Rhythms of the Cosmos – A Guest Post by Dr Andrew Fletcher

The Great North Museum: Hancock has a small but perfectly formed planetarium on the first floor. The computer-controlled system allows us to fly through the Universe, in space and in time, choosing the best viewpoint from which to investigate all kinds of wonderful phenomena. In this guest post, Dr Andrew Fletcher, one of our 2016 Great North Museum Fellows, describes a new planetarium show he is developing that should appeal to anyone with an interest in astronomy.

Everyone can see that the Sun moves across the sky and that the Moon is sometimes visible during the day and sometimes at night. Pay a bit more attention to the Moon’s position and you will notice that from one night to the next, if you look at exactly the same time, it moves with respect to the stars.  And over the course of about one month, you will observe a bright full moon slowly transition to a thin sliver of a new moon and back again.

It is also possible to track planets with just your eyes. Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter can all be easily seen and if you pay extremely close attention and measure their positions over many years, you would find that they too move across the night sky, all at different speeds. And sometimes they seem to double back on themselves!

The Earth, Sun, planets, stars and galaxies are all involved in an intricate pattern of motion.

The Earth, Sun, planets, stars and galaxies are all involved in an intricate pattern of motion.

From the earliest times in human civilisation, thousands of years ago, people looked carefully at the night sky and tracked these different movements. Some of the cleverest scholars who ever lived tried their hardest to make sense of what was going on, inventing new methods of measurement and new branches of mathematics that we still use today.

The apparent orbital paths of the Sun, Venus and Mercury around the Earth, according to the system of Ptolemy (2nd Century AD), in an illustration from the 1st Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1771.

The apparent orbital paths of the Sun, Venus and Mercury around the Earth, according to the system of Ptolemy (2nd Century AD), in an illustration from the 1st Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1771.

In the end, it turned out that having the right viewpoint is the key to making sense of all of this movement in the night sky. With the correct perspective everything falls neatly into place. That’s where having a modern, sophisticated planetarium comes into its own. Seeing with your own eyes how the Earth orbits the Sun and why this causes the seasons, or how the changing positions of the Earth, Moon and Sun produce the phases of the Moon and the cycle of tides, gives a dynamic picture that books and diagrams can’t compete with.

The position of Mars changes between January (right) and September (left) 2016, with respect to the background constellations. The occasional retrograde (or doubling-back) motion of the planets confused astronomers for millennia. (Image credit: NASA)

The position of Mars changes between January (right) and September (left) 2016, with respect to the background constellations. The occasional retrograde (or doubling-back) motion of the planets confused astronomers for millennia. (Image credit: NASA)

Astronomers now know that everything in the Universe is moving and our understanding of planets, stars, galaxies (my field of research) and the entire Universe itself all have to take into account this motion.

I have been spending my summer mornings, before the museum opens to the public, programming a new planetarium show called ‘Rhythms of the Cosmos’ that will be premiered on Wednesday 31 August, during the museum’s Space Week. There will be shows, which will last about 20 minutes, at 10.30am, 11.30am and 12.30pm and I will be available between shows to try to answer any astronomy questions.

Dr Andrew Fletcher is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at Newcastle University. His research interests are in radio astronomy, galaxies and the interstellar medium.

What ever happened to Saltwell Park Museum? (Part 3)


Carved Head in Wood, from one of pilasters of Barge Inn, South Shore, Gateshead. Donated to the museum from a ‘dismantling company’ in 1934. Photo Credit: Karolina Maciagowska

Read Whatever happened to Saltwell Park Museum? Part 1

Read Whatever happened to Saltwell Park Museum? Part 2

Here are excerpts from an article from the Newcastle Courant on 10 July, 1933 recording the opening of Gateshead’s Local & Industrial Museum (later to be officially called Saltwell Park Museum). The article has the headline ‘SPREADING THE LIGHT OF KNOWLEDGE.’

Councillor Thomas Smith, who presided, said a borough of the importance and historical interest of Gateshead certainly ought to have a museum of its own, and the Parks Committees decided to do the thing thoroughly.

“Some of you” he added “may have an idea that in these hard times it is rather an expensive luxury to undertake. I want to make this quite clear that this new venture has been established and will be continued at very little cost to the town.”

“The wonderful history of our town will duly be recorded here. The children will have access, and lectures on botany, bird life and natural history, and industrial progress are being arranged for them.”

“I’ve been inundated with offers of exhibits by firms and private individuals who are interested in Gateshead. There has been talk recently about the borough being overlooked, but we are going to see that doesn’t happen again, and that our people are provided with all the amenities and facilities that the times can afford.”

Account Book 1934 cropped

Gateshead Borough ‘Abstract of Accounts’ book from 1934.

