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Film: Why Giving Young People A Role In A Museum Matters

Dea Birkett from Kids in Museums spoke about their UK based Takeover Day at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016.

Dea: Hello. I’m Dea Birkett from Kids in Museums, and just to say, it’s fantastic to be in this space. Before I came here, I kind of worried a bit about what to wear, as I don’t know if you all do in a conference, so I plumped for the suit option, but because I didn’t know we’d be in a big top, which is absolutely fantastic particularly since I’m a former circus artiste, I’m very sorry I didn’t bring my feathers and my spangly G-string and my tassels on my bits. But if my talk is really boring, if you go on Google Images and put my name in, you’ll see me wearing them.

Anyway, I’ve just forgotten, this is being live streamed, so let’s get on with it. Have you already spotted me, then? You’ve obviously got … That’s why you’re cheering. Anyway, let’s get on with the show, Kids in Museums. Hello.

I’m going to tell you our founding story for two reasons. One is because lots of you won’t have heard of us, because you’re not from the UK, and we’re not a museum, and secondly, I think where you come from tells you a lot about why you are where you are now.

So, we were founded just over ten years ago, when I was in the Royal Academy, a Museum in the centre of London, with my three children, at the Aztec exhibition. I don’t know if any of you saw it. I had an older child and two younger children, twins, strapped in a pushchair, and one of my children, three years old, shouted – and I’ve never denied he shouted – he shouted, ‘Monster, monster!’ at this statue which looked just like a monster, had snakes for hair, a big beak for a nose. And, I thought, this is fantastic – I’ve got a three year old that’s appreciating pre-Hispanic art – how good can it get?

So, I bent down and I said, ‘Yes, it looks just like a monster’. And, at that moment, a room warden came over, a gallery assistant came over and said we were being too noisy, and threw us out.

Wrong family. I was, at that time, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper, and two days later wrote a big piece in The Guardian about being thrown out of the Royal Academy. What was really interesting was, by the end of that day, we had had, at the paper, over 500 emails from other families saying, ‘Museums aren’t working for us. Let’s try and make it work’.

So, that’s what we did. In The Guardian, we set up a campaign. We called it the Kids in Museums campaign, but it didn’t really exist. It was just a few pages. We ran loads of stories on it; I began touring the country talking about how to make your museum family friendly; I was a journalist.

I was called in to see the then director of the National Gallery in London, and I’ll never forget this moment, when he called me in and said, ‘We really like this Kids in Museums campaign, and we’ve been talking on our board about it, and we have some ideas of how we might work together, and I’d like you to take them back to your team.

So, I went home, and what did I say? ‘Kids, I met this really big guy in museums today’. So, there was no team, but actually, we were approached by someone from the Department of Culture in Britain who said, ‘You’re missing an opportunity here; you need to set up as an independent charity; you need to work with museums to make them more welcoming for families and young people’, and that’s exactly what we did, and that’s where we are now. We’re an independent charity working with museums to make them more welcoming of families, young people and children, and in particular, those who haven’t visited before. That’s our whole emphasis, on those visitors that aren’t yet reaching museums.

We’re still a small charity, but we have a very big impact. We now work with over 750 museums, UK wide. And, because of our perspective, because we come from a background of being visitors, not museum people, because we see things from the outside, we don’t see any visitors, or we don’t call them non, or potential visitors – everyone’s a potential visitor, not a non-visitor – we don’t see any visitors as hard to reach. We won’t call people hard to reach. What’s hard to reach, for us, is museums. It’s you, museums, who’re hard to reach. We’re not hard to reach, we visitors. We know exactly where we are, what we’re doing, what we need, but for many of us, some of us, museums themselves are very hard to reach. It is our job at Kids in Museums to support and help you, museums, to make you no longer hard to reach, to make you easy to reach for everyone. That’s our job.

A very recent example of how we’ve done that was, just last week, we published a resource for museums on how to make your museum more welcoming of young people with autism, so that’s, again, making you less hard to reach for young people with autism. Within a week, there were over 1,500 downloads of that resource from our website, so it’s already being extremely well-used.

A major part of our work is to do a major campaign of how we help make museums less hard to reach is Takeover Day, which is what I’m here to talk about. An annual day – this year it’s on November 18th – on which young people are given meaningful, powerful, decision-making roles in a museum.

Last year over 7,000 young people took part throughout England and Wales. Over half of those young people had never visited before, and it is the biggest Takeover Day now, in its fifth year, it’s the biggest initiative ever in Britain with young people and museums.

