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A crafting call to action – the museums reply

Those of you reading this blog last week will have seen my perplexed spluttering over the goods in Nottinghamshire’s tourist attraction gift shops. We had a great response to the blog from many crafters, some agreeing with me (thanks) and others pointing out some good places that are making efforts in this. And so I found myself visiting the Framework Knitters Museum in Ruddington to interview Paul Baker about what they’re doing in their shop.

I’d not been to the Framework Museum before (note to anyone who’s interested, the museum has restricted winter visiting hours so check their website first) and my first impression when walking into the shop was how much I wanted to immediately start poking around in all the displays. (I didn’t of course, I’m a professional *coughs* Anyway, a good sign for any shop, methinks.) The shop looks very much part of the museum with the goods displayed on old storage units and there’s a lovely old till.

Paul runs the shop part time and also works as a museum consultant. He worked in retail in a previous life (Harvey Nichols, no less! and the Covent Garden General Store – a place of many teenage Sunday visits for me *wipes away nostalgic tear*) and it may surprise you (it did him) to find that there’s a strong crossover between retail and museum and heritage work.

“When I started here I asked: “what do we know about our customers?” and we knew that a lot of them, obviously, have a passion for textiles,” he says over a cup of tea in the workshop area. “So we started with what we knew. You’ve got to forget about meeting the needs of everyone, forget about being a general gift shop that pleases all and instead you’ve got to specialise. People will find you.”

“I started going to craft fairs and talking to the suppliers and asking them if they would be prepared to work with us. At the moment we’re taking a smaller cut to cover our costs so we’re able to offer good terms. However my Trustees keep a close eye on me! I see this as a marketing opportunity – my job is to bring more visitors to the museum and this is a way to do this.

“One challenge for us is to get the people of Ruddington and the surrounding areas to use us as a resource. There’s no need to go into the city centre when you need a birthday gift and card, we can do that for you. The shop wouldn’t be here without the museum and it gives the village a shop that it wouldn’t be able to support otherwise.”

So why does Paul think many of our local attractions are somewhat lacking in the merchandise department? What’s the outlook for museums at the moment and how could it work in the future?

“It’s a tough time for museums at the moment. They’re under pressure to make more money but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the skills needed to make shops strong. Many shops are run by museum staff who have a thousand other things to do as well – curating, events and so on. If you ran a gift shop independently of a museum, you’d spend hours each day working out how to improve and bring more people in. Museum staff don’t have that kind of time so it’s difficult. But I absolutely see local crafters and makers being part of the solution to this.

“Every shop will have a different approach. The recession is putting pressure on museums to charge for things that used to be free. The answer as I see it is to look at what you know, focus on one area and make that your area of expertise. If you’re a literary museum, it makes sense that your customers are interested in literature; we’re a textile museum so we offer a range of textile crafts and gifts.”

The charitable status of many museums can also make it difficult to run a business in the same way as ‘normal’ shops. The Framework Knitters’ Museum has a number of ideas about how to bring the past to life, many involving local makers.

“We’ve got a workshop space in the chapel opposite,” says Paul. “What we want to do is open this up for local crafters and makers to run workshops there. We’d share the risk and the profits. We’ve got Hilary Jackson from the Quilters’ Guild coming in this month and I’d really like to expand this next year so I’m looking to hear from anyone who’d be interested.

“We also have Victorian knitting machines called Griswalds. You turn the handle and a tube of knitting comes out. You can produce enough to make a scarf in about 10 minutes and we’ve a lot of volunteers trained in how to use the machines. We’d like to encourage crafters to use these as a resource. The quality can vary according to the type of wool you use – Debbie Bryan has used them and her scarves are very luxurious due to the high quality wool – but we also have schools come in and the children take away scarves they’ve made. You can make all sorts of things with the finished article – small cushions, toys, hats – and we’d like to see more local makers come in to use the machines.

“We’re a small site but we need to make the most of what we’ve got and we want to be seen as a place where people make things. It’s not just about the past, it’s Nottingham’s living heritage.”

Thank you to Paul for taking the time to share his ideas with us. If you’d like to find out more about the opportunities for local designer makers at the Framework Knitters Museum, please contact Paul on 0115 984 6914

On Monday we hear from local designer maker Debbie Bryan about how she’s gone about working with Nottingham’s museums and attractions. Don’t miss it!

Sue is one of our team of bloggers. When not taking the baby around the county’s gift shops she can be found writing or tweeting. Feel free to reach her at sue AT and follow her on Twitter @basfordian