Saltwell Towers, where the museum was based, had dry rot and a serious damp problem that was first identified in 1932. It never really got fixed and was obviously only superficially resolved for the opening a year later. The condition of building gradually declined across the next 30 years and fell into disrepair; gradually the rooms that held the exhibits were systematically closed, due to a fear that the ceilings would collapse on people. In February 1969 the decision was made to close the museum and a new home would be found for the collection. When you read the Gateshead Borough Council annual accounts report from 1969 there is only a line or two about the closure.

1958 Park Lane area of Gateshead ‘slum clearance’. Making way for the 1960s redevelopment.

It is important to remember what was also going on in Gateshead (and Newcastle) at this time. There was demolition and redevelopment on a massive scale, architecture and town planning was transforming the area. Huge high rise flats, fly overs, motorways and multi-storey car parks were being built, in a style that we now call Brutalist. People were trying to make the world a better place. Town planners and local authorities wanted to eradicate what they saw as a society trapped in the pre-war period – a period of ‘slum landlords’, outdoor toilets, poor health, poor housing and no welfare state. They wanted to transform an infrastructure and society that was, in their minds, ill equipped for the late 20th century. It was an ambitious and benevolent project that was not concerned with the past but the future.


Clear Pressed Glass Bear from Saltwell Park Museum Collection. Photo Credit: Karolina Maciagowska

On the closure of Saltwell Park Museum many objects didn’t find a new home, they remained in the locked and decaying building.  Some of the collection was moved into the stores at the Shipley Art Gallery, which was the museum’s partner, but many objects remained in the Towers for at least six years. Across this period the Towers suffered from vandalism, regular break-ins and the roof in part collapsing.  As a result many objects were lost due to theft or the very poor condition of the building. It was not until 1974 when Gateshead Metropolitan Borough and Tyne & Wear County Council were formed that the remaining objects would be moved.  In 1974 Tyne & Wear Museums was created and the collection was moved into better and more secure conditions in the stores of museums and galleries across the region.

The Towers remained closed and empty for the next 30 years. It wasn’t until 2005 that the building reopened, its refurbishment part of Saltwell Park’s amazing redevelopment. Gateshead Council widely consulted the public as to what the Towers should be. It was decided that it should be a café and visitor centre. The Towers and the Park today are very popular.

Saltwell Park Museum Event 15 Aug 2015 (12)

19th Century craftsman Gerrard Robinson’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ wooden sculpture. Photographed last year at a ‘Saltwell Park Museum’ event at the Shipley Art Gallery.

The story of the objects that were in the Saltwell Park Museum and what happened to them is a contentious one. Before it closed, the Museum was not run in accordance with today’s standards for museums and the care and conservation of objects. The poor documentation and record of the collection prior to the transfer meant that, though not lost, objects did not have sufficient records to verify their history.

Over the last four decades staff within Tyne & Wear’s museum service, Gateshead councillors and council workers have had to deal with frustrated Gateshead residents who want to know what happened to their Museum and its collection.  Because the irony is that, although the Museum might not have been up to modern standards, within its short life it was extremely popular.  Early visitor books record an average of 800 people attending daily and even in its final year it was averaging 1200 visitors a week.


The first ‘Attendance Record’ and Visitor Book from Saltwell Park Museum or ‘Local & Industrial Museum, Gateshead’. Record visitors from 1933 to 1935.

For a generation of Gateshead residents, especially those who grew up and still live in the Bensham, Low Fell and Saltwell areas, it was an important part of their cultural life, their youth and identity. People who were adolescents and teenagers in the 1950s and 60s will have strong and sometimes vivid memories of objects within the museum: penny farthing bikes, a life size golden goat, taxidermy, bird eggs, ship models and reproductions of the world in miniature.

Since 2008 there has been gradual work within Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums sourcing objects in the collections whose origins can be traced back to the Saltwell Park Museum. The culmination of this work is the permanent, and as a result of the large number of objects involved, evolving exhibition at the Shipley Art Gallery dedicated to the Museum’s collection. The exhibition opened on 11 June 2016.


An original label from Saltwell Park Museum.

This is not a ‘Local History’ exhibition in the sense that it will tell a linear narrative of Gateshead’s history, in a style of presentation we maybe expect from museums or ‘historical’ exhibitions; timelines, dates and lots of information explaining what things mean. Today people experience heritage and history in very complex and different ways compared to the 1930s.  New technologies and global networks enable people to have the world’s knowledge in their pockets. At no other time in history have we had such individual access to so much knowledge and technology. As a result this exhibition will  pose more questions than provide answers. It will allow visitors both new and old to make their own decisions about things and what they mean. It will also evolve over time and will change, working in partnership with the various community groups and networks in Gateshead. The collection will also go out into community venues in Gateshead, so that people can use it to tell new and different stories beyond the traditional gallery or museum.

Shopping in 1900 display cropped

Photograph from 1950s of children looking at the ‘Shopping in 1900’ display at Saltwell Park Museum.

