Outdoor attractions – and museums with gardens or access to open-air spaces – have had a natural advantage since the pandemic started.
In 2020, two gardens (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and RHS Garden Wisley) made it into the Association for Leading Visitor Attractions top 10 for the first time, while venues with outdoor spaces, such as the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London, rose up the charts.
But despite the draw of fresh air and plenty of space for social distancing, these venues have still been hit by lockdowns and have had to adjust to new ways of operating.
Although the pandemic has presented challenges, it has also ushered in an era of experimentation. Many cultural organisations had to become agile and adaptive to survive, and new outdoor offerings quickly emerged.
Despite lockdown restrictions, Warwickshire’s Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park’s visitor numbers fell only 0.9% in 202o to 78,758.
Before Covid-19 struck, it had begun to position itself for growth.
“For 2020, we had introduced dog walking, which brought a new audience, and we’d increased our opening hours,” says Julie Finch, Compton Verney’s director and chief executive. “We were an all-year round venue for the first time.”
The team had started thinking of Compton Verney’s 120 acres as stages. “Each part of the landscape provided opportunities for different events,” says Finch. “Once we made that shift, we looked at programming and how we could encourage people to use the whole site.”
In a locked-down world, the need to build community connections assumed greater importance. “We saw ourselves providing a service for local people,” says Finch.
Compton Verney worked with Culture Central, which brings together cultural leaders across the Midlands. For the 2020 Make it West Midlands Midsummer Festival, Compton Verney teamed up with the Royal Shakespeare Company to present outdoor theatre production Titania’s Dream. This culminated in three socially distanced performances, with the content also available online.
The responsibility for hosting the Covid-safe production rested on a small core team and volunteers.
“Adapting to a socially distanced model in the grounds was a big learning curve,” says Finch. “We limited the number of people. Titania’s Dream was a procession, so it moved around the site. We didn’t know how visitors would respond, but they were desperate to see theatre.”
Compton Verney also collaborated with the arts charity People United to explore how humour can positively affect emotions and behaviour. That project led to playful art interventions across the parkland. Birmingham-based street artist Foka Wolf created quirky signs inspired by Compton Verney’s folk art collection and conversations from an online Laughter Cafe.
At Compton Verney’s Music of the Spheres event in August, musicians and aerial silk artists performed in giant, bubble-like orbs.
The event drew 900 spectators, spaced out in socially distanced picnic spots. “It was incredibly well received and attracted a diverse range of visitors,” says Finch.
Family-friendly activities were the focus for the autumn half-term. Compton Verney had to postpone Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon artwork due to high winds, but it arranged a Light in the Dark event. The venue teamed up with after-school children’s club Go Go Makers, families at the military base MOD Kineton, the arts charity Escape Arts and local schoolchildren to create a lantern trail.
The Chinese Community Centre in Birmingham produced poems linked to the Moon Festival, which visitors could discover across the site using UV light.
Compton Verney’s first winter opening featured a Fire Garden, created with outdoor-arts organisation Walk the Plank. Fiery sculptures lit up the grounds for five nights during the sell-out event. Guests could snack on pizza and hot chocolate by fire pits. The venue also invited local artists to transform the house into a 3D advent calendar with 24 painted windows.
Culture Recovery Fund money distributed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England provided funding for the initiatives.
“We pretty much did everything on a shoestring because we’ve got a superb creative team,” says Finch. “In one year, we diversified our audiences by programming completely differently. We had a wider, younger uptake for events.
“We’ve been going through a rebrand and this activity has helped us think about where we need to be as we move forward. A very different Compton Verney is emerging out of Covid-19. We want to come out of this stronger and more recognisable to a broader range of audiences.”
The pandemic also accelerated the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s (Imma) plan to reactivate its grounds, says the organisation’s head of engagement and learning, Helen O’Donoghue.
Its collection is housed in the historic, 48-acre Royal Hospital Kilmainham site, on the edge of Dublin.
To adapt its offering for the outdoors, the museum team developed programming based on the site’s ecology and biodiversity, building on a strong working relationship with the Office of Public Works gardeners, who maintain the grounds.
“We looked at the need for safe, convivial spaces,” says O’Donoghue. The museum created an outdoor area, the People’s Pavilion, where guests could enjoy takeaway coffees in socially distanced circles painted on the lawn.
“We ran our programming from a stretch tent,” says O’Donoghue. “We repurposed our gallery staff, bringing them out into the field. They delivered guided tours and talks about art and the site’s history. They ran workshops under the tent, or if the weather allowed, all over the gardens.”
