Kids are taking over museums Part I

This is Part I of a paper that I wrote for the International Symposium of the Children’s Museum for its 10th Anniversary of the National Museum of Korea reconstruction and children’s museum opening to the public. The Symposium was entitled Museums where Children have fun – results and challenges of education at Children’s Museums

Kids are taking over museums!

Kids in Museums Takeover Day: Opportunities and Challenges 

Good morning! My name is Caroline Marcus and today I am going to describe how kids are taking over museums across the UK.

I am a trained primary school teacher and have worked for many years as an independent consultant in museum and gallery learning, access and engagement. I manage a portfolio of projects and my roles include Takeover Day Director for the charity Kids in Museums; Visiting Lecturer and Module Leader for the MA Museums and Galleries in Education at the University of London; and Exhibition Curator of the National Gallery’s flagship primary school programme, Take One Picture.

Previously I was Head of Education at the Jewish Museum, London, and a Holocaust Educator. I have worked at the National Gallery in many roles including Access Officer, Outreach Officer, and Initial Teacher Education students’ mentor and lecturer. I am a Sandford Award Judge for the Heritage Education Trust, giving accreditation for best practice in heritage learning; a Jury Member for the national Big Draw’s Drawing Inspiration Awards; and a Trustee of the National Motor Museum Beaulieu.

Inspired by an antique thread
I have always had a passion for museums, galleries and heritage sites: my earliest ‘wow’ moment was when I visited the English playwright William Shakespeare’s birthplace as an 11 year old. My history teacher asked me to find an interesting item from the playwright’s house to illustrate my coursework.

She was concerned when I came back with the tiny piece of material shown here, lovingly stuck into my history coursework. It had been hanging tantalisingly by a thread from a cushion on which Shakespeare had once sat. Back then, this piece of thread instilled a sense of intrigue in me that kick-started my passion for museums, a journey that continues today. This thread has influenced my career and stimulated my thinking on ways to welcome and involve young people in cultural and heritage sites, as I aim to enable young people to experience the sense of awe and wonder I felt.

Kids in Museums Takeover Day
I now direct Kids in Museums Takeover Day, a national project with the ability to make a real difference to real kids and kick-start their journeys with all kinds of museums. I will introduce Takeover Day and also briefly introduce Take One Picture, the National Gallery’s flagship primary school exhibition that I curate.

What is Takeover Day?
On 20 November, if you wander into a museum, art gallery, archive, library or heritage site you may be greeted by children at the front desk, given a tour of the gallery by teenagers or helped in the cafe by a 14 year old. This is Kids in Museums Takeover Day, an annual day on which arts and heritage organisations are taken over by children who are given meaningful, powerful and decision-making roles. From curators to cafe staff, the young people are in charge. They participate fully in the work of the museums, make decisions and provide valuable contributions.

In 2014, Takeover Day was the biggest event in the UK to include children and young people and it is growing. Over 145 cultural organisations took part in England and around 6,000 children and young people across the UK. Children take over museums in various ways and not all of them public facing.

They welcome visitors, lead tours, create trails, curate exhibitions, set pest traps, advise on youth panels – and answer the phones, which children tell us is one of their favourite things.

Kids in Museums – the charity
Takeover Day is run by Kids in Museums, a charity working with museums to make them more welcoming of children, young people and families – in particular those who haven’t visited before. It gives children and young people visiting museums and galleries across Britain a powerful and dynamic voice. Funded by Arts Council England (and the Welsh Government in Wales), Takeover Day is part of a wider annual initiative of the Children’s Commissioner for England. 

Takeover Day is more than a day
Takeover Day is a flexible day and can involve from one to 100 children and young people. Many organisations make Takeover Day an event that happens throughout the year and are embedding takeovers into their regular programmes. Kids in Museums actively encourages museums to think of Takeover Day as #morethanaday.

Takeover Day aims
One of the Art Council’s goals is for every child and young person to have the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts, museums and libraries.  Takeover Day fulfils this cultural offer for young people through enabling  their participation and involvement at the heart of the UK’s cultural and heritage sites, widening access to these sites and helping to raise children’s aspirations by providing meaningful opportunities for consultation and engagement.

Takeover Day does not advocate shadowing adult roles, as its key message is for young people to actually make the decisions. This year, Takeover Day is encouraging organisations to develop more youth panels and attract young volunteers to the sector. By doing so, it aims to put young people at the heart of organisations, diversify the museum workforce and boost young people’s employment opportunities. It aims to fulfil these goals through developing young volunteers’ teams within the sector.