What exactly is Local History? The Shipley is of course an art gallery, and it has to be remembered that it is the North East’s primary gallery dedicated to design and craft. But what is art and craft if it is not about culture, memory and identity? How can we use objects and learn from them without spoon feeding people meaning or resorting to an authoritarian voice of ‘History’, local or otherwise? How can we reuse objects in innovative and new ways that transcend their original use and function? How can an exhibition that presents objects from an old museum, not displayed for 40 years, be useful and relevant today? How can we use these objects to move beyond narrow definitions of heritage, community or even what we experience as art?

Saltwell Park Museum Event 15 Aug 2015 (19)

Collection of glass slides from Saltwell Park Museum.

Gateshead has an amazing community network of local history groups, libraries and heritage centres like St Mary’s and Bensham Grove. This exhibition, within the Shipley Art Gallery’s current evolution as a people and community focused venue, will continue to support and be part of this network. It is hoped that this exhibition will challenge preconceived ideas about what history and art can be. Saltwell Park Museum and its collection represented a very particular view of the world and a pretty narrow one; there would be no value in just replicating that. The challenge for this exhibition and its future variations will be to make it relevant to new audiences with no experience of the old museum or Gateshead and at the same time bear in mind and be sensitive to the people who felt its loss. Ultimately this is an exhibition about identity, place and how we see the world reflected back at us through objects.

Nostalgia is not the most awful thing in the world, in some ways it can have a value but we can all too easily get caught up in its pull and dragged along with its propensity towards escapism. It is the most narrow form of what we call ‘History’ and the benefits are superficial. The question ‘Remember When?’ or invitation to ‘Take a trip down Memory Lane‘ is more often than not asked from a safe and comfortable historical or politically neutral distance. Nostalgia rarely asks difficult or complicated questions. It is never concerned with the future and does not take into account the complexities of history and nuances of the world we live in.

At its very worst nostalgia locks us into fixed and imagined ideas of the past, singular narratives that we cannot move on from or out of. In extreme cases it can be dangerous and possibly, maybe unintentionally, fuel less than tolerant ideas about national identity or ethnicity. Nostalgia’s rose tinted lure means that we can, if we allow it, get trapped telling the same stories over and over again in a world that is far from static or simple. The last decade has seen an exponential increase in what you could call ‘nostalgic’ activity. You can observe this via ‘past/present’ photography groups online, ‘historical’ re-enactments or ‘retro’ events. The term vintage seems ubiquitous. Why is that and what does it say about our culture and society today?

Here is a great quote from a book by Turkish writer Ornhan Panhuk called ‘Museum of Innocence‘. It’s a book about cultural memory, objects, identity and loss.  “Real museums are places where time is transformed into space.”  It is a poetic quote that could mean lots of different things. Ultimately what do we want from our museums and art galleries and what do we want them to do?  Understanding the complexities of how and why we got to a certain point in time and space is important and it’s hard telling a new story in a different way because people generally always prefer the path of least resistance.


The wooden, life size ‘Golden Goat’. Originally a pub sign from the ‘Goat Inn’ on Bottle Bank, Gateshead.

Maybe one aim for the Saltwell Park Museum Collection is to unlock some latent power that has been held within the objects and use it to look at the world in a different way and start to tell new and different stories about the present and the future. The centre of this world could be Gateshead if people are willing to look and listen.

Saltwell Park Museum at the Shipley

The New Kids In Town

Three students in orange t-shirts with Open Day placard on campus

Image courtesy of Chris Bishop www.picturesbybish.com

If you manage to make it past thirty without making a complete idiot of yourself (and for me that particular ship sailed and promptly sank some time ago) then you quickly learn that there is nothing sadder than someone of ‘a certain age’ trying to ‘get down with the kids’. However much one might like to delude oneself that, yo, I’m still hip enough to mix it with all the young dudes, the harsh, harsh reality is that you ain’t. Nobody is. It’s something to do with the genes (and probably the jeans).

It was with this sobering knowledge that I attended the recent Open Day at Newcastle University, where sixth-form students check out the campus and courses to help them choose the right University and degree. I was sharing a stall with the Fine Art Department to tell the visitors (mostly aged seventeen, hence the paranoia) about the Hatton, why it was closed and what wonders would await them if they returned next year or beyond.

Running any stall all day on one’s own can be a tad wearing, not to say impractical: ‘I need to get a coffee and I need to get a coffee now!’.So I enlisted/blackmailed the help of Alysia, newly-crowned Chair of The Friends of the Hatton.

