Posted on Tuesday 4 June 2019 by Ulster Business
John Mulgrew speaks to National Museums NI chief executive Kathryn Thomson about challenging finances, cracking the one million visitor mark and support for a Troubles ‘peace centre’
Kathryn Thomson isn’t shying away from ambition. And part of that aspiration is attracting more than a million visitors to some of Northern Ireland’s leading tourist attractions.
She’s been at the helm of National Museums Northern Ireland for three years – responsible for the Ulster Museum, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and Ulster American Folk Park.
And in that time she’s had to deal with constrained finances while growing outside visitor numbers and ensuring the museums are both attracting and creating the best exhibitions, while challenging and embracing societal change.
“For me it has been fantastic. I was at Tourism NI for 11 years. This was a different opportunity,” Kathryn says. “In my head, museums were visitor attractions, but now you see that we support the economy, but do a lot more, particularly around areas such as a social impact.”
But it’s been a “really challenging” role for the former Tourism NI executive – particularly around a reduction in funding. That’s meant the organisation has had to make difficult decisions around the size of workforce, which is now around a third smaller than it once was.
In the last financial year, more than 900,000 visitors passed through the doors of the museums under its wing, and notably, a growing number are from outside Northern Ireland. But it’s a number Kathryn wants to see grow further still, to around 50-55%.
“From my perspective, it wasn’t just by accident, and has been steadily growing. We have taken a long hard look at ourselves, and some of the challenges we face as an organisation.
“The world around has changed, preferences and lifestyle. What role do museums play in society today?
“Our financial position has been very challenging,” she says. That’s down to reduced funding from Stormont. It has reduced significantly, and we now have around 30% fewer staff – around 230 workers.
“We have had to embrace change, and internally significant structural change. Externally, we have really been much more specific about what we are delivering for society… making it as relevant as possible.”
The organisation is a £13.5m business, and Kathryn says there is always a focus on how the organisation can become more commercial.
“That is a difficult challenge for a museum. We are here for the public benefit and good. The public sector doesn’t have a bottomless pit of money – we have a big estate, and there’s a challenge to use assets better than we have… how you sweat your assets better to support and improve the museums.”
Around 75% of funding comes from the Department for Communities, and the rest from admissions, retail catering, venue hire and grants.
“The challenge is… yes, we do tell stories, but critically it’s what those collections allow us to do – challenging perceptions and ideas, to build a better future.”
And with the success of Titanic Belfast, Kathryn’s keen on growing the volume of visitors from outside Northern Ireland. Around 300,000 of those walking through the doors are tourists.
“That has been increasing over the last few years. The museum has grown by 8-10% in the three last years.”
Helping drive that has been the success of several high-profile exhibitions, including the ‘Troubles and Beyond’, Dippy the Diplodocus and the Games of Thrones tapestry.
“In 2010 when we redeveloped the Troubles gallery, it was universally panned,” Kathryn says. “It was primarily picture-led, and didn’t have objects or anything tangible.”
But the exhibition that now exists is a different affair entirely. “It was done with strong partnership and collaboration,” Kathryn says. “We had an advisory group and (worked with) Wave Trauma Centre and the Community Relations Council. We also engaged widely with communities – we have had items loaned by members of the public, and bringing that all together has allowed us to open the gallery and stand over the credibility of what is there.”
The museum has also played host to globally recognised art collections and, more recently, a selection of works by Leonardo da Vinci.
“We have people looking at what we are doing, a number of international platforms.”
Meanwhile, the Ulster Transport Museum has just showcased astronaut Tim Peake’s spacecraft. And in Omagh, the Ulster American Folk park has expanded and grown its annual Bluegrass Festival to connect visitors to the town.
Looking back at Kathryn’s own career, the Bangor-born woman studied in Edinburgh, before travelling, and returning to the UK to work with the then Price Waterhouse, before moving to work with PwC in Glasgow. She then worked for the NHS, before moving back home in 2005 to join Tourism NI, where she finished as chief operating officer in 2016.”
As for tourism generally, she says the last 15 years has seen significant investment and growth, fuelled by the work of her former employer, the establishment of Titanic Belfast and Northern Ireland becoming a backdrop for television and film.
“Because of our extended role, we will never be a pure tourist attraction – 50-55% out-of-state and a million (overall visitors) would be a really good target for us.”
An agreed City Deal for Belfast and the surrounding regions means significant funds are being earmarked for another major tourism attracting for the city – telling the story of Belfast and beyond.
Asked about the long-proposed idea of a Troubles or ‘peace centre’ at the former Maze prison site, Kathryn is behind it, and says she’s hopeful, although our political process has to deliver.
Since our chat, it seems those plans are now well off the table. It’s understood that those behind the redevelopment have removed the ‘Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre’ from its plans.