· 3 min read · Features

City Spotlight York: Bringing the past to life

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Commercial nous and a sense of fun are keeping one museum group ahead of the curve.

Of all the places HR magazine has done an interview, sitting on a bench in a replica Victorian high street - complete with horse and carriage and a soundtrack of fighting cats, slamming doors and thunderclaps - has got to be one of the most bizarre. Lucky, then, that Joan Mudd says she is "a little bit bonkers", so the job of people and facilities director at York Museums Trust (YMT) suits her perfectly.

York Castle Museum, where our interview takes place, is the antithesis of a quiet or fusty archive. This is somewhere staff roam the (fake) cobbled streets in Victorian garb and excited children are free to handle the object collections. "When people think of museums, they might imagine a crusty old curator, but it's not like that here," says Mudd. "We're a very dynamic, active business."

YMT has no choice but to be. It might focus on heritage, but it needs to think and operate like a modern, commercial business. The four sites it manages - York Castle Museum, York Museum, York Art Gallery and York St Mary's - used to be overseen by the council until the YMT was launched in 2002 as a charitable trust. Mudd came on board the same day.

While looking after the 166 staff spread across the sites and a back-office support function, Mudd's role also encompasses health and safety, visitor services and facilities. Unusually, before joining YMT she had never worked in the museum or heritage industry, something she feels gives her a keen commercial edge. As she puts it: "My question is always 'why not?' rather than 'why?'."

To remain competitive, YMT charges entry fees for its sites, allowing them all to open seven days a week. It also runs an events business. Like the look of the backdrop in the photograph? You can get married there.

"We have to be sustainable and do a lot of work towards keeping ourselves going," says Mudd. "We are bold and innovative and pride ourselves on being fleet of foot. That means we need to maximise any opportunities that come our way."

Using the income from entry fees and its events arm means YMT can spend any Government funding on projects that allow it to stay ahead of the curve. Its sites might be full of old objects, but behind the scenes digital is thriving. All staff are expected to be on top of social media and are encouraged to blog on YMT's website.

"Just because we exhibit old things doesn't mean we aren't trying to attract a modern audience," Mudd says. "The museum wouldn't fail if we didn't have a digital team, but we wouldn't be leading or seizing the opportunity. We want to lead and not follow."

Despite not being entirely reliant on funding, YMT has the same financial trials as many other heritage organisations. "It is a challenge," Mudd admits. "I always have three plans in place: what are we going to do with no change, what would we do if we get cut, and what are we going to do if we get a big cut? We have to keep revising because circumstances beyond our control can change. You just have to adjust, adjust, adjust."

So it's no surprise Mudd prizes a flexible workforce. "We expect a lot from our people because we run fairly lean," she explains. "It's essential everyone contributes 100% to what we are doing and everyone is out there doing their best."

As the majority of jobs are customer- facing, YMT recruits on personality. "It's a misconception that museums are quiet places and if you're an introvert you can sit in the corner labeling objects," says Mudd. "If you're bubbly and people-centric, we can teach you to use a till. But if you're arrogant or shy, we can't teach you to be Judy Garland."

And it's not just front-of-house workers who need great people skills. "Everyone is everyone else's customer, so we need those people skills throughout," Mudd says. "You can't just be in a silo."

However, as well as big personalities, basic skills, such as computer or communication, are also important, especially against a backdrop of restrained budgets.

"Our training budget is always the first thing that gets cut," says Mudd. That means a lot of training is peer-led, via mentoring."

Funding constraints on training is something a lot of organisations, not just those in the heritage sector, will be able to identify with. And so is another issue keeping Mudd awake at night: succession planning in light of the axed default retirement age.

With a few directors around the same age, but no clear idea on when they are going to leave, she is "succession planning for a goal I can't see". "If you are preparing people to step up but you don't know when others are leaving, it can drain their motivation," she says. "Bringing people on and keeping them motivated enough to get to where you need them to be is more of a worry to me than lack of funding."

With a focus on succession planning, a flexible mindset and an understanding of digital strategy, it is clear that although Mudd and YMT's success is built on the past, their gaze is set firmly on the future.