Opening a Window to Your Past

For the past three years a project in Yorkshire has been bringing local groups together to share their heritage with the public through fabulous exhibitions. By taking over empty shop units in Wakefield’s Ridings Shopping Centre and developing a website the project has reached thousands of people. And now Alan Black, the man behind it all, has kindly agreed to share with us the secrets of how he opened a window to your past...

© Window to your past - Town Crier, Victor Watson with local historian Elsie Walton at the first A-Window-to-Your-Past event in Ridings shopping centre

So Alan, where did it all start?
It started just over four years ago, when l visited the Wakefield and District Family History Society to present them with a unique print of an oil painting of a historic local church by local artist Joanne Shaw FRSA. Two hours later on my way home, l was wondering why l had volunteered to organise an event to promote both the society and local history! It finished up 6 months later as a communal exhibition, tracing the development of a Wakefield street from 1900 to present day and involving most of the local historic societies. The Mayor attended the launch on 9th Sept 2009 in full Mayoral robes along with the Mace Bearer, announced by a town crier, it was filmed by Yorkshire Television, and the exhibition attracted thousands of visitors.

And since then?
Following on from the first event, the next year we once again were lucky to be able to have the use of a prime unit in the Ridings shopping centre. The theme this time was Cradle to the Grave, with every aspect covered: births, marriages and death. The last event was this September at the Davie Fine Art Gallery and titled ‘All Modes of Transport’, so you can imagine that gave us plenty of scope.

Were they as successful as the first?
I have to say in all modesty, if the press features and countless emails complimenting the events are to be believed, then they were indeed very successful. Actual visitors to each event numbered in thousands, visitors to the website hundreds of thousands, readers of all the magazines and press features countless. Add to this the fact that six weeks before each event the windows were dressed out with interesting items, we estimate that in total more than 250,000 people stopped and viewed each display.

How did you go about securing your most unusual venue?
In most inner cities sadly these days there are many empty shop units, and in prime positions. So l thought why not see if we can persuade the owners to let us have the use of one for our exhibition. But of course, you should be aware that no matter how sympathetic they may be to your event, your proposal will be viewed very much with a cold commercial eye.

So, if you want to do something similar, you need to make sure you have a great presentation ready; ifs, maybe's and ‘not sure’ will not win approval. As this is a valuable asset you have to show that you can make the best possible use of it and create plenty of great PR for them. My golden rule: keep your sponsor well informed on all aspects, regarding press reports, who's coming etc, and most importantly, send a full report once the event is over telling them how successful it was, and of course a BIG thank you, you may want another unit one day.

One of the many pitfalls that can crop up when dealing with many different societies is keeping them all happy and focused on their project, as a back up always ask each group to have enough exhibits to cover that bit more space in the event of one of the societies dropping out at the last moment.

What are your hot tips for successful PR and marketing?
A good effective website, well designed and presented, can ensure maximum attention not only locally but world-wide. Do not think small, there is a whole world out there that may well be interested in what you’re doing. Plus something of real interest may then be sent to you, something that will grab the media's attention and guarantee plenty of coverage not only in local press but through other publications picking up on the story. For example l had a lady contact me with a photograph of her son as a baby being kissed by Mohamed Ali when he had visited this country many years earlier, the boy then went on to become a boxer himself, needless to say the media all wanted to know more.

Also l found that it’s not done with a single phone call, letter or email, remember there will be dozens of other groups sending in information about their events, all taking place at the same time. You need to make yours special, that is to say you need a hook, something that makes your event stand out from all the others. This is where a good theme is paramount, you need to focus on something that is new, well researched, and most importantly well presented. The more work you put towards a potential feature, the less work the reporter has to do, and the better chances of getting it printed. So, don’t get upset if your write-up is used with just minor adjustments and then credited to the reporter.

If appropriate you could try supporting a charity at your event, making sure you make it clear that all profits will go to the charity, once again it all helps focus attention on your event. This year we were very pleased to support the Yorkshire Air Ambulance.

Do you have any plans for future projects?
If l was to say to my wife l was thinking about an event for next year, l may well have no future. Seriously, l’m always thinking of different themes and ideas, but until one stops me in my tracks l cannot say there will be another. One of the main and hopefully long term benefits is the effect the website has had on visitors from home and abroad, plus l am confident that schools will see it as an educational resource.

For the time being, let me say a really big thank you to all who have helped me: especially Down Your Way Magazine for their wonderful features; museums like Brooklands, Hull and Wakefield; and of course the visitors because without their interest it would be like a broken pencil, POINTLESS!