Case Study: Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust
I would like to share a few Takeover Day case studies with you. I will begin with Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

He slept three in a bed, his family meals of beef, pottage and pies lasted at least two hours, and he wrote with a swan feather quill on cow skin in brown ink made from mashed oak apples. These are just three of the fascinating facts about playwright William Shakespeare that 10- and 11-year-old guides from a local primary school told tourists, special guests and dignitaries on a tour of Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon on Takeover Day 2014.

This is the third year that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has taken part in Takeover Day. The Trust has refined the programme over the years to give children a meaningful experience that focuses on their interests. Two classes of 10 and 11 year olds from a local primary school took part. The same school has been involved each year and has developed their work in school to support the event.

What did they do on Takeover Day?
In preparation for the day, children worked on activities to build their confidence. They made posters and visitor leaflets to advertise the day. On the day itself, half the children wore replica Tudor dress and the other half performed scenes from a Shakespearian play to visitors around the Birthplace. They took part in a carousel of work-related activities, rotating after a set time so they could experience all of them. They performed for the public in various onsite locations; designed and collected surveys, and sold tickets at Reception; catalogued and handled documents, and displayed early printed books and artefacts; wrote a blog about their experiences; guided visitors in every room of the Birthplace; and facilitated handling sessions for visitors of more than 10 nationalities.

After the event, they advised the Birthplace on aspects, such as where to position particular merchandise in the shop. Positive outcomes included closer working between the Birthplace and the local community, as well as offering both the school and the Birthplace a better understanding of what the other does. Parents of the children attending were given a free voucher to visit on that day and a very high proportion took up the offer.

One visitor commented, ‘As a customer I was overwhelmed by the joy and excitement of seeing these children engage in history and literature and having the opportunity to engage in dialogue with real people. Their presence increased the pleasure of my excursion.’

There were two instances of children coming back with extended family and taking over independently, giving them a full guided tour of the Birthplace as they had done on Takeover Day. In one case, other visitors started to join in and ask questions.

2014 was an anniversary year for Shakespeare and eight of the Takeover Day children went to the Speakers’ Apartments at the Houses of Parliament to give a flavour of Takeover Day and the birthday celebrations to MPs, including the Education Secretary. One Takeover Day participant said, ‘I love the Birthplace, I want to work here when I’m older. I can say I’ve had experience.’

Case Study: Teen Twitter Takeover
On 20 August 2015, over 30 cultural and heritage organisations across the UK handed their twitter feeds over to teenagers during Teen Twitter Takeover. It trended and there were international interactions, which raised the campaign’s profile beyond its 30,000 followers. This increased awareness of young people’s work with cultural organisations, encouraged others to involve young people, enabled young people to join in with a successful national event and empowered teenagers. It also generated interest in the forthcoming official Takeover Day in November and the types of projects young people might engage with.

Youth consultants from museum youth panels worked with Kids in Museums to devise the resource ‘How can teenagers take over our Twitter feed?’

Teen Twitter Takeover helps museums to put young people’s voices at the heart of the museum, demonstrating trust. It is great fun, a brilliant profile-raising activity and will help organisations understand their young visitors better, enabling staff from different departments to work together. You can follow Teen Twitter Takeover on Twitter @takeovermuseums #TakeoverDay

One youth tweeter at the Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life in Norfolk, England, said:
‘The best thing about today and when we have ‘takenover’ before is knowing that we are being trusted by the museum. Because I know the museum staff are happy that I will do a good job, it gives me confidence to do things which I am nervous or scared about. Then when I do the thing, I realise I am quite good at it and the museum is right to trust me.’  

Case Study: Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) wanted to develop links with Exeter’s Deaf Academy and produce something to specifically support families of Deaf children that visit the museum. Ten children aged from seven to 17 years old from the Deaf Academy, which is situated within walking distance of RAMM, took part.

The children visited the museum to choose and draw their favourite objects from RAMM’s displays and familiarise themselves with the galleries where they planned to produce a film. Back at school, they created scrapbooks and prepared their commentaries. On Takeover Day, they worked as film-makers and heritage interpreters, filming each other in the museum explaining their choices in British Sign Language (BSL).

They worked with a professional film-maker who developed excellent rapport with the children, supporting them to use the equipment and to create the film themselves. Two BSL interpreters enabled communication between the children, the film-maker and RAMM staff. Other museum visitors were very interested in watching the filming, which was carried out in public galleries all over RAMM. The film was launched during Deaf Awareness Week and is now on YouTube to make it as accessible as possible.