Paola Catizone, a yoga teacher, visual artist and member of Imma’s visitor engagement team, facilitated movement and art workshops. The People’s Pavilion was so successful that Imma intends to create two pavilions this year.
A collaboration with Poetry Ireland and the Adrian Brinkerhoff Poetry Foundation allowed visitors to watch poetry films through the windows of a gardener’s house. Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, meanwhile, will host a music programme on Imma’s site.
Imma has connected with community and arts organisations including Art Nomads, Common Ground and Fatima Groups United.
“Like us, they couldn’t convene indoors, so they created programmes on our grounds using our stretch tent as a meeting point,” says O’Donoghue. She adds that people who attended Imma’s workshops “felt they were a lifeline”.
The travel restrictions meant that people have flocked to Imma.
“What I find exciting, after a 30-year career here, is that people are using the museum for themselves,” says O’Donoghue. “They’re not waiting to be invited. They know we’re open, we’re accessible, and that we wish to collaborate. Imma is there and people are using it.”
As an open-air museum, Beamish in County Durham has always interpreted its outdoor spaces alongside its indoor exhibits, creating context for the social, industrial and rural stories that it tells. But chief executive Rhiannon Hiles says the pandemic has led it to increase the levels of outdoor engagement and interpretation that would ordinarily take place indoors.
Beamish’s period-style retail has moved to outdoor stalls in the 1900s Town.
The museum has expanded its pop-up food and beverage offers and added Covid-safe signage and hand sanitiser stations. Markers ensure socially distanced queuing at pinch points such as the entrance, sweet shop and pub.
“Adapting hands-on activities for Covid times has been a creative experience,” says Hiles. Some activities have been reimagined as digital experiences. But customs such as May Day and the Sunday School Anniversary can be celebrated outdoors.
Hiles advises venues to look at their core offer and unique selling point. “Think about why your visitors love visiting and how that can be made Covid safe,” she says. “Wherever there is a story to be told, think creatively about how to enhance it for visitors, ensuring they don’t spend too long in one place.”
Grounds for optimism
Despite intermittent closures in 2020, the American Museum in Bath finished the year with a 37% fall in visitors compared with 2019, and only 15% down on the year before.
“We largely attribute this to the timely introduction of a play area and our beautiful gardens,” says Fritha Costain, the director of business and development at the museum.
The museum’s Children’s Garden opened last August and was an instant hit with families. “It was something that we had been developing pre-Covid, but the timing was perfect,” says Costain. “The play area is made up of stunning Native American-inspired wooden structures designed by the Green Play Project. We extended the experience early this year with a wilderness trail taking visitors across our parkland.”
As a result of Covid and the introduction of the Children’s Garden, the museum has seen a shift in its visitor base, with a rise in family memberships.
“We have a significant opportunity to use our outdoor spaces to provide a stronger offer for family visits,” she says.
The American Museum has also developed a wellbeing programme with the youth charity YMCA. It includes yoga sessions in the gardens, and mindfulness and meditative walks.
The gardens at the Horniman Museum in London have been popular with locals during lockdown. “We’ve had so many fantastic comments from visitors, thanking us for keeping the gardens open,” says Kirsten Walker, the museum’s director of collections care and estates. “It’s really benefited their wellbeing.”
The 16 acres of gardens are normally a hive of activity, offering family pursuits such as pond-dipping sessions and minibeast searches. But with so much uncertainty last year, the team reined in its outdoor programme. Walker says one activity that continued was storytelling in the Sunken Garden, with people socially distancing on the terraces. The Horniman also opened its Sound Garden, featuring giant world instruments for visitors to play.
“We couldn’t realistically sanitise the play equipment, but we had signs encouraging people to wash their hands before and after using it,” says Walker. The museum’s Plonk crazy-golf course continued to generate income, while the farmers’ market carried on.
The Horniman hopes to reintroduce outdoor events this year. In conjunction with its new 696 Project – a residency programme for young people platforming jazz, Afrobeat, grime, reggae, R&B, rap and soul music – it aims to hold a series of summer concerts and festivals celebrating the south London music scene.
In Brighton, the Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust is redeveloping the John Nash-designed Royal Pavilion Garden, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
“Covid has made us think of it more as an extension of the museum, as a space for events and interpretation,” says Hedley Swain, the trust’s chief executive. “We also want it to be a green space and a therapeutic space. Museum gardens should make museums themselves more porous, breaking down formal barriers.”
The pandemic has encouraged more people to head outside for recreation. Museums and galleries that create exciting cultural experiences outdoors, where people feel most comfortable, are well placed to broaden their appeal.
Juliana Gilling is a freelance journalist