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HLN meets… Rhiannon Hiles, CEO of Beamish museum

We caught up with Beamish museum’s first female CEO about her journey from a volunteer right to the top – and find out about some new exciting developments…

Written by Rachael Nichol
Published 13.04.2022

Beamish holds a special place in our hearts.

A place where we can get lost in history and travel back in time to discover what life was really like in the North East during the 1820s, 1900s, 1940s and 1950s.

Whether it’s memories of buying black bullets, cinder toffee and Fry’s chocolate in their sweet shop, or donning a hard hat and journeying down a real coal mine, the County Durham open-air museum truly captures our region’s heritage and makes us locals proud.

But behind this much-loved family attraction – which has an average footfall of more than 800,000 visitors a year – lies a team of dedicated individuals who put their heart and soul into their work. And we’re delighted to see that Beamish museum have recently appointed their first female CEO, Rhiannon Hiles.

With over 29 years of experience in the culture sector and a passion for our region’s heritage (due, in part, to being a North East local herself), Rhiannon is perfect for the job.

We caught up with her to find out why she has dedicated her life to culture, and discover how she has fared on her inspirational journey from entry-level volunteer to the top job at the museum…

Congratulations on becoming the first female CEO of Beamish museum! Can you tell us about your route to the top?

I started at Beamish as a demonstrator and volunteer, and knew right away that I had found the place where I wanted to develop my career. I’d been working in museums and have always loved them and heritage sites, but I’ve always had a soft spot for open-air museums. As a child, my grandparents took my sister and I around open-air and folklife museums in Scandinavia. I was intrigued by them and the stories of real people being told through the buildings and everyday objects.

Being able to work at Beamish is a huge honour for me and to be leading the way forward is fantastic. While at Beamish, I studied for an MA in Museum Studies and continued to grow my knowledge of the museum and the sector, applying for roles I knew would broaden my skills across the museum’s operation. I have had several roles here and have taken part in some great learning opportunities which enabled me to develop further and gain a richer understanding of museum practice.

What inspired you to start a career in the cultural sector?

I’ve always been creative and enjoyed the arts. At school and college, I loved art and design and considered interior design or architecture. My family have always been huge supporters of culture and it was perfectly natural for me to be around museums, galleries and theatres. Choosing the career path I have is rooted in being supported by my parents and grandparents, who always encouraged understanding, growth and enjoyment of the arts.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It varies a lot, though of course each day has its constants like checking emails and attending routine meetings. I love the variety my role brings and I enjoy managing and leading people. A typical day might start with some discussions with staff, taking a look at new exhibits as they develop and meeting with project staff. We’re  currently in the middle of our Remaking Beamish project with several new areas and buildings set to be built.

It’s very exciting and is the largest development the museum has ever seen in its 52 years. I gain my inspiration from being around people and the exhibits, so I try to spend most of my day around the museum. If possible, I prefer to take meetings with people somewhere on site in the open-air, and one of my favourite things to do is to show people around and share the experience of Beamish with them.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the people and the stories. I have great pride in the way in which we engage with our local community and in the spaces around the museum where this engagement takes place.



What advice would you give other women aspiring to become CEOs in the future?

I would say follow your dream and stay focused on what you want. You’re as valuable in a role as the next person and shouldn’t feel you can’t achieve something because of your gender. I would also say that it is perfectly acceptable to ask for help and to recognise your own strengths and weaknesses, but don’t let them prevent you from taking a step forward.

What’s your favourite area of Beamish?

Currently, our newly opened farm, Spain’s Field. It sits nestled in the hill looking across to the Colliery area and with the 1900s Town behind it. For me, it captures perfectly what the Beamish site, as a development, is all about in terms of planning. When you look down across the museum from the entrance and see the Colliery Village, the farm looking down across the valley and the urban development in the distance, it’s very like the views you might see as you drive through Durham with its rolling hills and farms alongside pockets of industry, villages and smaller towns.

What’s next for Beamish?

Beamish will never stop developing. One of its key aims is to always have something that someone visiting can identify with or remember. With that in mind, the future possibilities are endless for the museum. For the here and now, we’re nearing the completion of Remaking Beamish with new ventures, including overnight stays.

We need to look after the museum, its buildings, trams and objects, and need to ensure these are all cared for. We are great entrepreneurs at Beamish and are always looking at new and creative approaches to drive income in unique ways, which enhance the visitor experience while keeping an eye on which period in history will come along next.

To see what’s happening at Beamish over the Easter Holidays, visit our What’s On calendar.

If you would like to find out more information about Beamish or to book tickets, visit their website.

And if you want to stay up to date with their developments follow Beamish on Facebook and Instagram. 

Beamish Museum, Regional Resource Centre, Beamish, County Durham DH9 0RG.

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