Woman standing at indoor stall promoting Hatton Gallery

Alysia hails from the great State of New Jersey…

Black-and-white photo of young man playing electric guitar

© Thomas Uhlemann, German Federal Archives

…so for any Springsteen fan, meeting her is akin to chatting with one of the Apostles (“So, your All-Time Top Five Least Favourite Bruce tracks…” – hmm, tricky). The Friends do valuable and important work to help the Gallery and with the current closure their role is even more vital in maintaining our public profile. They run classes and workshops, seminars and tours, and members get deals and discounts, previews and parties and a chance to sell their own artworks in Friends exhibitions. Wow! Where do I sign?! So if you want to sizzle up your social life, lay the love on your lobes and add some vortex to your cortex (I have no idea what that means) then Join The Friends Today!*


We arrived at the venue – named The Venue – a large sub-sub-basement in the Students’ Union at 8.30 and began setting up for the 9 a.m. start. Given the reputation of teenagers for early rising this seemed a mite optimistic but here they are! They’re leaflet-a-grabbing and query-a-firing with a self-confidence and perception that would have seen my angst-ridden seventeen-year-old self rushing for the nearest cupboard.

Normally at Open Days we’d be running fascinating and scintillating tours of the gallery… but with that being impractical this year, we’d assembled a collection of artist’s impressions of how the Hatton will look after re-development.

White art gallery with visitors

Artist impression of Hatton new Main Gallery; image courtesy of LDN Architects

You can see other pictures on our website here. Traditionally such impressions were hand-drawn by the artists, but the advent of photo software has allowed more realistic images, complete with ‘genuine’ visitors who always seem to be far more fashionable than I ever am or will be.

The two days passed in something of a blur, as busy events tend to. With sixteen other Faculty departments hustling their wares, it felt like a rather upmarket marketplace (‘Step right up, get yer art ‘ere, luvley degrees!’). A student might show an interest in Fine Art while their hovering concerned parent tried to usher them on to Business Studies or Law, yet given the current nature of work and jobs, creative thinking and ‘soft skills’ have become pre-requisites for many roles beyond the world of art. As Fine Art made their case, Alysia and I would pitch in with the Hatton, the plans, its extensive collection and rare status of being one of the few university art galleries to exist brick-in-brick within its own department.

While we were there primarily to inform rather than preach, I couldn’t help wondering if we’d made a difference. Had the prospect of starting an art degree alongside a beautiful new gallery persuaded someone to choose not only Newcastle but a whole new direction? Did we inadvertently sway some young mind to forgo a career in accountancy in favour of uncharted waters? Best decision I ever made.

You can read more about the developments planned for the Hatton on our website but seriously, trust me dude, it’s gonna be like well cool (yep, still got it…)


‘Revitalising The Hatton Gallery’ is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund.

Logo for Heritage Lottery Fund




Gotta Catch ‘Em All: The Naturalist’s Mantra

My name is Erin Slack and I am the curatorial assistant for natural sciences at the Great North Museum: Hancock. In this blog post I want to talk about something very important to me and the work I do: Pokémon.

Pikachu as seen outside the Great North Museum: Hancock in the Pokémon Go game.

Pikachu spotted outside the Great North Museum: Hancock in the Pokémon GO game. © 2016 Pokémon/Nintendo.

It might sound a bit strange for someone who works closely with animals and the natural world in a museum setting to be espousing the virtues of a video game, however the origins for the Pokémon franchise and the Great North Museum: Hancock are actually closer than you might think.

Games developer Satoshi Tajiri found inspiration for the Pokémon series in his childhood interest of collecting insects. Nicknamed ‘Dr. Bug’ as a youngster, Tajiri dreamed of becoming an entomologist and spent a lot of time catching beetles, crayfish and other invertebrates in the woods near his home of Machida, Tokyo.

For Tajiri, growing up in Japan, it was common for children to go out and collect insects, luring them in by placing honey onto the bark of trees. As he grew, he saw housing, factories, arcades and building developments take over the spaces where insects lived and a decline in the populations of different species. In an interview with TIME in 1999, Tajiri said:

“Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanisation. Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I. When I was making games, something clicked and I decided to make a game with that concept.”

Wigglytuff as seen near to our T.rex in the museum

Wigglytuff spotted near to our replica T.rex in the museum. © 2016 Pokémon/Nintendo.

From these origins the concept developed into a fully-fledged universe filled with hundreds of Pokémon – many of them taking the form of insects as well as mammalian, reptile, amphibian, bird, fish and even humanoid shaped creatures with fantastic powers. Some Pokémon are based on mythological animals and themes taken from Japanese folklore too.

Many Pokémon also share interesting biological features with real animals, such as: diurnal (day-time) and nocturnal (night-time) feeding patterns; sexual dimorphism (size difference etc. between sexes); and symbiosis (mutually beneficial relationships between organisms). The Pokémon Eevee also demonstrates something quite similar to polyphenism – this is where differences in environment, hormones, genetics or diet can trigger the development of different physical and behavioural characteristics across the same species.

Evolution is also a key feature of the Pokémon games but this is not the same as biological evolution. When a Pokémon evolves it goes through a process more closely resembling metamorphosis or biological development; the original Japanese word 進化 (shinka) can mean both ‘evolve’ and ‘progress’ and this may be where some of the confusion lies. Annoyingly, ‘evolve’ is also a lot snappier than ‘metamorphose’.

