Maggie Appleton is the CEO of the RAF Museum and current President of the Museums Association (MA).
She spoke to Blooloop about the RAF Museum and the joy of telling the Royal Air Force story, as well as the challenges that the UK museum sector faces in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While she hadn’t always intended to embark on a career in the museum field, Maggie Appleton says she was drawn to the profession after university, causing her to reconsider her chosen path.
“I was working in a role after university that was completely separate, in the medical industry and thinking I could just enjoy history a hobby. So, I started to do some volunteering at a local museum, Peterborough Museum. But once there, I just thought this is absolutely what I want to do for the rest of my life. So I went back and did a master’s degree.”
An interesting career followed, with a stint as Assistant Registrar at the Tower of London, followed by a role at Stevenage Museum:
“The assistant curator role at Stevenage Museum was just the perfect job that I’d always been looking for, linking with that whole social history focus that has always been my area of interest. I was at Stevenage for 11 years as assistant curator and then curator, and then having a slightly broader heritage role within the council.”
Journey to the RAF Museum
“Then, I went to Luton. Just as I arrived there it was announced that it was one of the museums in the Renaissance in the Region’s programme. There are two fantastic museums there.
“I was there for 12 years, first as a museum manager, but when we spun out of the local authority and became part of a trust with the libraries, arts and community centres in the town. I was made director of museums and then became the chief executive of the whole trust.”
“Initially, I’d intended to do that as a temporary role while they were recruiting new chief executive. But I loved it, so when they did the external recruitment I went for it. It was hugely interesting, working across that broader cultural piece.
“Then the role came up the RAF Museum. It’s a place that we’d enjoyed taking our children to when they were younger. So the opportunity to refocus on museums in one of the national museums was huge. And it’s been an absolute delight. I’ve been here over five years now.”
An amazing collection
The RAF Museum has two sites, one in London and the other in Cosford, in the West Midlands. Its mission is to tell the story of the Royal Air Force and the people who have served in the RAF throughout its history. Speaking about what drew her to the role, Maggie Appleton says:
“The excitement for me was that the trustees had done some thinking about how the museum should develop. They were very clear that it should be about telling the RAF story, telling powerful stories through objects. Which of course is a social history curator is what’s in my bones.”
“It was an opportunity to work with an amazing collection and do something that would make that story engaging, accessible and relevant to everyone.”
“The museum was seen as a military aviation collection, as opposed to being an incredible museum that told fabulous stories about people and history. So it was a huge opportunity. It has fulfilled all my hopes and expectations, working with an amazing team.
“Another benefit to me, although it wasn’t the reason I applied for the role, was that my dad had been in the RAF through the Second World War. But I knew very little about his RAF history. He died when I was small and all my mum told us was that he loaded bombs onto planes in the war.
“All we have is his RAF bible which you get given when you join up, with his number in it. From that, I was able to get his training history. So I could find out where he was stationed and see which squadrons he was on. That deepened my connection to the museum, definitely.”
Working across two sites
The RAF Museum has two public sites, located 130 miles apart. It also has a large storage facility in Stafford. Running a museum that spans more than one location has some unique challenges, says Maggie Appleton.
“The key challenge I think is the distance. As a result of COVID-19, we’re all very conscious now of being able to engage digitally. I’m sure we’re going to benefit from that massively in the future and it will also help our carbon footprint.
“But there’s still that massive importance, in particular for a leadership team, of being present at both public sites. Our two sister sites are equally fabulous and equally important.
“The sites work and complement each other. We’ve got one collection, we don’t describe ourselves as having two museums. We are one museum with two public sites. In many ways that is not a challenge. We have to do some thinking about how we balance that story, but that’s all clear in our interpretation strategy.
“We tell the whole story in both sites because there’s only a very small percentage of people who see both. But equally, for visitors that do visit both, they are seeing different things and our emphases are different.
“For example, we’ve got our huge hangar with our First World War in the Air collection and storytelling in London. Whereas it’s a smaller part of the museum at Cosford in the West Midlands, which in turn has a whole hanger telling that tells the amazing story of the Cold War, in really engaging ways.”
The RAF Museum and COVID-19
Like other museums across the UK, the RAF Museum closed its doors in March due to the global pandemic. While it is now open to visitors once more, this period of closure continues to have a huge impact on the organisation:
“Many of those impacts are ones that are shared by other museum colleagues, across the UK and internationally,” says Appleton. “It was a huge challenge to close, but our closure plans, following our emergency planning procedures, happened remarkably smoothly. Reopening is so much more complicated.”
“Financially, the impact of closure will be about a million and a half of earned income. We’re a free museum, we’re very fortunate to be supported by the government, as one of the national museums. But we’re a charity, and our self-generated income enables us to do huge amounts of really important work as well.”
