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INTERVIEW: Maggie Appleton chief executive Royal Air Force Museum

Maggie Appleton is chief executive of the Royal Air Force Museum, a role that encompasses her vision to inspire the public about the service's activities using personal testimony and immersive exhibitions.

What sparked your interest in aviation?

I came to my role at the Royal Air Force Museum through a museum curator/director route, rather than via an aviation background – so my interest has grown through my experience of museums over many years, and latterly via my relationship with the Royal Air Force. Like many parents, I used to bring my children to the RAF Museum, and was fascinated by it as a historian and a visitor. My father was an RAF armourer during the Second World War – he died when I was young, so while this wasn’t part of my upbringing, it has certainly given me an additional emotional connection to the RAF and aviation.

What was your route to the RAF Museum?

I began my museum career at the Royal Armouries in 1991, when it was still based in the Tower of London, and progressed through community museums at Stevenage and in Luton. I then broadened my scope and learned a huge amount as the chief executive of Luton Culture, the fabulous charity which comprises the museums, arts, libraries and community centres in the town. When I think back, working in my early career as the assistant curator and then curator at Stevenage was an amazing apprenticeship for my current role, as I had the opportunity over my 11 years there to be hands-on right across the organisation. I looked after the collections; researched and wrote exhibitions – including the outreach work to involve the community; worked with the team to physically build the exhibitions (it’s where my DIY skills come from!); marketed the museum; developed strategy and managed the budgets, and of course welcomed our visitors – the most important part of our work. It was an amazing team experience and a huge amount of fun, and it means I appreciate the importance of every one of our people – paid staff and volunteers – in achieving all that we set out to do.

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RAF Museum

What is the role of the RAF Museum?

Our vision is to inspire everyone with the RAF story – the people who shape it, and its place in our lives. Our role is to share the story of the Royal Air Force, past, present and future, using the stories of its people and our collections to engage, inspire and encourage learning. The majority of our visitors come for a great day out, rather than because they have a specialist interest in the RAF or aviation, so we have to think carefully about how to best engage them as well as our more knowledgeable and connected audiences. Clearly we have a key role too in encouraging more young people to pursue a career in aviation, and in science, technology and engineering more generally. We focus on sparking interest through our learning teams at both sites (at Cosford in the West Midlands and in London), and by ensuring we represent a diverse range of people and their experiences in our displays so that our visitors, whatever their background, can see themselves in those roles.

What are your responsibilities as CEO?

We are one of the UK’s national museums as well as being a charity, and my responsibility is to lead the organisation and to work with our trustees and my colleagues on the team to develop and steer a clear direction. We’ve just launched our strategic framework for the next ten years, which sets our tone and priorities with an ambitious programme for both sites. Last year we marked the centenary of the RAF with a major transformation programme of our London site. This comprised new exhibitions, landscaping to evoke our aviation heritage, new learning programmes and refurbishment of some of our historic buildings. The result was an increase in our visitor numbers by almost 40% on previous years, which gives us a hugely important platform for our future.

What are the museum’s highlights?

Both our museums give a wonderful welcome to visitors – through the beautiful spaces, our immersive exhibitions and our great team. In terms of the collection, the Lancaster in London is a hugely powerful reminder of the contribution that the RAF has made across its 100-year history, and our first Gulf War RAF POW suit in the Age of Uncertainly exhibition underlines the same spirit and bravery of our men and women today. At Cosford, our Cold War exhibition is phenomenal both for the quality of the collection – you can’t see all three V bombers together anywhere else – and for its powerful visual impact. The delight at both sites is that no matter how many times you visit there’s always more to see and to be surprised and inspired by.

What are the challenges of running a museum?

Running a museum brings the same challenges as running any business, with the added responsibility to balance income generation and financial sustainability with ensuring we focus on delivering our vision and remaining true to our values as a charity and public body. The funding climate is increasingly testing, but we have a compelling vision and are incredibly excited and positive about our future plans. Government investment in us as a national museum generously supports about 70% of our annual running costs, but the museum needs to generate the rest, as well as funding all our capital improvements and major maintenance. Clearly one significant benefit is that our beautiful spaces and special opportunities to access our aircraft at close quarters mean that individuals and business can have an amazing visit – whether that be during the day or at special event – while helping the museum look after and share our amazing collection for and with future generations.

What steps are you taking to broaden your range of visitors?

Our focus on using "inspiring people" stories to engage visitors is key to our strategy to broaden our audiences. Equally, our engaging events programme, including our food festival at Cosford and our Summer of Spitfire and Spitfire 10K at both sites attract new and different people to the museum, whom we hope will have a great day with us and come back again. The fact we are free to the public (which is government policy for national museums) removes the cost barrier, but it isn’t enough on its own – we need to constantly think of new ways that both fit our purpose and actively welcome people in, some of whom may be inspired to be our next generation of engineers, scientists and pilots.

If you would like to feature in Working Week, or you know someone who would, email your pitch to kate.sarsfield@flightglobal.com

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