Caterpie, Metapod and Butterfree (three ‘evolutionary’ stages for this particular bug type pocket monster). © the Pokémon Company International, Inc.

Caterpie, Metapod and Butterfree (three ‘evolutionary’ stages for this particular bug type pocket monster). © 2016 Pokémon/Nintendo.

Butterfly mounts in the Great North Museum: Hancock stores

Butterfly mounts in the Great North Museum: Hancock stores. These specimens were collected by enthusiasts over many years.

One of the strangest parallels with nature comes from a Pokémon called Parasect – as this Pokémon grows (and evolves from Paras) the parasitic fungus on its back slowly consumes Parasect, taking control of the host’s body and mind. This is similar to the relationship between Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (A.K.A. ‘zombie fungus’) and certain species of carpenter ant.

For me, growing up, I was totally immersed in the Pokémon phenomenon – the games, the anime and trading cards – and in a lot of ways I still am. I now work daily with a vast collection of natural science specimens; cases of butterflies and eggs, jars of sea creatures and thousands of preserved birds. Some of these are extremely rare, endangered, and even extinct and all of these animals have their own interesting natures and life cycles worthy of study.

I think the fascination Satoshi Tajiri and the founders of the Great North Museum: Hancock felt towards collecting and studying the natural world is one and the same. The collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria contain over half a million specimens including a large selection of entomology, molluscs, crustaceans, plants, birds and other animals from around the world. This collection was painstakingly gathered by intrepid enthusiasts, researchers and conservationists for whom “Gotta catch ’em all” might as well have been a mantra.

To go out, record and document the natural living world is an important undertaking for us all; it gives us a better idea of how life developed over time, an understanding of the planet’s diverse ecosystems and how we can care for them.

A Japanese Spider Crab at the Great North Museum: Hancock. An inspiration (along with the Fiddler Crab) for the Pokémon Kingler, perhaps?

If, like me, you are out and about in all kinds of strange places catching Pokémon this summer, look out for some of the bugs and creatures around you. Whether you’re in your garden, a park, the beach or even in front of the Great North Museum: Hancock you might just see something new or interesting. If you are in the North East you could also log your wildlife sightings with ERIC North East; this helps provide data for conservation scientists and research teams – arguably the ‘real’ Pokémon professors.


Pokémon character names are trademarks of Nintendo.

Exhibition Explorers: what we’ve discovered from the pilot, and what’s next!

Project Outline

Exhibition Explorers took place at the Shipley Art Gallery between February and July 2016. It was funded by Tyne and Wear Museums’ ‘Try New Things’ (TNT) initiative which supports new and experimental museum projects. There were a total of six sessions (one per month) attended by a cohort of sixteen 1 and 2 year olds and their parents and grandparents. The project focused on helping families to discover new ways of experiencing museums together. The sessions were planned and delivered by Claudia Knott, with support from Project Coordinator Hannah Mackay-Jackson and volunteers Sandra and Fiona. Families came together once a month for a lively facilitated session at the Shipley Art Gallery, combining songs, stories, parachute games, play, crafting and gallery-based ‘exploring activities’. The themes behind these activities were inspired by the Shipley’s collections. Each session was carefully designed to get children and adults looking at the artwork together, and exploring the gallery environment; for example, the families explored through treasure hunts; gallery walkabouts incorporating magnifying glasses, coloured viewfinders and pull-along toys; the opportunity for children to photograph something that interested them; and the planting of flags next to the children’s favourite things. Such activities were designed to build children’s familiarity with the gallery and engage them in the artworks. In addition, they aimed to increase parents’ confidence around engaging their child in museums, and help them see the visit through the children’s eyes.

Spotting colours in the artworks

Spotting colours in the artworks

Following these in-gallery sessions, families were encouraged to put these experiences into practice by visiting other museums and galleries independently. They were given ideas of places to visit, signposted to the Family Explorers North East website, and provided with coloured paper and glue sticks to assist them in recording their visits to other venues. At each session, children arrived eagerly clutching the scrapbook pages they’d created to record these ‘Family Adventures’. These were added to the big ‘Exhibition Explorers Encyclopedia’ and used by facilitator Claudia to create a story time with a difference, in which the families’ visits to cultural venues were celebrated and shared. This was also about encouraging exploratory attitudes to museum visits – for example, through their scrapbook pages, families frequently told us their children had enjoyed aspects of museums such as the lifts, open spaces, and the big windows. During the story time, these experiences were celebrated as much as the news that they’d visited a particular exhibition or engaged in a special event or learning activity, thereby emphasising the ‘exploring’ ethos of the project, and reinforcing this as a good way to approach a museum visit with a toddler. The Family Adventures were also added to the blog on the Shipley Art Gallery’s website, allowing parents to read about each other’s museum visits at their leisure, and for external audiences to learn about the project. The blog attracted interest from other museums and galleries and was shared by members of the UK’s museum sector via social media.

