To kick off our inspirational women series, we spoke to Dr Sarah Price- Head of Locomotion at Shildon about her role within an industry that is traditionally viewed as a male dominated arena.

Dr Sarah Price

Dr Sarah Price

Congratulations on successfully completing your first year as Head of Locomotion- please can you tell us what your job entails?

Thank you, it’s been a wonderful first year. I consider myself very fortunate. We have a brilliant team of staff and volunteers, a fascinating collection and we are supported by our visitors as well as our fantastic Friends organisation. My role is to work with everyone to really develop Locomotion and take it forward in such a way that inspires a new generation of visitors to learn about the railway industry, the role of engineering and the very special role that Shildon played in the global railway story. This ranges from leading on updating the interpretation of the vehicles kept at Locomotion to ensuring our engagement programme is exciting and appeals to our audiences, from working with partners and stakeholders on plans to celebrate the bicentenary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway to working with colleagues on our plans to develop the site including a new building, from managing the work of the engineering and rail operation team to managing the budget and forecasting visitor numbers. Every day is different!

I understand that your previous role was working for Durham University to what extent did working on a World Heritage Site prepare you for heading up part of the National Railway Museum?

I spent 14 happy years at the University helping to develop a strong cultural offer that opened up the collections of the institution not just to staff and students but to the wider community. By the time I left I was responsible for leading the team delivering visitor experience, learning and special exhibitions which gave me the skills and experience needed to head up a national museum. What I also gained from my experience at Durham University, and particularly from working on a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a deep understanding of the special sense of place and the importance of place-making. This is absolutely critical to my new role. Shildon might not possess the grand medieval architecture of Durham City but its location, its development and its history are equally important when it comes to telling big stories and what could be bigger than how a small railway town changed the world?

Many readers would be curious to know how you have adapted to a senior management role in what is widely considered a male dominated activity?

The shift from working in a higher education institution to working in a museum that focuses on the railway industry wasn’t as massive as I perhaps anticipated. This is partly because the gender balance of my colleagues in both places of work is pretty similar but I would also like to think it is down to my approach to life. I have a natural curiosity about all sorts of subjects and I don’t feel any need to pretend that I have more knowledge than I do. I am surrounded by brilliant people who know a huge amount about railways and engineering who I can call on for support. I see it as my job to work with them, harnessing their special skills and knowledge to mine to develop and deliver a strong vision for Locomotion. It might also help that my Dad was an engineer so I have very happy memories of walking through workshops which are brought back every time I smell that peculiarly evocative mix of oil and metal!

I am led to believe that most of the senior positions in the NRM are now occupied by women- what benefits/advantages do you feel the female influence has on the organisation?

There was been a shift at NRM to having more women in senior positions and we are led, for the first time in the museum’s history, by a woman, Judith McNicol. Judith is an inspirational leader who places a heavy emphasis on professionalism, quality, equality and teamwork – qualities I also strongly believe in. This outlook permeates the whole organisation and I think you can now see how it is changing what we do, why we do things and how we do things both at Shildon and York. Both Judith and I are also keen to shatter the perception that the railway industry and engineering in general are male preserves and this is undoubtedly helped by having women in senior positions across the whole organisation.

As well as paid staff, the museum relies a great deal on volunteers- which I understand are mostly men. Why do you think this is and how can the NRM attract more female volunteers?

We have well over 100 active volunteers at Locomotion and it is no exaggeration to say that we could not run without them. They undertake a wide range of tasks for us from cleaning the vehicles, to running guided tours of the museum, to working as guards, firemen and drivers on our passenger service, assisting with school visits, working in the workshop and helping visitors access the cabs of some our star vehicles. All of these roles are open to everyone but at the moment, most of our volunteers are men. For the past year I have been working with Simon Walsh, our Volunteer and Community Engagement Co-ordinator, to develop a plan on how we can diversify our volunteer pool. This is a double-pronged approach. We need to look at what we do, as well as when and how, so the volunteering opportunities we provide appeal to a wider range of people including women but also young people. We also need to be more proactive, reaching out to our local communities so they feel that we are approachable and that they will feel welcome. It’s early days but I’m hoping that we will start to see a real change soon.

What advice would you offer to other women wanting to pursue a career in management or more specifically for a career in the museum environment?

The best leadership advice I have ever been given is that you should always be the best version of yourself. For me, this means maintaining my integrity, respecting the views of others, trusting in my team and never being ashamed to ask for help. My personal mantra (shamelessly stolen from Disney’s Cinderella!) is to have courage and be kind. Being a leader does take courage – we operate in a tough environment and there are hard decisions to be made but facing up to challenges in a positive way nearly always results in the right outcome. People are also much more likely to follow you and to support your vision if you adopt this approach. It isn’t about being a pushover, leading requires a steely inner core, but you need to remain mindful of those you work with and the reasons you are doing what you do if you really want to succeed. On a more practical note, for those starting out on their management journey I would also say take advantage of every opportunity you are offered, find yourself a mentor who you can ask for help and advice (the cultural sector is very generous in this respect), get in the habit of thinking about the big picture and look after yourself – you can’t lead others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

As a mum myself, I am always looking for things to do with my daughter. What does the museum offer for parents and young families and it is baby friendly?

Families are an important part of our audience and it is really important that we provide a strong offer for visitors of all ages. I want everyone to love museums as much as I do and this means providing a warm, welcoming environment that keeps every member of the family engaged and entertained. For our younger visitors we have invested in our indoor play area, introduced special tours for families during school holidays and increased the number of family activities on offer. We have also launched an under-5s club called Little Loco’s which runs twice per month and has proved very popular. As a mum myself (although mine are nearly adults now) I also appreciate some of the practical difficulties of visiting with babies and toddlers so we have equipment like potties and steps available in our accessible toilets and we are a breastfeeding-friendly site.

What can visitors expect in the run up to Christmas?

We have a full programme of activities in the run-up to Christmas and during the school holidays. For families we are running passenger trains every weekend in December and there is a chance to try your hand at making some Christmas gifts to give loved ones. We are also very excited to announce that we are doing special screenings of The Polar Express in one of our carriages each weekend in December. As well as watching the film, each ticket holder receives a hot chocolate, a ride on our train and a gift to decorate (fans of the film will be able to guess what this is!). We also wanted to put something on for older visitors too so we are running two workshops where you can create your own Christmas Wreath and our café is offering a special Christmas Afternoon Tea. As someone who loves afternoon teas, I can’t wait!