The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Dunfermline, Scotland tells the story of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born American steel magnate and philanthropist. You may recognise his name when thinking of Carnegie Hall in New York, the Diplodocus carnegii dinosaur, the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands or the over 2,800 public libraries he helped to fund around the world.
Our museum has two parts – the tiny weaver’s cottage where Carnegie was born in 1835, and the adjoining museum hall, commissioned by Carnegie’s widow Louise in the 1920s ‘to inspire future generations to follow in his footsteps’. In 2019, our museum was announced as the winner of the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award.
When I started in my role as the Museum’s Manager and Curator in 2016, the museum had never employed a Learning Officer. It offered workshops for primary school groups (which were delivered by an enthusiastic group of volunteers), but provided no in-gallery activities or workshops for families. Inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s belief in the importance of family, and in offering equal learning opportunities for all (regardless of their age, gender, economic background or nationality), I was hoping to change that. This desire for change was also driven by our visitor data. Young visitors (under age of 16) formed only 14% of our audiences (1,500 kids) while 20% of the population living in Dunfermline area (14,000 kids!) were aged 15 and under. It was thus evident that we were not engaging with a large segment of our community.
Having a lot of enthusiasm, but not knowing where to start, I found the Kids in Museums Manifesto extremely useful. Created in 2004, the Manifesto is a set of simple guidelines for museums developed together with children, young people and families. It sets out what they feel makes a museum a great place to visit. Today, nearly 900 museums and heritage organisations around the world have signed the Manifesto.
The first phase of our aim to become a family friendly museum began in 2017 with an initial focus on the facilities. I felt that it was important to make sure that our museum was ready to welcome everyone equally. For example, during this phase, the following provisions were created: foreign language translations (to make parents of foreign national children feel welcome too!), a digital 3D tour (to aid people with Additional Support Needs or mobility issues), booster steps in galleries and toilets, sensory backpacks (for autistic visitors), and permanent in-gallery activities for ages 0 - 100 years (offering adult-size costumes etc. encourages families to spend quality time together). The overall aim here was not to hide children’s facilities and activities away in a corner or in a separate room, but to place them amidst the museum displays, especially in areas where there is a high concentration of text for adults to read. I was therefore focusing equally on adults’ needs and interests as well as those of children.
In 2018, the museum finally appointed a fantastic new Learning Officer who developed a wonderful regular family events programme as well as in-gallery activity sheets for all ages. The breadth of our family programme ensures that nobody feels left out. Our Learning Officer runs toddler sessions, autism-friendly events and a variety of workshops (from non-language-based crafts to object handling). All this has resulted in considerable changes in our visitor demographic. Overall visitor numbers to the museum have nearly doubled and almost 20% of our visitors are children.
We applied for the Kids in Museums (KiM) Family Friendly Museum award in spring 2019. In order to be considered for the award, the museum had to be nominated by local families and to our great delight, we were! During the summer holidays KiM sent anonymous family groups to inspect and judge all shortlisted venues. Four undercover families visited our museum during that period, and their feedback helped to decide the winners of the award.
What impressed the family judges the most was the warm, attentive and personal welcome they all received by our members of staff. Front of house staff are very often undervalued in visitor attractions, but they really are the secret ingredient of every family-friendly museum. Our front of house staff is given regular training (including autism awareness, dementia awareness and general visitor experience) to ensure that they stay informed and confident when welcoming a range of visitors. In addition to our staff, the family judges were taken by our handy tools (for example, a lanyard showing pictures of different in-gallery activities and where to find them) and the breadth of facilities and workshops we offer.
What I believe makes our museum really stand out from others is our everyone-is-equal approach. We aim to address the needs of families of all shapes and sizes when thinking about our facilities, displays and staff development, as well as our programming. It is important for me to convey that no matter who you are or what day of the week you walk through our door, our museum is for you. None of the changes we have made over these years cost a lot of money - yet, these small but well thought through adjustments and a friendly welcome have made an enormous difference. In the words of one of our undercover family judges: “I have visited many much bigger museums that don’t make even half as much effort. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to other families”. I think Andrew Carnegie would be proud!
Our endeavours also reach beyond the museum walls: our website offers detailed information about what there is to see and do at the museum with your family, and we use our social media channels to share Visitor of the Day stories and photographs. The latter has been especially effective - sharing images of the variety of visitors that come through our doors offers proof that people of all walks of life enjoy visiting us, and encourages others to come along too.
There were definitely a few challenges during this project. When developing new in-gallery activities and sessions, such as under-5s songs and stories in rooms which cover quite serious topics, I was worried that these could alienate our older visitors.’ However, that has not been the case at all. Quite the opposite - older visitors have given us feedback on how delighted they are to see young people in the galleries! Another proof of this is the fact that our donations have doubled since these changes were implemented.
I believe that every museum should be a family-friendly museum. By limiting the facilities and programme you offer for children, you are potentially alienating a very large segment of your audiences (including adults who may have been regular visitors to your museum before they had children). My main advice is - do not be scared to bring family audiences to galleries that are not usually ‘for them’, and try to offer thoughtful, quality services (not just a sad grey baby changing table hidden away in the corner). But most of all - value and train your front of house staff.
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