As a result of this project and participating in Takeover Day, RAMM has started to build a strong and positive relationship with the Academy and they are already planning to work together on another project as part of a city-wide festival. The Learning and Skills Officer said:

‘If we had not invited the young people from Exeter’s Deaf Academy, we would never have known exactly what most intrigued them and caught their attention about RAMM’s collections, and the film wouldn’t have the authenticity that it does. Also we have strengthened our relationship with the Academy, which is a longer-term goal as we have much to offer Deaf children and young people.’

What is the impact of Takeover Day?
Kids in Museums records information about the events and activities that take place in annual evaluation reports. In 2014, feedback from 66 participating organisations, including arts venues, was gathered via surveys and interviews. The report can be found in the resources section under reports.

71% of museums stated that they had not previously worked with their Takeover Day participants. So Takeover Day provided an opportunity for large numbers of children and young people to become familiar with a new cultural venue.

59% of venues tried and tested new ideas, with many giving young people the responsibility for choosing an activity for Takeover Day. The element of risk was successful and included young people developing new exhibitions, exhibition labels, audience development initiatives, marketing ideas to attract their peers and gallery audio guide and iPad trails. In doing so, organisations were able to apply for additional funding.

40% of venues stated that they used the new resource ‘How to set up a youth panel – ten top tips’ written in collaboration with a youth panel.

More than half told us that they had also established new relationships, especially within the local community including schools, arts organisations, football clubs and Brownies.

Quotes demonstrating the impact of Takeover Day
The quotes included here demonstrate the impact of Takeover Day on participating young people and staff:

Staff: ‘It’s good publicity and it’ll get around the whole town.’

Child: ‘I had no idea so much went on in a museum. It is run like a business. It’s really interesting.’

Takeover Day allows staff to reflect on and develop areas of their work, including the services they offer, how they listen to and value young visitors, organise events and view their own capabilities. Two thirds of museums described how they translated the outcomes of Takeover Day into improving practice.

Barriers to participation
When asked about the biggest challenge in taking part, surveyed museums highlighted the following areas:

  • Staff time and capacity, both to plan and deliver the event
  • Persuading colleagues to get involved and briefing them to understand the aims
  • Organisational issues – managing space and time on the day
  • School and young people liaison, mainly in finding a mutually convenient time and date
  • Recruitment of children or young people (food is always a winning formula)
  • Financing the event

By far the most prevalent issue is that of staff capacity and time to plan the events, although many were keen to point out that this is not necessarily a barrier but something that needs consideration within their already busy programmes. As they come to see the value of including children in their work, museums are becoming increasingly ambitious in their plans for Takeover Day, which has an impact on the amount of time and resources they are investing in it.

Creative solutions – support and resources
Kids in Museums provides help to museums in planning their events in four areas:

  • A website with online resources including free downloadable factsheets, press tips, case studies and templates
  • Email and phone support from a member of the team
  • Free planning and sharing meetings to enable colleagues to plan their Takeover Day and learn from others
  • Free packs for participants and posters for venues.

Examples of current resources that address challenges include:

  • ‘So where do we find young people?’
  • ‘How can we welcome visitors if our museum is closed?’
  • ‘How can we involve young people with heritage outdoors?’
  • ‘7 reasons for a museum to take part’ (an advocacy document to persuade any sceptical members of staff!)

Manifesto and Family Friendly Museum Award
In addition to Takeover Day, Kids in Museums supports colleagues in the cultural sector in various ways. For example, through its Manifesto and Family Friendly Museum Award. The Telegraph Family Friendly Museum Award is the biggest museum award in Britain and the only one where families pick the winner

The Kids in Museums Manifesto is compiled entirely from visitors’ comments. It’s a practical and powerful tool to encourage and support museums, galleries and historic houses around the country to make children, young people and family visits more enjoyable. Already over 550 museums have signed up, pledging to work towards putting the 20 points into practice.

For example, point one is ‘Say “Hello!” and welcome every visitor’. It advocates that curators, volunteers, front of house and those who work in the cafe should all be part of the family friendly experience.

Please note that the original hyperlinks have been removed as since this paper was written, the hyperlinks may have changed – visit the Kids in Museums website to find the most up to date resources. See the original article in the Museums Association Journal, In Practice here.