Museum Makers: Sue John, Glasgow Women's Library

Sue John is enterprise development manager at Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL). Here she describes building a grassroots organisation from scratch, and offers her tips for museums and galleries applying for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020.

Glasgow Women’s Library isn’t a typical museum at all. In fact, we’d been open and growing for nearly 20 years before we pursued museum accreditation. We set up the library as a grassroots feminist organisation in 1991 with no paid workers and no funding. I’d been involved with GWL as a volunteer since 1993 and was appointed to one of its first paid roles, job-sharing as a project worker, in 2000. I’ve learned so many skills, and this huge learning curve equipped me for taking on the new role of enterprise development manager in 2011.

I was quite nervous about the job interview because it was an internal appointment. The panel comprised board members who all knew me, and the scale of expectation for me to perform well felt great. The flip side was my genuine belief that I had sound experience and knowledge for the role, and that gave me some confidence. It was still a relief to receive the letter offering me the job though!

GWL is the UK’s sole accredited museum dedicated to women’s history, and quite idiosyncratic. You never know who will be popping in on any one day – it could be a Turner Prize nominated artist, an international tourist, people attending a public event, or one of our many adult literacy project learners.

My day usually starts with getting the kettle on, and then I start responding to emails. I lead on strategic issues and, for the past few years, on project managing our phased capital renovation works – at the moment, this includes boiler replacement and therefore lots of liaising with people in hard hats. Typically, any plate-spinning day might include writing funding bids, meetings with staff, and talking to visitors, students or groups on our women’s heritage walks (I still tour guide in a volunteer capacity).

We built Glasgow Women’s Library from nothing, resourced with passion, creativity, tenacity and our feminism. Setting it up in the early 1990s was probably the worst possible time in terms of challenging political, economic and cultural landscapes. Before volunteering at GWL I graduated in Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art, so along with the original GWL founders (Kate Henderson and Adele Patrick) we pretty much made it up as we went along. I’ve learned financial management, how to write funding bids, develop strategic plans, become an Accredited Museum and a Recognised Collection of National Significance, lead a design team and recently what ‘value engineering’ means. I didn’t like learning that term at all!

Framework documents like our Strategic Plan and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan are vital. It’s my job to ensure that these are all developed, reviewed and ‘owned’ by everyone in the organisation. These should always remain fresh, inspiring tools that help to keep our vision in focus.

GWL is a values-led museum that rethinks the traditions of museum practice. It stands as a model of good practice with an innovative and proactive approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. Working at GWL is a joy because it has its core values at heart, so I’d say to anyone in the sector in any role: work somewhere that reflects your own true core values.

Our approach at GWL is that optimism is our duty. I think many people feel uncertain about the future because of all the current unknowns – Brexit, the economy, the political landscape over the next few years. GWL has constantly grown despite past economic downturns, continual change and political turmoil. So I’m optimistic GWL will continue to thrive, support people and have a positive impact across the sector.

Taking the phone call from Art Fund to tell us that we’d been shortlisted for Museum of the Year 2018 took the biscuit for memorable moments. But then we could only tell a handful of people until the official announcement about five weeks later, which was so hard. It was really exciting, one of the milestones in marking us out as a significant voice in the sector, and the huge outpouring of love and support for us to win was beautiful and humbling.

I'd say to any museum or gallery thinking of applying for the 2020 prize – have no hesitation. So many museums, especially smaller ones, underestimate their impact. Then fully prepare the whole team – board members, paid staff and volunteers – for a good deal of additional work during the whole process, and vitally for being under the media and public spotlight. Use Art Fund staff – they are experienced, skilled, knowledgeable and supportive, and there with you throughout the process. If you are shortlisted, get to know the other finalists, keep in touch via social media, and use the official hashtag. It’s an emotional experience, and you’ll feel lots of different things at different times, but mostly, enjoy it because it really is a privilege to be a finalist.

Applications for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020 are now open. Find out more about applying.

Museum Makers highlights the contributions, careers and expertise of museum professionals nationwide. From marketing to retail, front of house to management, our museum makers reveal what goes on behind the scenes of the UK's cultural institutions.

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