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Museums and Heritage: Interview with Colin Pyrah, founder Paragon Creative


Related: OBE for Colin Pyrah, Founder of Paragon Creative, Themed Environment Specialists  / The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Creating Extraordinary Family Learning Experiences  / Museums: What do Kids Want?  / Aquariums are good for you! Interview with Dr Dave Gibson, MD, National Marine Aquarium

colin pyrah obe paragon creative founderColin Pyrah, founder of Paragon Creative, the themed entertainment and interactives specialists, has been involved in the museum and heritage industry for over 28 years.  Pyrah began his career in journalism, before moving into the museum and heritage industry as Project Director for the design, build and theming of Jorvik Viking Centre in York, a project which set a new benchmark for interactive heritage exhibits.  Thousands of projects on with Scenic Route and later Paragon Creative, Pyrah has been awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s honours list for services to the UK’s museum and heritage industry.  Pyrah talked to Blooloop about his career to date and what his award means for the museum and heritage industry in the UK.

Please tell us how you got started in the Museum and Heritage Industry from your successful career in the newspaper industry?

After 20 years in the newspaper industry, and at the time of the union difficulties in Fleet Street and Wapping, we decided to diversify into parallel media based activities and launch a new company, The Yorkshire Communications Group, offering commercial printing, public relations, media relations, event organisation, industrial and commercial photography and documentary film production. One day we saw a story on the front page of The Yorkshire Post about the archaeological dig in York where the most amazing Viking buildings and artefacts were being uncovered.  We approached the Trust to suggest making a documentary film about the dig. We got on extremely well with them on a creative level, and it was just at the time that they had gone out to tender for the design and build of a Viking Museum on the site of the dig. They asked us if we wanted to pitch, albeit against the likes of the Tussauds Studios and Disney. It was one of those moments when you say ‘Yes’, and then wonder what on earth you have got yourself into. We knew nothing about museum design or archaeology. However we let our creative juices flow, we pitched heavily, and we won!

Has it been an advantage coming from a newspaper background?

Absolutely, because in the newspaper industry one’s life revolves around the most severe deadlines, and also much creativity is involved in terms of graphic design, copywriting, and imagery, together with the sales process and the production management which were an integral part of my job. So applying all these skills to my new job helped me considerably, and needless to say we have never at Paragon Creative missed a critical deadline!

jorvikAs project director for Jorvik, were you aware that you were creating something revolutionary?

Yes, because as we developed the concept we realised that there was nothing in the UK that we were able to compare it with. The closest we could get were some of the dark rides at Disney World in Florida, so we shot over, spent a fun fortnight in the sun, but came back knowing that what we needed to create at Jorvik was something very different, which had to have the deepest archaeological integrity, and which needed far away from a theme-park thrill ride, but even so ticked the three E boxes which were Engage, Entertain and Educate. This then evolved into the horrible word ‘edutainment’, but that’s what it was all about. We believed that by making interpretive projects accessible and populist in original ways which were initially frowned upon by the museum profession when we started, it would open up national and international cultural heritage to a much larger audience by considering the visitor as the real client.

How did the concept come about?

The Archaeological Trust came up with the basic concept of taking visitors back in time to the Viking era. My team then put a lot of flesh on those basic bones, and as we designed the underground Viking village, we populated it, we designed and built the time cars, we developed the concept of using smells in that environment, we created the audio soundscape, we analysed the visitor flow, and we developed the total visitor experience. It was permanent theatre. Jorvik began life as an extraordinary and daring idea and once opened became a phenomenon, a legend, as generations who had first visited with their parents and grew to maturity and then took their own children along to ride in the time cars to visit the past.

What effect do you think Jorvik has had on the museum and heritage industry and why?

It was a new method of interpreting what potentially could have been a very dry dull and ‘things in glass cases’ museum. We were very lucky in that it was actually a very sexy subject, in a very beautiful city, with good PR values, and with the integrity of the Archaeological Trust, the support of Magnus Magnusson, and the Patronage of Prince Charles. It ticked so many boxes.

The nature of the project and Jorvik’s multi-media immersive and populist approach called for a wide mix of talents and skills, which had not existed under one roof before, and we saw the potential for the development of a new and unique service industry in the UK.

What happened then was that many local authorities and entrepreneurs wanted to copy the success of Jorvik.  Many did and were reasonably successful others tried and failed. However Jorvik and our approach to presentation resulted in the birth of an Industry. This came to be known as the “Heritage Industry”, of which York became, and is still remains the centre, employing and fostering hundreds of artisans and designers over the last three decades on projects created for sites around the world.

What have been some of the projects you have been most proud of and why?

Projects which have enabled members of the public who may not have entered a conventional museum environment to enjoy, be entertained and be educated about a subject that they would not necessarily otherwise have learnt about, and most certainly the projects which have stimulated the emotions, and especially where the visitors leave with a wide smile on their faces. Such projects have included The Bacardi Visitor Centre in Puerto Rico where we re-created environments from the rich family and Cuban distillery heritage of the company, Khalifa Park Maritime Museum where, through a dark ride, we traced the intriguing history of Abu Dhabi in amazingly realistic setworks, the stunning galleries that we have been privileged to have been able to fit-out at the famous and colourful Tower of London,   and British Life Today in Kiev where we were contracted by the Foreign Office to portray a day in the life of a typical British family through huge setworks where in full size we re-created  a shopping precinct with an M&S and numerous other shops, a full sized walk through semi-detached house, a factory, a doctors surgery, and so on. This was all devised to show Ukrainian people what it was like to live in a true democracy. The queues were four miles long, and so many visitors came up to us to say  “we will never ever be able to leave here to visit your country but thank you from the bottom of our hearts for bringing your country to us”. The year after was the fall of communism in Russia. That was therefore a very emotional project for me for so many reasons.

