Beamish is a unique living, working museum and visitor attraction that uses its collections to connect people from all walks of life, telling the story of everyday life in the North East of England through time. Welcoming over 800,000 visitors annually, it is an iconic organisation in the North East of England and has a national and international reputation, delivering significant economic and social benefits for communities in the North East and tourists, and boosting the region’s visitor economy.

In 2023, we recruited 9 Trustees and a Chair for the museum. A year later, we checked in with Chris Loughran, Chair of Beamish, to find out what has changed, their key achievements, and what Chris has learned in the last 12 months.

This was a unique opportunity as a Chair to create and establish a new board. What were your priorities and what has been your key learning?

It was absolutely unique. My top priority was my working relationship with the CEO. A board can’t function effectively without the Chair and CEO acting as flip sides of the same coin.

The other two top priorities sound basic but took time and a lot of work. First, putting in place the nuts and bolts of governance like sub-committees, Vice-Chairs and a schedule of work and meetings. Second, helping me and the board get to know and understand the museum, its people and its stakeholders.

Creating connections was particularly important to me – meeting as many museum staff, volunteers and stakeholders as possible across the North East and the UK. My key learning is how much time you need to set aside to genuinely meet and listen to everyone. And how every second of that counts.

What role have you played in ensuring the new board formed well and people were enabled to maximise their contribution?

That’s work in progress, but the core principles I applied were patience, generosity and respect. Our new board members all brought rich and varied experiences, as well as a passion for Beamish. But we didn’t know each other and getting to know and trust one another takes time.

One of our two Vice-Chairs oversees the Governance Committee and I’ve asked her to undertake a skills and board aspirations audit. We still have some gaps on the board and we are now ready to start filling them as well as bringing in co-opted expertise to help fulfil our business and philanthropic ambitions.

In the meantime, we will keep on forming as a team and building the trust necessary to develop and implement a new strategy.

“We want to work together to tackle poverty, walk or sit alongside people living with loneliness or dementia, enable inclusion in all its forms and stimulate the North East’s economy.”

How did you work with the CEO and executive team to ensure a healthy balance between support and challenge?

Recruiting a new Chair and board, and moving away from a council-led board, were very brave things for Beamish to do. I’ve supported the CEO to challenge assumptions and build a new strong Executive Team structure that can meet the challenges and opportunities ahead.

For those of us who are from the North East, Beamish is an institution that all of the region knows and loves. But the board has worked together with the executive to look beyond nostalgia, so that we can develop our new strategy and remain relevant.

We’ve got a handle on the numbers and financial scrutiny. We have an Arts Council Investment Principles lead and a board competent person overseeing Health, Safety & Security. One of our Vice-Chairs will support philanthropy and partnerships, and the other on board health and support to our people team.

Ultimately it’s about building and maintaining trust so we can do the governance work in a informed way, balance oversight with strategy, and resist the temptation to pile in!

It’s been a year since the board was established. What have been your key achievements?

The board feels healthier every time we meet. We are now ready to develop our new strategy from 2025 and are bold and curious enough to ask what the museum is for.

A key achievement is that we kept our visitors, volunteers and external partners with us. People continue to see Beamish as a national and regional partner that is excited about looking to the future as well as the past.

Beamish is one of the top paid-for visitor attractions in the UK. We have exciting plans ahead with other regional anchor institutions. We want to work together to tackle poverty, walk or sit alongside people living with loneliness or dementia, enable inclusion in all its forms and stimulate the North East’s economy.

Beamish must continue to evolve to remain relevant and the board will continue to learn, listen and relate to communities. But we are in a good place to do that, and the board and executive team are ready to plan together for the future.

Philippa Fabry is the Director of our Not for Profit Practice. She has been recruiting transformational leaders to third sector organisations for over 17 years, which has focused on arts and culture, social justice, start up, social enterprises and social care. To learn more about how we can help you make the swap from the commercial sector to focus on purpose-driven work, you can email Philippa or connect with her on Linkedin.