An organisation must look to its future but Iain Watson also has to keep a close eye on the past, as Peter Jackson discovers.
IAIN Watson might have been made for his present role as director of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums.
He was, as he puts it, born 20 yards on one side of Hadrian’s Wall in the General Hospital, and was brought up 20 yards on the other side in Fenham.
He says: “If I was going to have a background in museums and heritage then perhaps the first four years of my life spent virtually on top of Hadrian’s Wall might have something to do with it.”
It possibly also mattered that both his parents were librarians and he “grew up in a house full of books and knowledge”.
But he believes he was attracted to museums by their physicality and practicality, wedded to them also being theoretical and knowledge-based.
“But really I came into museums because of people, I wanted a job where you work with people and that’s why I’m in this business,” he says.
It’s easy to believe he would work well with people. Talking in his office on the top floor of the Discovery Museum, this 52-year-old’s words pour out with a boyish enthusiasm.
Whether it was pre-ordained or not, he now holds one of the UK’s most important museum and archive posts.
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums has 12 museums ranging from such well-known landmarks as Discovery Museum, Great North Museum: Hancock and Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens to the Stephenson Railway Museum and Washington ‘F’ Pit. These museums contain around 1,500,000 objects and cover everything from art to natural science, from history to archaeology.
The regional archive includes the documentary records for the whole of Tyne and Wear including documents from the late medieval period through to Armstrong shipyard blueprints and late 19th Century police mug shots.
About 1.8 million people a year come through Tyne & Wear Archive & Museum’s various doors with more than half the visitors being children and young people.
The service is jointly run by five local authorities which brings a critical mass allowing it to develop relationships with national and international museums and to support the services of experts such as geologists, social historians or archaeologists.
Watson himself read archaeology at Leicester University and did a post grad in Bradford and then went on to do research at Durham.
“I developed that research for a couple of years and then decided that while research was fantastic it wasn’t what I wanted to do, it wasn’t the right thing for me and so I trained to be a secondary school English teacher,” he says.
Following qualification he was looking for jobs in various schools and then saw an opening for a post with Segedunum’s predecessor, a heritage centre in Wallsend, which he successfully applied for. “It was part working with kids doing education officer work and part everything else ... a really varied job.
“I physically built exhibitions with a saw and a hammer and did everything through to recruiting a set of volunteer guides at Wallsend, some of whom are still there 27 years on.”
After four years in Wallsend he came to the Discovery Museum as keeper of science for two years and then moved to Durham where he spent nine years managing archaeology and local history across the museums and libraries in the county, in facilities ranging from the DLI Museum to the Lead Mining Centre in Killhope.
In 2001 he came back to Tyne and Wear to be the senior manager for the Hancock Museum and went on to project manage the fundraising for what became The Great North Museum: Hancock. He wrote the bid which got the £9m Lottery funding which allowed the bringing together in 2009 of the collection of the old Hancock Museum, Newcastle University’s Museum of Antiquities and the Sefton Collection.
After that, he moved on again, getting the job of assistant director at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums.
When his predecessor left in 2009 he was appointed acting director and then, following a full open recruitment, he was made director in November of that year.
“I was absolutely delighted, it’s a wonderful job. We are the largest regional museum service in the country and, I would argue, the most successful. What is fantastic are the diverse audiences that we get and we have really shown that museums and archives are for everybody.”
But, it was not perhaps the best time to be taking the reins, with the banking crisis and subsequent public spending cuts. It must have been tempting for the five local authorities which fund the service to have declared that the dead should bury their own dead while they concentrated resources on the living.
As it was, the service’s budget has been cut from around £16m a year two years ago to between £12m and £13m now and staff numbers have come down from about 330 to 290.
Despite this, there are no plans to start charging for admission to the museums which are – with one exception – free, like nationally funded museums and galleries.
In these hard times, however, Watson is keen that the service should develop alternative sources of revenue and that it should strengthen its partnerships with business to achieve that.
“One of the key things for us is developing our income because we know the pressures on the public sector funding so it’s really important that we can develop diverse investment into the organisation. We are an organisation that aims to work closely with business.
“We see ourselves as part of the economy of the North East. We certainly have an economic impact ... we bring visitors to the region.
“We have a business partnership with 23 businesses in the region which are signed up as supporters of the organisation. They sign up for different reasons.
“For some it’s about corporate social responsibility, for some it’s because we have fantastic venues available for hire for entertaining clients or staff events. We do business volunteering opportunities and team challenges.
“We really believe that we have a two- way relationship with the businesses that we work with, we learn from them in terms of mentoring and support.
“We have had support in terms of developing our commercial and customer service offer from companies such as Fenwick and John Lewis and Northumbrian Water are big supporters of activities in redeveloping the water displays in this building and displays about the river.” Subscriptions from business members, amounting to about £28,000 a year, go into a business partner’s fund which allows projects which would not otherwise happen.
Last year money from the fund leveraged in an additional £134,000 which was used to fund 15 different projects ranging from hands-on science activities to commissioning contemporary art.
Venue hire brings in about another £150,000 a year. Only a few yards from his office is the Great Hall, a magnificent wood-panelled room which was the staff ballroom and canteen when the building was the headquarters for the Co-op Wholesale Society.
“It holds 400 standing and up to 250 for a dinner.
“We are looking at the way buildings are used. It might be that you have a building that’s open for eight or nine hours a day as a museum. Can you use parts of that building at different hours of the day for other purposes that will bring in income?”
Also, with about 8,000 visitors in person every year to the archive with many more web users, including researchers from all over the world, the service will also undertake paid research into people’s family backgrounds.
This also sits well with Watson’s passionately held belief in the public’s sense of involvement in the work of the service.
“What means a lot to me is people engaging with collections. It’s that moment when you put a 2,000-year-old piece of Roman pottery in somebody’s hand and you can see that look of awe and wonder and that they have really been moved by that.”
In the Discovery, for example, are the world’s first windscreen wiper and the world’s first joystick. But people want more than the simple exhibits ... they want to know the stories behind them.
“Why was the windscreen wiper invented and what was it in response to and how did that joystick eventually become something people used on their computer games?”
He says people increasingly want to shape the exhibits and the service’s programmes. Also, while there is increasingly sophisticated technology, people do not want that to become between them and the physical exhibits they have come to see.
He aims to meet this demand for involvement and engagement in future programmes.
“We want to create special opportunities. For instance, it might be the chance to drive a steam locomotive or spend a day as a curator, really providing unique experiences.” Watson also wants to make physical improvements to many of the sites under his care.
He says: “We were fortunate enough 10 years ago to be able to develop a number of our sites with Lottery funding.
“Now, with a lot of those sites, we need to re-do it because when you are getting 1.8 million visitors a year through your sites, it doesn’t half wear them out quick. But we love that. We’d hate it if the place was pristine and nobody came in and everything looked brand new. That would be awful.”
He is fairly well tied to the region, having been born and bred here and with a wife and a 19-year-old daughter at university and 13-year-old son at school. They share a love of walking and have embarked on a programme to conquer Wainwright’s 214 peaks.
He has ambitions for Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, but does he have any worlds left to conquer for himself?
“There is more than enough to keep me occupied here. In terms of personal ambition I would love to climb all the Wainwrights ... that would be fantastic.”