The Project’s Exploratory Ethos

The main ethos of the project was that museum and gallery visits for this age group should first and foremost be exploratory. Museum visits may be for entertainment, learning or other motivations, but exploring should be at the forefront of the experience. Parents were introduced to this ethos from the outset; they were told to follow their child’s lead and not worry if they weren’t joining in the group activity – for example, if a child wandered off from the singing sessions to investigate the gallery’s patterned floor; or wanted to crawl under a display case rather than looking at its contents, the parents should feel relaxed and comfortable and simply follow their child’s interest. Such behaviour was interpreted as a sign that the children were responding to the museum environment, and feeling interested and comfortable. By responding positively, staff and volunteers demonstrated that such behaviour was welcome, which helped parents to feel more relaxed about their child’s responses to the museum.

Taking a closer look

Taking a closer look

Session content was planned in ways that supported this exploring ethos: if children wandered off it was due to proactive interest in another aspect of the museum, not because the activity was too long, poorly structured, or too difficult for their age group. The ethos of exploring the museum was further supported by activities that encouraged this, such as treasure hunts and the opportunity for children to photograph something that interested them. The sessions were deliberately held in the gallery itself rather than a separate room (such as the Workshop which is often used by school groups, or the Lounge which is often used by community groups). This was to reassure parents that the children’s behaviour would be welcome throughout the gallery, and to increase confidence and familiarity with the gallery itself and hopefully encourage repeat visits between sessions and beyond the end of the project.

In their feedback, many parents commented on the exploring ethos of the project, showing its impact:

  • ‘At first I thought other people in the gallery might not be too pleased if Fred suddenly scooted past them with the toys on wheels, but actually lots of people have been interested in what the children are doing. The staff are really friendly too so we feel that it’s okay for us to be here!’
  • ‘She’ll choose an artwork to go and look at and then she’ll look carefully around it, at the floor and things. She’ll point at things she finds and show me too. And she loves the grandfather clock – she spent a long time looking carefully at it and asking to be picked up to see.’
  • ‘We’ll come to the Shipley again, now we’ve been to this. We shouldn’t be scared to go in – that’s what I’ve realised from this project.’

The Families’ Starting Points

At the beginning of the project, two thirds of the group had visited the Shipley before. Of these, roughly half had attended baby groups there, such as Creative Baby, Hartbeeps classes, and Artventurers classes. Some of the parents had visited the Shipley without their children; one parent commented, ‘I’d been to the Shipley before for events like the Late Shows, but I wouldn’t really have considered it a place to come with a toddler’.

Almost half of the group said they take their child to a museum every month. A quarter said every 3-6 months, and a quarter said occasionally (holidays, special events etc.) Feelings about museums were positive: parents told us that they wanted their child to develop a love of museums; they felt museums had lots to offer their family; they felt sure their child would enjoy a museum visit; and that they believed the project would support their child’s learning and development.

Confidence about visiting museums was fairly high: almost two thirds of the group said they felt very confident about visiting a museum with their child. The other third said they felt somewhat confident and would like to develop. Several members of the group talked about the role museums could play in their parenting, and expressed an interest in coming to the project because it would help them to learn how to successfully incorporate museums into family life, and how to talk to their child about the displays.

Turning the panels on the inspiration board

Turning the panels on the inspiration board

Parents’ Expectations

At the beginning of the project and during the sessions, parents told us about their expectations for the project:

Many were keen to help their children develop a familiarity and fondness for museums, and to instil a sense of cultural entitlement – a sense that museums are for them:

  •  ‘I really want museums and galleries to be normal to her – I never went as a child, so I really want her to feel these are places for her.’
  • ‘I really want my children to think of museums as nice spaces to play, visit, and have new experiences – that’s the message I really want to give them.’
  • ‘She’ll learn about how you visit these places, then she’ll feel more confident that museums aren’t scary – they’re places she can follow her interests and really explore.’
  • ‘This is a lovely opportunity to share what I love with my youngest child. Sadly we don’t go to museums together often. I love having one-to-one conversations with her about the things we see here.’

