Episode 2 – Keith Merrin

Iain Wheeldon & Keith Merrin at Newcastle University

Notes on Episode 2 of the Cultural Peeps Podcast: Keith Merrin

This episode was recorded at Newcastle University in January 2018.

Keith Merrin is the Chief Executive of Sunderland Culture – which comprises of Arts Centre Washington, The National Glass Centre, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts, Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, The Fire Station and the City-Wide Programme, and also works in partnerships with both the regions Universities, Local Authorities as well as with a range of local Businesses.

I first met Keith when he was Director of Bede’s World (now Jarrow Hall) in 2004, but it wasn’t until he took over as the Director of Woodhorn Museum that I really got to know him well. During his time at Woodhorn, Keith led the Museum from a Local Authority governance structure to an independent Trust; Woodhorn Charitable Trust as it was called at the time. It’s now known as Museums Northumberland, and incorporates  Berwick Museum and Art Gallery, Hexham Old Gaol,  Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum, and Woodhorn Museum itself, which is located in a scheduled ancient monument.

I think Keith’s career pathway his really interesting one. One of the reasons I wanted to include him in the podcast is because of his approach to, and interest in, management and leadership. So rather than having arrived in his current role through a passion for a particular subject specialism within the sector, and being  promoted from say a Curatorial, Collections or Learning role (which is arguably a more common pathway), most of Keith’s career has specifically been about a focus on managing, developing, growing and leading on projects, organisations and initiatives. This is a pattern that can be seen from his early work with Northumberland Wildlife Trust right the way through to is his current role as Chief Executive as Sunderland Culture.

In the conversation that formed the basis for this Episode, Keith explains his early decision-making processes around opting to work in the cultural sector rather than using those management skills in a commercial or profit-driven environment – something that makes for really interesting listening.  

in 2004, Keith undertook the Clore Leadership Programme, a programme on which he now mentors. The Clore programme is a high profile initiative that launched in the early 2000’s to help identify individuals with leadership potential and provide them with the skills they need to help push the sector into a new phase. We talk about the reasons for that programme being set up, the impact it had on his career and how it has helped shape the cultural sector we now all now know and work in. Out of this comes a chat about the impact and issues around Chris Smith’s decision to announce free entry to museums in the UK in 2001.

We also talk a lot about the importance of networking, and how contacts and relationships can help people to strategically build their careers.  

The last big theme that runs through our conversation is one that repeatedly emerges in this Podcast, and that is around partnership working – and specifically how partnerships are becoming an increasingly important part of working in the cultural sector – a critical factor to consider when building the strategy of any Museum or Trust.

For further information about Keith Merrin, please visit:



Links to Podcast content:

Sunderland Culture:

National Glass Centre:


Sunderland Museum & Winter Garden:

The Fire Station:

Arts Centre Washington:

Woodhorn Museum:

Northern Rock Foundation:

Northumberland Wildlife Trust:

Red Squirrel Project:

Bill Oddie:

Kent Wildlife Trust:

The Wildlife Trust (The Royal Society of wildlife Trusts):

Bedes World (Now Jarrow Hall):

Monastery Wins World Heritage Bid (BBC News Article):

The Clore Leadership Programme:

Clore Leadership Taskforce Final Report (December 2002):

Chris Smith:

Free Admissions and The Lottery (Museums Association Article):

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