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Community engagement with Fun Palaces

Bringing culture to the community is at the heart of Fun Palaces

The word “engagement” sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by digital marketers. And while there’s no doubt that capturing an audience’s interest online is important, it’s important that the value of physical human engagement isn’t forgotten about – even if the metrics are harder to capture and analyse.

This is particularly relevant in the context of museums where real-world, in-person engagement is still the core endeavour of any gallery, exhibition and institution. Bringing together individuals from far and wide; encouraging them to engage with artefacts and artworks; that’s what a museum is designed to do. But creating real, tangible engagement isn’t always easy.

Which is why more and more museums are choosing to think outside the box in order to pique the interests of those within their community. One way museums, libraries and theatres alike are finding to truly engage with their visitors is with the introduction of Fun Palaces.

What are Fun Palaces?

The role of a Fun Palace is to support local people, and encourage them to co-create their own cultural and community events. Through this, Fun Palaces aim to promote “sharing and celebrating the genius in everyone.”

Beginning in 2013, Fun Palaces have been part of an ongoing campaign for cultural democracy. The aim is to bring culture to the community, as well as encouraging members of the local community to bring their own culture to the museum space.

As part of this, a weekend of action is run every October, in which Fun Palaces appear in museums, libraries, theatres and community centres. These palaces offer experiences with everything from arts, crafts and heritage, to tech, sports, food and science, and are available to adults and children alike.

Palaces are run by local people, for local people. They give individuals a platform to share “their own passions and skills, as a catalyst for community-led transformation.”

What are the benefits of Fun Palaces?

Since the first ever Fun Palaces weekend, there have been almost 1,800 Fun Palaces created by over 30,000 local people. More than half a million people have taken part over the years, across 15 countries.

As a not-for-profit initiative, Fun Palaces have something to offer for groups, organisations and individuals alike. It’s no wonder that every year, thousands of people make Fun Palaces for their own local community.

In terms of benefitting the local community itself, the evidence is clear. Fun Palaces offer the chance to share skills, meet new people and make connections. Research shows that, after getting involved in a local Fun Palace, 83% of respondents felt more motivated to become more involved in local projects and issues.

What can Fun Palaces offer museums?

Despite Fun Palaces being a hugely popular initiative, in 2018 only 7.46% of Fun Palaces were held within museum and heritage spaces, compared to 54.97% in libraries and 12.71% in community centres.

By engaging with the Fun Palaces initiative, museums themselves can broaden their reach into the community and discover new ways to engage.

Active and hands-on participation from community members is one of the most effective ways of bridging the gap between museum and visitor. By getting involved directly with a project inside the museum, individuals will feel more loyal to the space in the long term.

Museums often talk about the importance of “reaching out” to visitors, but Fun Palaces take this to the next level. Instead of “reaching out” a museum can “hand over” – which in many cases can drive greater inclusivity and engagement.

In 2018, 90% of institutions involved in making a Fun Palace expressed an intent to stay in touch with those who had been involved in them. Jack Morrison, Cornwall Fun Palaces Ambassador, puts it simply, saying:

“Fun Palaces are an attempt to stop the culture that sees people being told what to do and helping people to do what THEY want to do.”

In other words, Palaces encourage visitors to engage in a dialogue. By interacting as they choose, it is possible to not only understand the response to a particular installation but gather important information on the tastes, preferences and interests of the community – a useful tool that can help shape the nature of future museum activities and leave individuals feeling empowered by their experience.

How are Fun Palaces changing cultural engagement?

Fun Palaces may seem like a short-term endeavour, but they can yield long term responses. Speaking about their experience after taking part in the Fun Palace initiative, Jane Petch of South Molton Library said:

“We had a Fun Palace last year, and just about every day since, we’ve had a Fun Palace here. Thank you so much [to the Fun Palace organisers] for kick-starting all of our community involvement.”

Likewise, Emma Rucastle from Lancaster Fun Palace shared her thoughts on the Fun Palace experience, saying:

“There is something about the connections that a Fun Palace brings together and the barriers it breaks down actually, that just feels like something that should be happening and should be happening everywhere.”

In many instances, Fun Palaces give museums a chance to bring people from all backgrounds together within their institution, bridging gaps not only between themselves and their visitors, but between individuals within the community itself.

This is something expressed by Mark Wilkinson of Ware’s the Fun Palace, who commented:

“In one part of the town here we have some of the largest social disadvantage in the country and in the other half we’ve got some of the richest people in the country. We’ve brought them all together.

“It’s just so worthwhile. You’re part of something bigger than yourself.”

Keeping the fun relevant

Museums are constantly being made aware of the importance of engaging with the people around them. For most museums, it isn’t enough to simply put on exhibitions and wait for visitors to arrive. Whether through social media, outreach, exhibition advertisement or marketing stunts, cultural institutions are constantly looking for ways to cement themselves as a relevant and valuable asset to the community.

Fun Palaces allow museums to do just that in a way that’s both tangible and empowering. Hosting a Palace allows museums to benefit from their community while also giving back to it, handing over the reins in a way that creates the closest possible bond between person and place.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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