Trendswatch | Family-friendly activities

From Lego galleries to craft over the phone, museums rose admirably to the challenge of engaging with families at a time of isolation and trauma
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Deborah Mulhearn
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The Towner art gallery posted packs of art materials to vulnerable families during lockdown
The Towner art gallery posted packs of art materials to vulnerable families during lockdown Towner Eastbourne

Lockdown was a steep and speedy learning curve for museums and galleries as they moved activities online. Some venues created 3D tours at record speed, while the online Zoom platform has became home to a whirl of inspirational family sessions, from jigsaw puzzles to baking, to painting and communal singing.  

Ten-year old Arvo has taken to the online museum world with enthusiasm. His favourite has been Bold Tendencies, an art collective/events space in a former multistorey carpark in Peckham, south London.  

“The activities were very fun and creative,” he says. “Each session was different. I liked drawing crazy plants and seeing Sun Ra.”  

His mum Catherine Peters agrees. “They are by far the best creative projects we've completed during lockdown,” she says. “The workshops are fun and thoughtfully conceived. Everything is delivered at a pace that is never rushed.”  

Taking ideas from its rooftop garden, which was inspired by the late film director, stage designer, writer and artist Derek Jarman, and the extensive views of London’s skyline, Bold Tendencies commissioned artists to produce inventive and engaging sessions.  

“I love the way they allow for reflection and conversations around the artworks that the children produce, and each inspirational task builds on the last in a really well-structured way,” says Peters.  

Babies sing along to This is My First Protest song, which was streamed on Facebook Live People's History Museum
Nugget-sized activities
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The People’s History Museum in Manchester has shared its regular family sessions and resources online, including Doodle Den, Vital Voters and Fabric of Protest (this latter aimed at older children). For early years audiences, its regular sing-along, My First Protest Song, has been streamed via Facebook Live since lockdown began.  

In the same city, Manchester Art Gallery delivered its regular sessions – Art Bites, Philosophy Cafe, Stories We Share – via Zoom, and also developed new sessions, including tours led by volunteer guides. 

The Francis Crick Institute, London, held its May half-term Discovery Week virtually, with nugget-sized activities including a science quiz, Q&As with scientists, demonstrations of cell structure using household objects and making ‘blood cell’ jewellery.  

“When the country first went into lockdown, families were suddenly left with a huge amount of time to fill in the home,” says Alison Bowyer, executive director at Kids in Museums, which works to make venues more welcoming for children, young people and families. “Museums across the UK have done a brilliant job of quickly offering support, providing help for teaching all subjects, as well fun activities for families to do together. We’ve seen a huge increase in traffic to the Kids in Museums website with families searching for things to do at home.”  

A Chinese silk jacket from the Ashmolean Museum's collection used as a prompt (left) and one person's creative response (right)Oxford University Museums
Role reversal

National Museums Liverpool’s (NML) free sites attract thousands of families every weekend, and lockdown has been challenging.  

“For the first time since the Second World War, we’ve been unable to invite children into our world, so we set about asking them to invite us into theirs instead,” says Julia Bryan, strategic manager, early years and families, learning and participation at NML.  

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My Home is My Museum encourages children to recreate object displays at home.  

Seven-year-old Poppy curated a collection for National Museums Liverpool's My Home is My Museum initiative

“Some children have thought really hard about how to show their objects, creating Lego galleries, dinosaur exhibits from stones and paintings inspired by Vincent van Gogh,” says Bryan. “We’ve had toys and pets as well as objects, and others have created labels to go with their drawings such as you’d find in the Walker Art Gallery. They’ve also had fun with visual effects, with one little girl seamlessly turning into Hermione from Harry Potter at the end of her video!”  

The Isolation Creation campaign at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford challenged people to respond creatively to selected objects and artworks from the collection. More than 2,000 contributions, including paintings, prints, embroidery, baked goods, and sculpture, have been shared on social media since it launched in March.  

“Many people have reported that they look forward to each new challenge, and some participants have been supporting each other and teaching new creative skills,” says Emily Jarrett, marketing and digital communications officer at the Ashmolean. “There has been a wonderful community of all ages and abilities coming together each week to create, from all over the world, and from all ages.” 

Not all families have digital access, of course. V&A Dundee offered craft activities by phone, while the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne has distributed packs of art materials to disadvantaged local families.  

“Through being in lockdown we have been able to make new connections,” says Esther Collins, the head of learning at the Towner. “Producing and delivering the creative kit bags has connected us into a network of local organisations and charities who deliver ‘on the ground’ with the most vulnerable groups in Eastbourne. Each kit contains a blank postage-paid postcard with an invitation to draw on the postcard and send back to us at Towner. We have had a steady trickle of brilliant images returned to us over the past three months.” 

The Collective art gallery in Edinburgh has supported young carers during lockdown.  

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“We thought about families that would be the most impacted through shielding,” says Siobhan Carroll, head of programme. “This has worked really well and has given the group an opportunity through online workshops to develop, record and perform a new sci-fi radio play with an artist. We hope that the commitment to learning through play and art made during lockdown has enhanced our reputation with local families and that they will return in person as soon as it is safe to do so.” 

Museums have risen to the challenge to create wellbeing as well as fun activities during a time of dislocation, isolation and trauma for many. The challenge now is to retain the engagement as museums return to their physical spaces.  

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