Bill Wolsey on his idea to turn Belfast city centre into a living museum for Belfast? And the role of awkward individuals in making change happen! #imaginebelfast

“My thought was, if it’s so difficult to get kids to come to museums, why don’t we bring the museums to the kids and to the city and try to spark their imagination. We have so many shop windows in and around the city, we could just take a little corner of them and put an item [and] the whole city becomes a living museum.”

Making Belfast into a living museum is just one of the ideas already submitted into Imagine! Festival’s tongue-twisting Build Belfast Back Better initiative. I’ve been contacting some of the people making suggestions to feature them on a festival podcast this week.

When I spoke to Bill Wolsey, he explained that the concept of a living museum has long been on his mind Bill’s the managing director of Beannchor, a hospitality company with a number of well-known bars, hotels and restaurants. [Disclaimer: I’m known to be partial to a slice or two from Little Wing Pizzeria …]

You can read Bill’s other pitches (and lots more submissions) on the Imagine! Belfast website.

Belfast’s story has been built on vibrant communities and the legacy of industries such as ship building, linen manufacturers, cotton and pottery. We have hundreds, if not thousands, of historical artefacts at our fingertips that visually tell us that story. Art and culture are an integral part of the human experience and sadly often that message can be lost, as it can feel inaccessible. To attract attention, encourage engagement with our history and heritage and visit attractions such as the Ulster Museum we should showcase these artefacts and items throughout the city centre. Through placing historical items in shop windows, bars and restaurants we can create a point of difference in the city and create a ‘living museum’. No other city is currently doing this and is a fantastic opportunity for Belfast.

When Bill goes into schools to talk about business to groups of pupils, he asks how many go to museums? Some tell him that they’ve been on school visits. But overall, very few indicate that they been to one. “They just saw it as something that held no interest to them.”

Bill is passionate about boosting understanding of what we have in common as a way of overcoming division.

“You bring items from the storerooms of various museums and you put them in shop fronts across the city. And hopefully that will stimulate the mind of all the citizens who live in Belfast to give us an understanding of our common identity.”

He’s aware that due to the pandemic, the rise of online, and the low population density in the city centre, the city of Belfast will be going through a really difficult time. “We absolutely need something that attracts people back into a vibrant and forward-looking city.”

He has previously approached the Ulster Museum with the idea.

“They were all hugely enthusiastic about it, and then they went away and nothing happened. So then I pressed them again and other people came down and showed a similar degree of enthusiasm. They talked about the problems around insurance and I sorted that one out and got an insurance company who would insure these items. And I told them this and they went away and, again, nothing happened. So, the idea sort of died.”

Bill describes the ideas as “a gift for the museums, an absolute gift” and enumerated three reasons to justify why the concept should be seriously considered.

“(a) It gets not just the middle classes, it could promote interest among the working classes, if we want to use those old-fashioned terms. (b) It could have worked on a tourist front. And (c) it doesn’t cost any money, or would cost very little money [as] I’m sure the individual shops, stores, office windows would have taken [it[] on. And it’s something that I think is well worth doing.”

I’ve published this post without asking National Museums NI for comment in advance. There are any number of – good and bad – reasons why decent ideas don’t catch on, particularly ones dreamed up outside the organisation traditionally responsible for implementing them. Not invented here, doesn’t align with strategy, overlaps with another initiative, or no staff bandwidth spare to manage another project aren’t the only justifications I can imagine.

If the idea chimes with you, feel free to support it later in the week when Imagine! invites people to weigh up the ideas and pick their favourites.

But Bill sounded pretty frustrated! So I probed to find out what in his experience of business tended to be required to get traction behind good ideas.

“Most progress is made by an awkward individual. And you also need to create the right environment … one where, when somebody comes up with an idea or a plan, everybody listens to it and then somebody pushes it through … That’s not only how you make progress in business. It’s how you make progress in politics. And it’s how you would make progress in a museum. You need somebody who passionately believes in it and just doesn’t give lip service to it.”

“What we have in Northern Ireland in general is a huge bureaucracy. And not too many people want to think outside the box.”

Is Bill one of those awkward individuals that makes things happen?

“You don’t need to be obnoxious. In my company, I employ a lot of people who are better than me [and once they have an understanding of the business] I’m quite happy to have an open meeting where I’m surrounded by people who put forward in a robust way a direction that they think we should go. It’s about creating the right environment”

He added: “And once you’ve got that, and everybody gets on board with whatever idea has come forward … and [it’s] successful, then that gives you the confidence to raise your eyes and say, yeah, we can be better. Constantly striving to be better is how you create the environment. And from there on, you need to get individuals who want to progress.”