This guide was created in partnership with Sarah Shaw, Director of Museum Tales Ltd. Sarah was previously National Family Interpretation Manager at English Heritage and this resource draws on her experience in this role.
Kids in Museums believes that welcoming families to your venue should be a priority for any museum, but this can be a daunting prospect for staff and volunteers.
We’ve created this short guide and accompanying videos to support you and your team as you develop a more welcoming environment for families.
Video: Part 2
Barriers to participation: Families
We know that many of you do a fantastic job at welcoming families to your venues – as demonstrated by our annual Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award.
Sadly, families do not always have this experience. Derby Museum’s non-visitor research report notes that grumpy or unwelcoming staff, and fear of being judged for children’s behaviour, as the two main barriers preventing families from visiting their museums.
Our Hurdles to the Participation of Children, Families and Young People in Museums report found that this was compounded by high ticket prices, a lack of dialogue between families and museums, and practical barriers, such as buggy access.
We also know that our heritage sites are not inclusive enough. The Guardian reported that 42% of parents of children with additional needs have been made to feel uncomfortable in one of our venues.
We are acutely aware that COVID-19 restrictions have added further barriers to entry for families. For example, one-way systems have been noted as challenging for carers who have struggled when needing to exit the route to return to their buggy, or need to stop and feed a child.
We have collated a reopening resource, packed with advice on access and family friendly engagement in this ‘new normal’.
Barriers to participation: Staff and volunteers
During her time at English Heritage, Sarah surveyed staff and volunteers about their experiences working with families. This research found that a proportion of staff and volunteers find the prospect of engaging with children challenging. Several staff members noted that they were concerned about ‘getting it wrong’, safeguarding or that they were too busy during ticket sales to engage with children directly.
However, how museum staff engage with families is a major factor in museums doing well in our Family Friendly Museum Award.
Why do we need to make a change?
Of course, as organisations we want everyone to feel welcome at our sites, but there is also a real financial benefit to doing this. Families at English Heritage provided the biggest secondary spend per head of any visitor (that’s the money they spend beyond the admission price in the café, retail spaces and in additional exhibition ticket sales).
The A Decade of Arts Participation report notes that people who visit museums as children are more likely to visit as adults, securing your admission fees in the future.
All in all, it pays to invest in your engagement with families.
Making the change
Change needs to come from within, rather than taking a top down approach. At English Heritage, staff, volunteers and families were included on the journey to ensure that everyone was engaged and felt valued and heard. Sarah also ensured that every department was represented during meetings, ensuring buy-in from across the organisation.
It is important to remember that a move to engage with families could be a really worrying prospect for your team, particularly if it is not within their skills set. Here are some practical tips for you to consider:
Encourage all your staff and volunteers, at the bare minimum, to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to children within the party. This sets the tone that your venue welcomes children and makes them feel included in the experience.
Point out the family facilities you have on site, both in person during their visit and on your website. This will help families to plan their visit.
Encourage your team to highlight family resources, such as trails, dressing up boxes or interactives.
It is always a good idea to invest in inexpensive family resources, such as a bottle warmer or a couple of spare nappies in case someone forgets their changing bag. There are more thoughtful but inexpensive ideas in our No and low cost ways to meet the Kids in Museums Manifesto resource.
For team members who are more confident, encourage them to set up playful interactions or share fun facts such as:
- “We’ve got a fantastic stuffed lion in the first room – can you count his teeth for me?”
- “There are lots of gargoyles on the roof, tell me which one is your favourite.”
- “Can you count all the steps in the clock tower? It’s as tall as 5 double decker buses sat on top of each other.”
This allows you to engage with a family on the way out, as you follow up on any suggestions or tasks set.
Invite visitors to give feedback on their experience to enable you to keep track of your progress and learning as you go. This might be a feedback card at the exit, or a prompt to leave a response on TripAdvisor or social media.
You can go a step further by investing a small amount of money for a big impact. A military site might buy a whistle and ask children to listen out for it and run over to you. When they hear it, you can provide a short interaction such as asking them to form a line and march like soldiers, then send them back to their families with instructions to keep the adults in check.
Invest in some blackboard paint and create some play signs you can change on a daily basis. These might be fun things to spot or challenges such as ‘who can stand on one leg for the longest’.
These are quick interactions which inject some fun into the visit. This is particularly helpful if you have limited physical resources on site for children.
Dealing with difficult situations
On occasion, a family might behave in a way that you as a team have agreed to be concerning. For example, climbing onto an historic chair in your collection or being noisy in a reflective exhibition space. It is important that you deal with this in a friendly way, as the family will no doubt be upset that they have done ‘something wrong’.
Always encourage your team to approach with a smile, and try and turn the interaction into a positive. For example, “I can see that you’re looking for a sit down, we have some comfy seats over there. We ask that you don’t sit on these as they’re very old – how old do you think they are?”
Going a step beyond
Once you’ve got the basics right, it might be time to consider your wider approach to families, possibly tackling attitudinal change within your organisation, or adding being family friendly to your core values.
We would recommend working as a team to make this change, ensuring that representatives from across the museum are involved in decision making.
When you have a working group in place, start of by undertaking a SWOT analysis to help you to identify what’s working, what needs improving and how you can maximise your resources. This is a great starting point and you can use our Kids in Museums Manifesto as a tool to shape the conversation.
Then consider what changes you want to make, perhaps thinking even bigger about who you want to be as an organisation. A simple mission statement and set of principles will give you a clear-cut document to refer to.
At English Heritage, a family friendly handbook was produced, making it clear to all staff what the aspirations of the organisation were and how they hoped to deliver on them.
Other practical considerations might include:
- adding ‘family friendly’ to your role descriptions for staff and volunteers. This will help you to recruit like-minded people who support your ethos.
- asking one of your team to be a family friendly champion, encouraging the rest of the team to come up with great ideas for interactions and play prompts.
- adding ‘family friendly’ to your monthly team meets. This can be a chance to discuss any issues that have cropped up, share observations from staff members or celebrate great interactions.
- signing up to the Breastfeeding Welcome Scheme, or similar, to show your support for nursing parents.
- signing up to our Kids in Museums Manifesto and sharing our logo on your website and printed materials.
- bringing in some external training if you feel the need.
We have a range of case studies from the museums that participated in our Play in Museums in a Socially Distanced World project, discussing playful ideas that you can implement at your venue with social distancing measures.
It is also well worth looking at our accessibility resources to ensure that your resources, website and facilities meet the needs of all visitors.
If your team do nothing else at all, just smile! A friendly smile is the start to a great visit and sets the tone that you are a welcoming place for families.
This resource was made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.