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 became home to a whirl of inspirational family sessions, from jigsaw puzzles and 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 multi-storey car park 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 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 well-structured way,” says Peters.
The People’s History Museum in Manchester has shared its regular family sessions and resources online, including Doodle Den, Vital Voters and, for older children, Fabric of Protest. For early-years audiences, its regular sing-along, My First Protest Song, has been streamed via Facebook Live since lockdown began.
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.
London’s Francis Crick Institute held its 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 how to make “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, the 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 as 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.”
National Museums Liverpool’s (NML) free sites attract thousands of families every weekend, and lockdown was 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, NML’s strategic manager, early years and families, learning and participation.
My Home is My Museum encourages children to recreate object displays at home. “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 those 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, Oxford, challenged people to respond creatively to 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, the Ashmolean’s marketing and digital communications officer. “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, head of learning at the Towner. “Producing and delivering the creative kit bags has connected us into a network of local organisations and charities that deliver ‘on the ground’ with the most vulnerable groups. Each kit contains a blank, postage-paid postcard with an invitation to draw on the postcard and send back to us. We’ve had a steady trickle of brilliant images returned to us over the past three months.”
Edinburgh’s Collective art gallery has supported young carers during lockdown. “We thought about families that would be the most impacted through shielding,” says Siobhan Carroll, the head of programme. “This has worked well and 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 created wellbeing as well as fun activities during a time of dislocation, isolation and trauma. The challenge now is to retain the engagement as museums reopen.
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist