5 Life Lessons Learnt: Abbot House’s Organisational Development Grant

Profile photo of Devon McHugh By Devon McHugh
27 February 2014

With its distinctive coral-pink harled exterior and lovely medieval garden, Abbot House is an unmissable visitor experience at the centre of Dunfermline’s fine heritage quarter.  Currently in a transitional period, the heritage centre applied in 2013 for an Organisational Development Grant to help upgrade the digital skills and provision for staff, allowing them to better promote Abbot House as a dynamic cultural centre for the exploration of Scotland’s medieval past.

As of early 2014, the project was in the final stages of completion: staff have been engaged with a newly-designed website that is accessible, dynamically designed, and easy to control from the office; lectures and learning materials are being created to offer an expanded online provision for visitors; and wifi provision is being upgraded and installed throughout the House for visitor use.

With portions of the building dating back to the 15th century, Abbot House has long acted as an interface between the town of Dunfermline and the abbey and royal palace. Now run as a heritage centre, with plans to apply for Museum Accreditation in 2014, Abbot House uses dynamic, approachable aspects of the past to help engage visitors with medieval Scotland.

With portions of the building dating back to the 15th century, Abbot House has long acted as an interface between the town of Dunfermline and the abbey and royal palace. Now run as a heritage centre, with plans to apply for Museum Accreditation in 2014, Abbot House uses dynamic, approachable aspects of the past to help engage visitors with medieval Scotland.

Lesson 1: Let the application be your guide…

The sensitively-designed application process for AmbITion’s Organisational Development grant, and the advice that we were given by Ashley and Ela during the process, helped us to turn what was a frustration with some of our tech limitations into a holistically-designed, imaginative project that involved the entire team. We began with knowing that our old website was clunky, and that we wanted something that was more visually up-to-date and that we felt we had a bit more control over, but by working through the application, we developed the project in such a way that it actually became a much bigger digital ‘fix’: incorporating training for our staff, photography to really help the website shine, the installation of wifi throughout the House to enable us to use the new site more actively for heritage interpretation, and some simple hard- and soft-ware that lets us record our regular lectures and create our own video content for the site. We are still learning how to integrate these new systems into our everyday work, but the fact that learning itself was at the centre of this grant helped us to develop a successful project.

Lesson 2: Give yourself enough time…

Embrace the AmbITion approach, but don’t be overly ambitious about your time scales! Because we were very excited to start to make changes, and genuinely were in a hurry to get our digital offerings and skills up to scratch, we put a really tight deadline on the project… One that we went WAY over on!! We started the project during a period in which we were developing a number of programmes, including opening Abbot Brew House, so staff time was really in demand. This meant that I was unable to dedicate the time I needed to the project in the early months.

The original aim was to finish the AmbITion grant before the opening of Abbot Brew House in October, but the demands on staff time of running both projects was just too much. Plus, if we had launched before the Brew House was open, we wouldn’t have had any beer pictures!

The original aim was to finish the AmbITion grant before the opening of Abbot Brew House in October, but the demands on staff time of running both projects was just too much. Plus, if we had launched before the Brew House was open, we wouldn’t have had any beer pictures!

Lesson 3: Embrace your enthusiasms, but be honest about your limitations…

By being really clear  with our photographer, wifi guys, and web designer, we were able to tailor the project in such a way that we could really prioritise our educational mission in the development of the site and digital programming. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to sustain anything particularly techy long term, so we looked for simple solutions that we can develop ourselves over time to help our visitors have a better experience within our building. As a registered charity, our priority has been to make sure that we are continually supporting our mission, which is to protect and promote our collections and the fabric of the building itself, and to use these resources to help people learn about their past. By being really clear with ourselves and our partners about our intentions and expectations for the project,  we were able to work more successfully.

HLF Project Officer Gillian Ramsay excitedly tests out the QR-coded interactives in the archaeology exhibition: simple digital engagement will allow visitors to find out more, linking to the website for further information on the building and collections, including recorded lectures and educational podcasts.

HLF Project Officer Gillian Ramsay excitedly tests out the QR-coded interactives in the archaeology exhibition: simple digital engagement will allow visitors to find out more, linking to the website for further information on the building and collections, including recorded lectures and educational podcasts.

Lesson 4: Get everyone involved…

One of the biggest successes of the project for us was the way in which all of the team members were able to really engage with the process, both helping us to work more effectively together and develop our individual professional skills. The new website is really easy to use (and is in WordPress, the same format as AmbITion’s site, coincidentally making the rich content reporting process a LOT easier!), and our training has allowed us to immediately dive in. While it is primarily staff who will be making changes to the site itself, the process of development has involved and inspired the whole Abbot House community, from volunteers to visitors, and has given us a product that we can really be proud of.

The new WordPress website is incredibly easy to use, and the training sessions have given staff the necessary skills to develop our own content.

The new WordPress website is incredibly easy to use, and the training sessions have given staff the necessary skills to develop our own content.

Lesson 5: Follow advice

While at this point the project is looking great, there have been some serious hiccups along the way. Because Abbot House is not only a medieval building, but actually a series of extentions built onto a 15th-century core over 400 years, the wifi installation was a real challenge. As we were (we thought!) nearing the completion of the testing stage, and just about to install… Our original wifi contractors realised that they simply weren’t going to be able to manage the project. Luckily, Ashley, Ela, and the team at AmbITion had a wealth of experience on which we could draw. They foresaw a few of our problems before we even did, and were able to offer us the experience and professional advice we needed to finally make the project a proper success. Beyond that, the additional training that has been offered has really empowered our team digitally, taking us from a situation where we had a digitally-keen (but inexperienced) director, to having a full team of digitally-engaged (but probably still inexperienced…) staff! Joining this network of other organisations that are in a similar position has offered a great deal of support, and has helped us to remove a lot of the intimidation we previously felt about digital engagement.

Training through AmbITion has helped staff who were previously somewhat intimidated by, or simply not very engaged with, the digital process to get involved with expanding the House’s online profile through social media and website.

Training through AmbITion has helped staff who were previously somewhat intimidated by, or simply not very engaged with, the digital process to get involved with expanding the House’s online profile through social media and website.

Comments are closed.