What’s the key to delivering a successful project, from concept development to completion?

To attempt to be included in the project team at the earliest opportunity, ideally at the same time as the architect is appointed, and to try to get inside the head of the client and creative teams to understand the visions and objectives as deeply as possible. We try hard to work closely alongside the design team as the project evolves to offer advice on the most cost effective methods and materials and to offer a constant cost cross-checking monitoring to avoid the project having to go through a lengthy and painful design engineering process when cost cutting to tendered prices result in the necessity for substantial reductions in the content and scope which is a hurtful, expensive and time-wasting process. I have seen so many situations where because of a totally unsuitable contract type and tendering process the client has been forced to accept the lowest tendered prices resulting in a finished project which is sub-standard and has not met client expectations. In my experience the most successful projects have been those where a project team has been chosen in which the team members are the most appropriate for the content, whose members have a track record of excellence and competence and have worked together previously, and where a budget has been given and agreed, without having to go through a lengthy, often inappropriate and frequently costly tendering process.

Many companies in this industry are family businesses.  Why do you think this is and what has been your experience been of working with your son. 

Family business have grown in this business partly because in this business it requires a complete mix of creativity, artistic skills, business acumen, organisational ability, but also does not require huge amounts of capital to initially launch. Therefore many family members can offer a range of these skills, and it is also a business that initially can be started in almost a home based environment.

Working with my son, Mark, has been a very colourful and successful adventure! He showed a strong entrepreneurial and creative flair at an early age, and often helped me in the scenic workshops in the school and university holidays and at weekends. He studied at The University College Falmouth in Information Design and then he had a very successful period in the media industry in London working for some of the UK’s biggest brands.  I persuaded him to join Scenic Route as Marketing Director where he brought many new ideas into the company. We had our moments initially where we did not always see eye to eye, but that was healthy whereby I was learning about the media industry from him and he was quickly understanding the new Heritage industry from me. He took over the running of the company in 2004 with Pete Holdsworth and I am very proud of Mark, and so pleased that he is now taking the company forward into the next decade of expansion and development.

Please tell us about how you found out that you had been awarded an OBE

Well it started about four weeks ago when I got a phone call out of the blue from Richard Tilbrook at The Prime Minister’s Office. They asked me if I had got their letter…..I didn’t know what they were suggesting, so I said “No”, and I asked why they were asking. They explained that they had written to me a few weeks previously informing me that “The Prime Minister, having accepted the advice of the Cabinet Secretary and the Honours Committee, proposes to submit my name to The Queen, recommending that Her Majesty  may be graciously pleased  to approve that you be appointed an Officer of the British Empire in the New Year 2012 Honours List.”

My immediate reaction was that one of my industry friends was making a spoof call to me, but then I soon realised that it was all quite genuine.  Richard went on to explain that the original letter must have got lost in the post, and he therefore asked me over the phone whether it would be agreeable to me, and whether I would be prepared to accept the award. My response was a very emotional “Gosh yes please!”  He said that a duplicate letter would be sent up to me that day, but also explained that it needed to be confidential until it was released to the Press on 31 December.

I naturally told my wife and my son and daughter, but then with difficulty we had to keep it under wraps until New Years Eve.

The majority of OBEs are awarded to civil servants.  Can you tell us what you think it means for the UK Leisure industry to be honoured with your award?

What delights me about this honour is that it has been awarded to the manufacturing sector of the heritage industry, which is often forgotten. Without the manufacturers the amazing projects that are dreamt up on drawing boards could not be brought into full and amazing reality.  Successful heritage interpretation has now become a critically important sector of our leisure industry, and the fact that we have been able to export our heritage industry expertise to all corners of the world is immensely satisfying and as an industry should be recognised a lot more.  As a business we tick a lot of boxes for UKPLC: we are a specialist manufacturing company, a creative services company and an exporter. Seventy percent of of our work was exported last year.  The UK certainly needs to encourage the growth of more specialist manufacturing companies, and our creative services are one of the UK’s greatest assets and should financially be encouraged to export more, especially in the present economic climate.

I see that Paragon is seeking to expand across the theme park and aquarium markets.  What’s your strategy and why?  Are you responding to a change in the leisure industry?

We are simply using our expertise and creative skills in wider markets. We have been especially successful in taking our quality theming in Aquariums from out-of-tank to in-tank, and taking our quality of workmanship in the heritage industry into theme parks as they require higher quality applications and workmanship.  Retail is another market that is growing for us as the retail world becomes more experiential and the line between the retail experience and the entertainment experience blurs.  There is a higher public expectation nowadays and a greater demand for quality experiences and imaginative themed environments.

What are your ambitions for Paragon and yourself for the future?

My ambition for Paragon is that it continues to thrive and expand in an ever changing and competitive world market. My own ambition is that I can continue to watch Paragon’s success from the side-lines, occasionally being asked for advice and to be able part of the action when needed!


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