How to develop a cracking Museums at Night cluster

Last week, I was asked to speak at a Museums at Night briefing session at the fantastic Jewish Museum in London. The session was designed to spread the word about Culture 24’s fantastic annual Museums at Night campaign and to promote Connect 10, a national competition that could see your museum or gallery winning a top contemporary artist for your Museums at Night event, and cluster working.

Museums at Night clusters happen when multiple venues in the same location run events on the same night, or over the weekend. Having run successful clusters in Norwich (2010), Sheringham (North Norfolk) (2011) and North Norfolk (2012), I’m a huge fan of them. Clusters are a fantastic way to:

  • Create something that’s more than the sum of its parts. Even very small events become something big when combined with other events and marketed as a complete visitor offer.
  • Attract lots of visitors. People are much more likely to come out if they can attend more than one event in an evening.
  • Get great media coverage.
  • Garner local long-term support by bringing new visitors to your venue who’ll want to come back again and again.
  • Improve partnership working between venues in the same location.

Sounds too good to be true? Here’s the evidence… I managed the Victorian Nights Festival, which saw 12 Museums at Night events across 9 venues in North Norfolk in 2012.

  • 3,252 people attended the festival.
  • 60% of visitors were first time visitors to venues. 91% of visitors said they would definitely return to participating venues in the future.
  • £50,000 was spent in the local economy over the festival weekend.
  • 32 print and web articles with an AVE of £28,651 were produced about the festival.
  • 138 volunteers supported the festival.

If you’re thinking of organising a Museums at Night cluster event for May 2014, here’s my top tips for creating a brilliant cluster.

  1. I know Museums at Night is 8 months away, but it’s never too early to start planning. Use the next 3 months to bring partners on board with your cluster and to raise/secure the funds needed to run the cluster.
  2. Don’t just think ‘museum’. Could you involve local theatres, libraries or other cultural centres in your cluster? Clusters are a great way to partner with places you’ve not previously worked with, and to reach each other’s audiences.
  3. Make the cluster work for your budget. Clusters don’t have to be big, expensive or time consuming. The cluster I co-ordinated in Sheringham cost £50 for 3 events at 3 venues, and our marketing was free as a local Graphic Design student designed a fabulous poster for us. Clusters are great for venues who don’t have a big budget as simple events will get a much higher-profile if they’re together in a cluster than if they were on their own. Clustering is also a great way to pool resources to pay for things like joint marketing literature. You could raise, or bid for, money to run your cluster. Victorian Nights, for example, was the result of a generous Heritage Lottery Fund grant. Local businesses may also be able to help, particularly as your cluster will raise money for the local economy via visitor spend during the event.
  4. Appoint a Cluster Co-ordinator. It’s very useful if someone from one of the cluster venues is responsible for co-ordinating the cluster, for example, collecting event copy from partners to create a single poster or leaflet, and liaising with Culture 24 and the media about your cluster.
  5. Create a partnership agreement. Work with participating venues to create an agreement which clearly sets out what each partner will do (for example, recruit volunteers, organise a Museums at Night event, write copy about their event) and, if relevant, what the Cluster Co-ordinator will do (for example, collate event copy and create marketing literature, act as media liaison for the cluster). An agreement will ensure that every partner knows what’s expected of them from the beginning, and will help to keep everyone focused on tasks they need to carry out.
  6. Theme your cluster. A strong theme which links the cluster together makes the offer easier to promote, and easier for visitors to understand. Think about what makes your venues or location special or a theme that links the cluster venues. In North Norfolk, we chose a Victorian theme as the area experienced a huge boom in the Victorian era with the coming of the railways.
  7. If theming isn’t for you, make sure your marketing is cohesive, so cluster events are promoted together in an understandable way, rather than individually. Cohesive marketing could include calling the cluster event a creative name i.e. think about something other than ‘Museums at Night [insert city/town/village name here]’. Light Night Liverpool and The Late Shows are great examples of this. Creative names may help clusters reach new audiences (including those who may be put off by the word ‘museums’), and will make marketing much easier.
  8. Think simple! Events don’t have to be extravagant or very expensive to get visitors. One of the most popular Victorian Nights events, attracting over 600 visitors, was a Victorian Photo Parlour at the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum in Cromer. A small amount of money was spent on hiring cheap Victorian costumes from nearby Sheringham Community Wardrobe. People of all ages came to dress up and have their photo taken, which were emailed to visitors the day after the event.
  9. Although it’s Museums at Night and night-time events are preferable, daytime events are okay too, particularly if it’s difficult (perhaps, for example, because of staffing issues) for a venue to open at night. Clusters are perfect for daytime events (as long as they include evening events too!) as daytime events help to build a buzz throughout the day that leads through to the night, encourage visitors to come a place for a long time (thus also spending more money in the local economy on food, parking and souvenirs), and complement the evening/night-time offer.
  10. Make cluster events affordable for your audience. It might be preferable to offer free or low cost events in order to encourage people to visit more than one venue. Alternatively, a set price passport could be offered for visitors to gain entry to all venues. A passport could also include discount vouchers for local shops and cafes to encourage spend in your local area. Free or low cost events don’t necessarily mean venues won’t make money. Think about ways to generate income, such as a donations bucket, selling relevant items in your shop or selling refreshments. Take the opportunity to generate income in the long-term by, for example, selling membership of your venue to visitors and getting people to sign up to your events mailing list.