Lessons learned from A Family Friendly Museum

Vice President Lynsey Anderson writes about the recent Kids in Museums win for the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum.

On 14th October we, at the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum, became the first Scottish Museum to win the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Award. To say we were shocked and delighted is an understatement, just look at the picture (yes there were tears!), not least because we are a small independent museum in Fife and were up against so many incredible Museums, including two wonderful Scottish Museums, Devil’s Porridge and Riverside. Winning the Small Museums category was a huge achievement for us, but to win the overall award too was the icing on the cake.

Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museums Awards. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd.
Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museums Awards. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd.

As a museum, our journey to becoming family-friendly only really began about five years ago. Before that, there weren’t many interactives or activities and the Museum didn’t have a Learning Officer to concentrate on this work! However, the Museum has come a long way since then! I was lucky enough to become the Learning and Access Officer at the Carnegie Birthplace in August 2018 and since then I have loved watching our family audience continue to grow, introducing a new Under 5s programme and a programme of relaxed openings all on a limited budget.

Taking part in the Family Friendly Award gave us a fantastic opportunity to think about what we offer for families so I thought I would share five lessons I have learned during the process in the hope they might help you too!

1) Friendly, welcoming staff and volunteers do make the biggest difference. All the feedback we received from our family judges mentioned how fantastic our Front of House staff are. Thankfully, the set-up of our Museum allows every visitor to receive a personal welcome and our staff members are brilliant at helping everyone make the most of their visit. I’ve learned to never underestimate their importance – make sure they feel confident both with the family activities you have on offer and engaging families. They are the face of your Museum and your biggest allies in making family activities a success.

They were really helpful and friendly. They welcomed us as soon as we stepped in […] and told us all the things for families that we could see and do at the museum.’ (Family Judge)

Front of House staff
Front of House staff

2) Sometimes the simpler an activity is the more it is enjoyed. Two of the most popular things at our Museum are the bunny hunt, where children search for soft toy bunnies around the Museum and our Museum I-Spy trail with close-up pictures of objects in our museum. These are not expensive activities (we made the trail completely in-house) and can easily be updated and changed for return visitors. Plus never forget the joy of LEGO and dressing-up! We have made all our family activities and interactive stations bright yellow to make it easy for families to spot!

Yellow interactive station

There were hands-on activities for different ages including dressing up, crafting, building with Lego, touch screen games, a Morse Code activity and various trails for different ages.’ (Family judges)

3) Don’t forget to shout about what you have for families – people can only come if they know about you! We now have a webpage for families and on-site, we have a ‘10 Things for Families’ lanyard to help people explore the museum.

10 Thing for Families
10 Thing for Families

We also really use our social media to communicate with families, both to let them know what we are doing and to ask them what they want – we even run fun polls and competitions. One of the things we have learned is how working with local Facebook groups can extend your reach. We are lucky enough to have the fantastic ’FifeForKids’ who are great at giving us advice and promote our events and activities.

4) It’s important to think beyond a family ‘programme’. None of our family judges came when we had specific facilitated activities but they all managed to find lots to do because we have focused on ‘on-gallery’ activities! I’m a firm believer that museums should be family-friendly at all times, not just when you have something on.

5) Don’t forget about the facilities and access. As part of this process, we went around the museum and thought about the family experience and the barriers they might face. Some of our exhibits are higher up so we have a step to help children see, and one in the bathroom! We’ve put up stickers to make sure it is clear that we welcome breastfeeding.

There was a trail for younger children to spot rabbits and stools so they see things high up.’ (Family judge)

We are also working hard to improve access to our museum, holding relaxed out-of-hours opening, providing pre-visit information and having a sensory backpack. This is an area where I am still learning all the time, from families, local organisations and the wider museums and heritage sector. I can’t wait to keep this growing, going forward and we already have lots of ideas! I should also say that we are in the fortunate position that our Trust supports us to keep entry to our Museum and our family programmes free!

Meteorite handling station
Meteorite handling station

I hope you have enjoyed my lessons learned and can see how small things can make a big difference for the families that visit. I love seeing the fantastic work museums throughout Scotland are doing in this area and get so many ideas from all of you! We may have been the first Scottish winner of the award but I am sure we won’t be the last!

The Andrew Carnegie Museum is open throughout November, Monday to Saturday 10am-4pm and Sunday 1pm-4pm. More information can be found on the website.

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