Supporting staff through the closure
Maggie Appleton says that the RAF Museum made the decision not to furlough any team members during the closure:
“The impact on the people that work here has been huge. We were immediately, from the day of closure, worrying about our colleagues. We decided we could just about afford not to furlough any staff. Our feeling was, that way we could be in constant contact with them. Also, a large proportion of our back of house staff can work very meaningfully at home.”
“We set up additional online training opportunities for all staff, finished off people’s appraisals by phone and online, got front of house colleagues working on research projects, and worked to carry on engaging people. In some ways, as a result, we are more connected and open now, as a team.
“That also directly helped us be among the vanguard of museums reopening. The first two or three weeks after closing, we were getting everyone settled working from home. And then once we got through that we were planning our reopening already.”
RAF Museum engages with visitors online
The RAF Museum worked hard to continue engaging with and reaching out to visitors while closed. Maggie Appleton says this is something that the team felt was vital:
“Right from the beginning, the first conversation was, how do we make sure that we’re continuing with our vision of what the RAF Museum is all about. Our goal is to inspire everyone with the RAF story. So, how do we do that when we’re closed to the public?
“As we’ve seen with many cultural organisations, it is possible to move content online in new and creative ways. Some of the things that we’ve accelerated during closure were projects that we were working on anyway. But there have also been some new things.”
“For instance, our VE day programme was going to be physical events at all sites. That was moved online and we joined up with our colleagues at the National Army Museum and National Museum of the Royal Navy. We did a whole virtual festival.
“The event had everything from printing out your own bunting, to our historians from the three sites getting together for a virtual debate on the three services during that time. That was hosted by James Holland [the award-winning historian, writer, and broadcaster].
“Some really creative things came out of that period. Our development fundraising team have thought of some incredible new fundraising opportunities during the closure period. And we’ve pushed forward putting our Collections Online programme too.
“Also our access learning team have done amazing work looking at how we can support schools and teachers online, as well as providing family learning activities to support parents.”
Reopening the museum
The RAF Museum reopened to the public on 6 July 2020. Maggie Appleton was present at both sites to greet visitors and support staff.
“It was so exciting being at both sites when they reopened, welcoming visitors back in,” she says. “Our plan was, in the first fortnight, for a soft opening where we were restricting the number of tickets and testing how things would go. Then we grew the ticket numbers that we were releasing, to hit where we are now.”
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“It has just been an absolute delight to welcome visitors back. Local people are using our spaces as inspirational, beautiful spaces, where they can now meet friends and families, and take their children. That’s one of the purposes of museums, to bring people together.”
Social distancing at the RAF Museum
Currently, visitors to the RAF Museum must pre-book online. This helps the organisation to keep a cap on the number of people on site. In addition to this, some of the interactive areas are closed, to begin with. The museum has also stepped up cleaning routines and increased the number of staff on duty to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
“We’re fortunate in that we have lovely outdoor spaces. And, of course, our indoor space is large and spacious too,” says Appleton.
“Opening gradually also gave our staff who were anxious about reopening time to adjust. Having the opportunity to come back into the space before visitors came was helpful. One of my front of house colleagues, who wasn’t due to be on the rota, came in on that first day and wore her face visor, so she could feel what it was like before her shift.
“That was an interesting learning lesson for me. After that, we made it clear to other staff that if they were anxious they could come in early and see what it was like too.
“We’ve been asking all back of house colleagues to be part of that front of house rota too over the summer. Because we need more staff on-site, welcoming the public and keeping them safe.”
Beginning the process of recovery
The whole team at RAF Museum is happy to be welcoming guests once again. However, there are still challenges ahead, says Appleton. One key challenge, aside from the financial issues, is how the organisation will be able to safely bring back the same number of visitors as before.
“The number of visitors is important in terms of our vision of telling the RAF story to as many people as possible. That’s not just on-site, it’s online and in lots of different ways, but our on-site visitors are important. Particularly because a large percentage of our self-generating income is dependent on how many people come through the doors.
“Some of it we have control over. We have done as much as we can in terms of reassuring people, using our booking system, sharing with visitors what they can expect on-site, with all the extra safety measures we’ve got in place.
To help get this message across, the RAF Museum has created a unique video. This explains the new safety procedures in an engaging way.
“The film goes to everyone as they book. We wanted to show that all these measures are in place, without losing the joy and warmth of the visit. We’re proud of the film, which gives a combination of a warm welcome with a useful safety message.”