Others talked about their own learning, as opposed to their child’s. They wanted to incorporate museums more into family life, and felt that museums could play a role in their parenting practices. These parents wanted to consciously pick up skills and expertise through the project, to use when they visit museums as a family:

  • ‘For both me and my child, it’s all about learning that it’s normal to go to places like this.’
  • ‘I’m hoping to learn how to get the most out of museums, and make it as interesting as possible for my children.’
  • ‘I’m hoping I’ll pick up more ideas of ways to talk to her about the displays.’
  •  ‘I’m really looking forward to doing something creative and a bit different with my toddler. I’m looking forward to finding new places and seeing how we could explore them together.’
Making playdoh creations amongst the ceramics display

Making playdoh creations amongst the ceramics display

Family Adventures

Between sessions, families were encouraged to visit a museum or gallery of their choice and to tell the group about the experience through scrapbooking. This peer-to-peer advocacy for museums was initially expected to be primarily of interest to the parents, and much thought was put into how we’d keep the children from getting restless while this information was conveyed to their parents. However, we were surprised to find that the children were extremely interested in this part of the session; they crowded around the Exhibition Explorers Encyclopaedia at story time, and eagerly told the group about where they’d been, without prompting.

Claudia sharing the Exhibition Explorers Encyclopedia with the children - photo: Mark Savage

Claudia sharing the Exhibition Explorers Encyclopedia with the children – photo: Mark Savage

Sharing the Exhibition Explorers Encyclopaedia

Sharing the Exhibition Explorers Encyclopaedia – photo: Mark Savage

As the families were creating the scrapbook pages, the tone was one of parent-to-parent feedback rather than institution-to-audience marketing. This meant that the sort of information that was shared was personalised to the toddlers, and frequently contained tips that would be useful to parents. Through their Family Adventures, the group shared feedback on aspects of their visit that matter to families, such as;

  • Cafes and catering facilities (‘Best hot chocolate for kids ever!’; ‘There was space to eat our packed lunch’.)
  • Facilities and recommendations for getting the most out of these (‘Play Tyne was great but a change of clothes would have been a good idea after all that splashing’; ‘If it had been warmer we’d have explored the beach near the Castle’; ‘The park next door is worth a visit too, we loved feeding the ducks’.)
  • Unusual things their child had noticed (‘She was really interested in the toilets, and the light and dark spaces!’; ‘He was really struck by the scale of the Cathedral’.)
  • Ways the visit related to their child’s other interests (‘We looked for the Gruffalo in the woods’; ‘The castle’s fireplace reminded him of the Stickman story we’ve been reading at home’.
  • How they’d utilised the exploring ethos of the project (‘We spent lots of time using the water features as a toy, and going up the big steps because Evie had just learned to walk’; ‘We loved looking out of the big windows and going in the lift’; ‘We’ve realised you can make a toy out of anything!’).
  • Ways the visit related to Exhibition Explorers sessions (‘Alex enjoyed using the magnifying glasses at Exhibition Explorers, and talked about it when he tried out the binoculars at the Grace Darling Museum’.)
  • Learning and engagement resources (‘Fred loved pressing the buttons to change the lighting on the painting – very atmospheric’; ‘Zoe loved using the mirrors and mummy thought it was a good idea they were plastic so she didn’t need to worry about them getting broken!’)
Sharing the latest Family Adventures

Sharing the latest Family Adventures

Parents also fed back that visiting museums and galleries independently had allowed them to put into practice what they’d learned at the sessions. They had internalised the playful, exploratory ethos of the project:

  • ‘Now we know that playing and exploring is a really good way to approach a museum, so we’re ok with it. These sessions have really made me see museums through the children’s eyes – I’m so much better now at realising the sorts of things they’ll notice and enjoy.’
  • ‘We’re definitely going to more places as a result of coming to Exhibition Explorers. And I’ve slowed down – we go at his pace now and I let him lead!’

They had also broadened their repertoire of places to go, and deepened their understanding of how toddlers engage with museums:

  • ‘It’s definitely increased our spectrum of things to go to – we’ve realised anything goes, we don’t have to only take her to exhibitions specifically aimed at children, because she’ll get lots out of going to a new place and exploring.’
  • ‘I can really see what she gets out of visiting these places and I just want to encourage that as much as possible.’
  • ‘Coming to Exhibition Explorers has made me think about how many different museums are available, and encouraged me to explore more. These experiences make us want to visit a venue.’
  • ‘It’s certainly prompted me to think of other places to go, because I’d definitely fallen into a pattern of just going to the same few places. That’s been really good.’
Sharing the Exhibition Explorers Encyclopaedia

Sharing the Exhibition Explorers Encyclopaedia

And by internalising the exploring ethos of the project they had begun to be motivated by different things when choosing museums to visit:

  • ‘I’ve started choosing places to go based more on the architecture of the building than the exhibitions. He’s really enjoyed exploring the spaces of the Shipley, and this has inspired us to take him to more big buildings, like Durham Cathedral, knowing that just wandering round a space has a huge lasting effect on him.’
Photo: Mark Savage

Photo: Mark Savage

Increasing Familiarity with the Shipley Art Gallery

One of the project’s ambitions was to increase the families’ familiarity with the Shipley Art Gallery, and encourage them to become regular visitors. Several parents said that the project had increased the likelihood of them visiting again, and their confidence and familiarity around the venue.

