own building team but also it’s a direct consequence of cups of tea sold in our tea room.

“When I came we had 170 staff. Now we’ve got 365. Our volunteering input has gone up from 9,000 hours a year to about 26,500, we get support from about 430 active volunteers. There’s a lot more people helping us, working here, visiting here. It creates a happy momentum. The more people come, the more people you can employ and the more you can do, so it’s a virtuous circle rather than the opposite.”

Richard Evans of Beamish Museum.
Richard Evans of Beamish Museum
 

Mr Evans’ time at Beamish have seen a number of developments: the opening of a period bakery in the old Town, a fish’n’chip shop and band hall at the Pit Village and the transformation of the museum’s farm to represent the Second World War period.

But future development plans are even more exciting: a chemist’s and photographer’s studio is being built in the Town; a Weardale farmhouse is being taken down to be re-built brick by brick at the museum and work has started to create a replica of a 1874 narrow gauge railway.

More exciting still are the plans that accompany a £10.75m lottery grant, which has already been granted stage one approval. If it comes to fruition, those proposals could see new 1950s and 1980s areas created, a centre for people with dementia and overnight accommodation that would allow people to stay in the museum – in a period setting – overnight.

Alongside that capital programme, the Museum went back to its roots and re-created founding director Frank Atkinson’s appeal to people in the North East to donate period items. In one week last year hundreds of items were brought in to add to the millions the museum already owns.

The development plans are only possible, however, by the turnaround in the museum’s fortunes – at least some of which can be attributed to the decision to make a day ticket the same price as an annual pass. Instead of coming once every two or three years and feeling the need to see everything in one day, many people now come two or three times a year and do the bits they want to.

“People felt we were giving something away for nothing and of course you are but when people weren’t coming, it’s not like you’re giving something away that they’re consuming on a regular basis,” Mr Evans said.

“The problem at the time was, people liked Beamish, had strong views about it and had come 15 or 20 years previously. They didn’t have any ill feeling towards the place but they hadn’t been back and they felt it was too expensive. The price was a huge problem, and that was an issue for us because we needed the income to make the thing work.

“More importantly, we were a museum that seeks to tell the story of the people of the North East and we weren’t being accessible to the very people we were supposed to be representing.

“We wanted to offer a value proposition which attacked this perception of Beamish being an expensive day out and to change the way people visit, so that if you wanted to pop in and see a bit and come back on a different day, or you wanted to come for an event...it was an experience you could consume in different ways, particularly for local people.

“So the fastest growing segment in our audience is low income local families who use the year ticket. They aren’t wealthy people but they’re now our core audience. We’ve got a band of regulars, 23% of the total, that just didn’t exist before.

“As well as that, more than half our visits are still from outside the area. That represented 300,000 people last year. They quite often come over two days because it’s a big site and as we continue to grow, that number’s going to get bigger. They might come and see Beamish and then go to see Durham Cathedral or go to the coast, then come back the next day.

“We take 2,500 surveys a year and we know that about 55% of our visitors are from outside the North East. Of those more than half of them are coming to visit the North East specifically because of Beamish. So when we’re looking at our impact in terms of the wider economy - jobs, growth, investment, tourism - that’s a very significant number of people. There aren’t many sites that can attract that many people.”

Beamish’s recent success has seen the museum win a number of tourism awards, but last year it also won a prize for being the best not-for-profit organisation at the North East Business Awards.

Richard Evans of Beamish Museum
Richard Evans of Beamish Museum

And for Mr Evans, many of the disciplines of running a business are also relevant to what he does.

“We need money to run Beamish but we’re not motivated by money,” he said. “Our motivation is more about securing the long term future of Beamish through focusing on the visitors.

“But some disciplines are the same: customer focus, commercial discipline, making sure we innovate and have products and experiences that people really want.

“The motivation in the end is to see the long term future of the museum and its charitable and education purpose. Securing the authenticity of that goes beyond what most corporate bodies would be prepared to do.

“Today I was looking at a five-year revenue forecast. This year is going to be another record year and I keep thinking about that you can’t possibly continue to grow. In that sense I feel like it’s my business, but it’s really owned by the population of the North East.

“I think it’s all the more powerful for that. You get incredible loyalty from staff. They work incredibly hard and give a little bit extra because of that.

“Planning and getting the team together who are going to make it happen – that’s been the most enjoyable thing here has been the team around for the business but they bringing the team together and bring about the investment we’re going to make over the next five years.

“We feel we’ve got the team now to deliver our vision. which wasn’t foreseeable give years ago. That’s been very, very satisfying.

“Getting people to fulfill their potential is the most successful thing about running any business.”

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