Making diverse family groups feel welcome

By Caroline Marcus

This is an adaptation of an article I wrote in 2016, as Takeover Day Director, Kids in Museums for Museums & Heritage Advisor

We all want to be family friendly. But there’s a huge gulf between saying and doing, policy and practice. And families come in all shapes and sizes; most places only welcome a few of them, not all the diverse varieties. It’s a challenge to us all to change that.

Kids in Museums, an independent charity, works with museums, galleries, historic homes, heritage sites and arts organisations to support and encourage them to welcome families, in particular those who have never visited before.

We publish the Kids in Museums Manifesto, compiled entirely from 1000s of comments by families. It’s clear, simple and, most importantly defined by families – not museums or arts organisations. It’s what families themselves want. Around 700 museums and galleries have signed up in support of the Manifesto, recognising it as an aspirational and inspirational document, and pledging to work towards putting its points into practice. They use it in all sorts of ways – but mainly as an accessible family audit tool for the whole organisation. It’s a quick check on how you’re doing and supports a whole organisation approach to families, from front of house to ticketing to catering.

Many points on the Manifesto apply to behaviours – the museums and galleries’, not the users’. For example, ‘Be positive and do away with the word “No”. Tell visitors what they can do at the door, don’t pin up a list of things they can’t.’ Families told us they are fed up of the first thing they see when they arrive is a list of stuff they might do wrong, whether it’s try and bring in their pushchair or take a call on their mobile. It’s important to note that such small changes are cost free, although do require a big investment in making sure all your staff are equally on board.

But families have told us it’s the total experience – from the café to the glass cabinets – that determines whether it’s for them. It’s not only things kids can touch and buttons to push. It’s no good putting on an object handling-event that enthrals a five year old if there’s nothing they can drink or eat in the café afterwards. Almost half the points on the Kids in Museums Manifesto – drawn up by families – are about facilities rather than content. When families are paying for a museum experience, they want a day, afternoon or evening out. They’re not just going for the event itself.

The Family Friendly Museum Award puts the Manifesto into practice. It’s the biggest museum award in Britain and the only one where the families pick the winner. Shortlisted museums are road-tested by undercover families against points on the Kids in Museums Manifesto.

In 2015, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery shone through as the award winner as most welcoming on all counts, from the temporary exhibitions to the toilets. Oxford University Museum of Natural History Museum was the award’s first winner in 2005 and is the Museums and Heritage Award ‘Best of the Best’ winner 2016. Click here to find out ways that museums and galleries are engaging families.

Both museums understand that a family event is for families – which may contain a broad range of ages and interests. As a result, a family event has to be layered. So they provide something for everyone.  Low down stuff for small children, high up stuff for adults, and lots of things in between. You don’t have to appeal to everyone, but you do have to make sure you don’t make false family friendly promises in your marketing. If it’s for kids, say so. If it’s for families, make sure it really is.

Another area of great concern to families is the ticketing structure. People tend to think museums are free. They aren’t. Over half charge at point of entry or for exhibitions, and this number is increasing rapidly as funding shrinks. So Kids in Museums conducted a Family Ticket Watch, asking families what they want in a family ticket and museums what would work for them. The aim was to find ways in which both museums and families could benefit from having a more flexible family ticket structure. Families said they don’t mind paying – but they do mind unfair pricing, and that’s what they felt they faced. Many struggled to get a family ticket because their family didn’t fit the standard two adults plus two children. They had three or four kids, an older cousin lived with them, the grandparent was the main carer, they were a single parent family. Our Flexible Family Ticket Guidelines suggest ways in which it’s possible to make family tickets reflect today’s, not yesterday’s families.  And to assuage concerns that this might lead to loss of income, we commissioned a Flexible Family Tickets – Commercial report, suggesting ways in which introducing this structure can increase, rather than threaten, income.

Museums are now making major efforts to attract babies and teenagers, the often-forgotten family audiences. Since this article was written, the Museum of London has launched its Early Years Toolkit, endorsed by Kids in Museums. Culture Babies is Manchester Museums and Galleries Partnerships collaboration to highlight innovative, cultural practice with under-twos. Getting them in when they’re a few months old is the first step in building your long-term family audience. Click here to see more about our Kids in Museums Babies in Museums workshops.

As they grow up, they may also draw in older members of their family. But in disadvantaged families – or new audiences – the only person who will probably have experienced a museum visit is a child on a school trip. So they’re the ones we should be turning to bring more new families in.

Children often bring their families to museums during Kids in Museums Takeover Day. It’s an annual day on which young people take over a museum, from manning front of house or the social media output, to being director for the day. It’s a simple, effective way of introducing teenagers to a museum experience, for example, during Digital Takeover Day. Over 145 museums took part in Takeover Day last year, introducing over 6,000 young people to museum visits. Young people then become ambassadors within their own families, encouraging them to come along too.

It’s important to reach out to families who might not otherwise reach you. Much of the most innovative work of inviting new families through your doors is done in partnership. For our latest resource, “How can your museum better welcome families and young people with autism” we worked with organisations and individuals with expertise about autism.

It’s important in a time of cutbacks that we reach all learn from each other. Reinventing the family friendly wheel shouldn’t happen anymore. At Kids in Museums, we listen to your stories about successes and challenges. We then find ways to support you and share best practice through creating new resources and programmes. It’s clearly evident that there’s lots of very good family friendly work being done and sharing this means it makes it better for everyone, in particular our visitors.

To find out more about what Kids in Museums can do with and for you, including presentations, consultancy and training, email Kids in Museums at

Original article published by the Museums Association on 15.06.2016

Please note that since this article 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.