Exploring the new exhibition at the Shipley together

Exploring the new exhibition at the Shipley together

Many also talked about their children connecting with the Shipley’s collections, and expressed an interest in continuing to bring their children to visit the gallery. There was also a notable increase in parents’ familiarity with the Shipley – many talked about feeling more confident and comfortable there. They recognised their child’s interest in both the museum environment and the displays, and valued the fact that their child responded positively to the Shipley. Several talked about this developed interest in the Shipley having a knock-on effect to their engagement in other museums and galleries:

  • ‘I think the building itself has caught her eye – things like the tiles, different textures, flooring – I would have hurried her on from those things before, but I’ve realised that that sort of exploring is all part of the museum experience.’
  • ‘Coming here is obviously memorable to her. I think we’ll definitely investigate museums more because of what we’ve learned on this project. We explore in different ways with her now.’
  • ‘He knows where we are as soon as we arrive outside, and he goes up the steps and straight in, looking for the other children. I think he finds the different colours in the artworks very appealing. He’s definitely very happy here, I can always tell he’s really enjoying it, he’s smiling as soon as we come in.’
  • ‘The staff here are lovely with him, really chatty and always engaging with him as soon as he comes in the door, it’s lovely.’
  • ‘The best thing here is there’s lots of space. I know it’s a safe, protected environment so I can relax and let her take the lead and explore things that interest her.’
  • ‘It’s been a good start for us – we’ve got to know the Shipley and now we know it’s somewhere we like to visit.’
Parachute games in front of the Tintoretto

Parachute games in front of the Tintoretto

Changing Families’ Perceptions of Museums

Many of the parents reported that the project had altered their perceptions of museums: they felt more aware of the benefits for young children, and more equipped to engage their child in successful museum visits by using the exploratory techniques they’d picked up. Several said that they felt more welcome in museums, and sure that engaging their child in them was appropriate and going to be well received by other visitors and museum staff. The way in which the families conducted museum visits also changed – they felt confident about letting their child lead, and the exploring ethos of the project became second nature to them. Parents told us that they were much more convinced of the value of museums for young children, than they had been before taking part. There was a feeling of increased skills and confidence around engaging, and a commitment to the idea that, for young children, the museum environment and the displays are of equal importance.

  • ‘I thought museums were only for older children; but we’ve realised she gets so much out of it, and we do too. The sessions have really made me notice things here, and my daughter’s found things she really likes and can interact with. It’s been fascinating.’
  • ‘It’s made me go more regularly to museums. I wouldn’t have taken a young child to these places before, but now I see the experience in a different way. It changes how I interact with my daughter too – I’m more relaxed and I follow her lead: I see museums in a different light because of this project.’
  • ‘I used to keep her in the pram for a museum visit – that was always really frustrating for her, and made museums a not very pleasant experience for either of us. But now I know she gets so much more out of it if I let her explore.’
  • ‘It’s changed how we encourage her to interact with museums. We know we can do different things with her in museums; it’s broadened what we try.’
  • ‘I look much more consciously at what’s on her eye level – I can relate much more to what she gets out of an exhibition now.’
  • ‘Before, I would’ve wondered if a gallery was suitable for him; but I don’t think twice about it now! These sessions have helped us to normalise it and give it a go. We’ve discovered that galleries are places to relax.’
  • ‘I’ve learned that museum visits with toddlers don’t have to be stressful. I feel confident that he gets an awful lot out of it – he takes things in, and talks about it days later. ‘
  •  ‘The things that interest her don’t have to be specifically child orientated. She loves the toy tea set, but also she really likes the ceramic tea pots on display. She’s learning what an art gallery is and also she’s showing real interest in things that I wouldn’t expect her to.’
Children were presented with a folder of their Family Adventures and a magnifying glass to continue exploring with

Children were presented with a folder of their Family Adventures and a magnifying glass to continue exploring with

Implications for the Shipley Art Gallery

Exhibition Explorers has proven to be a fascinating project for the Shipley Art Gallery. It has helped us to see the Shipley through children’s eyes – recognising that exploring the museum environment is just as important as what’s on display, for our youngest visitors. Having observed many of the project’s participants engage in ‘Creative Baby!’ and then progress to this project, we have gained an insight into young families’ evolving needs and preferences in museums as their children grow. Several of the families have become regular visitors to the Shipley, attending several times a month for various groups and activities, and exploring the gallery with confidence. It is apparent that the ways in which families engage, and their resulting perceptions of museums have been positively affected by this project.

At the end of the project, children were presented with a folder of their Exhibition Explorer Encyclopaedia scrapbook pages, and a magnifying glass with which to continue exploring museums and galleries (pictured below).

The project now continues into phase 2 which will run from July 2016 – February 2017. Approximately half of the families who took part in the pilot will continue, with the rest of the group consisting of people who are new to the project and / or the Shipley Art Gallery in general.

Lycra songs and games

Lycra songs and games