Maggie Appleton and the Museums Association
In addition to her role as CEO of the RAF Museum, Maggie Appleton is also the president of the Museums Association, a role which she took on in April 2018. Talking about this position, she says that, for her, it is a way of giving back to an organisation which has provided numerous benefits throughout her career:
“I recently found my welcome letter from the MA, from when I first joined, 30 years ago! I’ve been on the board for several years and my role as president finishes in March 2021.
“For me, it’s a huge privilege because, being a member for all those years, I’ve had huge benefits in terms of learning about the sector, having support through my career, and all the professional development events and schemes that the MA runs.”
MA offers support during COVID-19
During coronavirus, the MA has been active in several ways, supporting members throughout the crisis.
“I take my hat off to the team, they’re extraordinary,” says Appleton. “They care deeply about the museum sector and about supporting everyone that works in it.
“The MA team came to the board immediately with a package of ideas. Some of these picked up on topics from social media and from questions that were coming through from members. So they were really responsive and drew on what members were asking.”
“There are several things that the MA has done during the crisis. For instance, they’re offering membership discounts, so people can access online training and all sorts of other opportunities.
“There has also been a lot of work on workforce development and online webinars, and a huge amount of new mentoring programmes. For instance, one-to-one sessions and leadership mentoring. Plus there is a museum furlough Facebook group so people who were furloughed were able to connect. There is also a Facebook group for managing crises, to help managers and directors share solutions.
“And of course there’s been advocacy, working with other organisations to campaign for support for museums, speaking to all four nations’ governments. We have diverted our collections fund to support the sector through the crisis. The benevolent fund that the MA oversees is offering small assistance grants as well.”
UK museums face new challenges
COVID-19 has affected businesses and organisations around the world. Now that museums in the UK can reopen once more, they face an uphill battle as they adjust to the new challenges brought about by the pandemic.
“Many museums rely on the income that comes through the door in the busiest periods. This gets them through their quieter periods in the winter,” says Maggie Appleton. “Some have now said that they can’t afford to open at the moment. Because the visitors won’t be coming back in the numbers to make it financially viable.”
“So, that’s a challenge for this sector. Particularly for independent museum colleagues who rely on every penny of admissions income through the door. There’s a huge challenge also for local authority funded museums. Whether that’s directly, as part of a local authority, or as a trust that is supported by local authorities. Many were in difficulty before the coronavirus, which has hugely amplified their funding crisis.
“Every single museum is affected by this. Not to mention that many of our volunteers rely on coming in for their mental health and socialisation. So there is an impact on the people as well as on the organisations, both paid employees and volunteers, and of course visitors.”
“It’s not going be over when there’s a vaccine. There isn’t a quick end to this. We’ve just got to continue using all that immense creativity and resilience that’s in the sector to find ways through. Of course, there was the 1.57 billion announced by the government, which is hugely welcome.
“We still need to see what that detail is for museums up and down the country, and what that means for our four nations and all museums in the UK. It’s a huge worry.”
The future of the sector
Despite this, Maggie Appleton is hopeful about the future of the RAF Museum, and the UK museum sector in general. She says that there is a feeling that the work museums have done during the pandemic has been recognised by society:
“Museums achieve so much, and I do feel that our worth has been acknowledged and understood during this pandemic. This is because of all the activity that organisations have been doing during the closures.”
“For instance, if we talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and all that has happened recently – museums are part of that national conversation, in terms of how we tell those stories.
“Through a museum, we can look at different nuances in the way we tell stories. Through both coronavirus and Black Lives Matter, it feels like there has been a heightened awareness among the public that museums really matter, they really contribute and they are important.
“I hope that that does translate into continued support from the government, and other supporters for our museums.”
Looking ahead for the RAF Museum
One of the huge impacts of COVID-19 on the RAF Museum, like many others, is on its public programming.
“It is the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain this year, which is a huge marker in RAF history. We had a huge number of events, commemorations and celebrations planned,” says Maggie Appleton.
“Some have been put online, but some have had to be cancelled or changed. One event was our Hurricane 80K challenge. This was an online challenge and it hit the zeitgeist. Instead of having the 500 people signed up that we were expecting, we had 4300, which was amazing.”
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“There are two new exhibitions in our permanent galleries from September. These tell the story of the Battle of Britain from an international perspective, challenging some of the myths about it. We also have a beautiful art exhibition on the Battle of Britain and the Blitz that is opening in August.
“Also, our RAF themed play area opens at Cosford in October half term. It was put back from opening this summer and we’re excited to see people enjoy it. The RAF school of physical training is based at Cosford. So they have been having great fun weaving some of their challenges into our play area for small children.
“One of the best things about working at the RAF Museum is the contemporary stories as well as the history, working with the RAF men and women of today. They are so supportive of everything that we do.”
All images kind courtesy of the RAF Museum.