So, what is Takeover Day? What sort of things may happen on Takeover Day? Well, young people will come to a museum; they might be front of house; they might put on an exhibition; they might design a trail; they might empty the pest traps; they might work in the café; they might be tour guides, they’re all sorts of range. They might answer the phone – that’s interestingly a very popular activity to the young people, answering the phone. Might come back to why that is – it’s a sense of empowerment and trust, I think.

What they don’t do is, they don’t shadow, observe, look, listen. They participate, involve, and are leaders in the museum. Takeover Day is not another youth event, not another youth programme, is not a club they go along once a week to be part of. It is an active participatory, leading role in a museum.

So, why does Takeover Day make museums less hard to reach for young people? Well, I think there’s a number of reasons. It’s because it’s very structured involvement, so it’s not an, ah, just come along and visit us. And, for those for whom museums are hard to reach, you can put on every programme and every event for young people, and say, ‘It’s great, why don’t you come?’ and they will not, because it isn’t a structured, involved ask. You’re not giving them a job to do. You’re not empowering them and trusting them, and what we found through Takeover Day, by giving that structured involvement, saying, ‘You come on this day, and we rely on you, because you’re going to be our front of house person; you’re going to be the person who’s greeting our visitors; we’ll rely on you, you’re important to us’ – that enables those young people who otherwise find museums hard to reach, to have a structured role within you. It’s not saying, ‘Come to our Saturday morning club’.

Why, also, is Takeover Day supporting museums to become less hard to reach? Because it’s easier for the museums, because at Kids in Museums, we provide lots and lots of different templates through which you can involve young people are tour guides, as front of house, as managers in some way within your museum, as consultants, as advisors. So, there’s all sorts of ways in which we … So, it’s easier for the museums, particularly the very most hard to reach museums, which are nervous about involving young people, it gives them the structure focus day on which they can do so.

Why else is it? It’s because it’s easier for groups, for which your museums are particularly hard to reach, to take part. So, for example, a large number of disabled young people take part in Takeover Day; deaf young people take part; challenged children take part in Takeover Day, and it’s because it’s a form of structured, empowering involvement, that enables that to happen.

We have lots of case studies on our website, and you can see examples of the sorts of things that young people do, and the sorts of young people that do those things.

To give an indication, over a third of the people who take part in Takeover Day do not come through school. So, there is school engagement, but over a third come through other sorts of groups, everything from [unintelligible 00:10:01] groups, to special interest groups, to supplementary school groups, to enable it to be young people who would otherwise find museums were not open to them.

Why else is Takeover Day good for you, and good for museums? Because it encourages diversity in the museum workforce. In Britain, diversity in the museum workforce is a huge problem, and it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. We have a less and less diverse museum workforce in our country. We need to do something about that, and we need to do something about that urgently.

As Kids in Museums, we’re using Takeover Day as a tool for that engagement, and as a tool for diversifying the workforce. So, we’re working with major partner museums; there are 24 major partner museums in Britain, to monitor how being introduced to working in a museum in a meaningful, powerful and decision-making way for young people, for whom museums are not easy places, how being introduced to Takeover Day enables them to see working in a museum as an option for them.

So, we are looking at what those young people who come and do Takeover Day consider as career options before they do Takeover Day, and what they consider as career options after they do Takeover Day, and see if it shifts. We are monitoring that from this November, because anecdotal evidence has told us until this point that there is a big shift. One of my favourite quotes from a young person on Takeover Day is, after doing Takeover Day, he said – he’s a 12 year old – ‘I wanted to be a builder, but now I might work in a museum’. It opened the options. It opened the options to those who would normally never consider that.

Probably most importantly, though, is why Takeover Day is such a good tool in enabling hard to reach museums to become less so for young people, is because it inevitably leads to longer term involvement. It is what we call, at Kids in Museums, more than a day. It is a catalyst for nervous, hard to reach museums, to better involve and include young people in a meaningful way.

They might go on to forming a youth panel; they might go on to making exhibitions for the museums, being consultative, involved in an ongoing way. They might, many, go on to be young volunteers, many go on to be tour guides, many go on to produce resources, trails for example, for that museum, which hadn’t involved young people in that same way.

Here’s just a couple of examples of the sort of ongoing work that Takeover Day has been a catalyst for. So, Bradford Museums and Galleries, Takeover Days are now part of the core workshop offer to schools. Pupils can take over at a choice of venues, and throughout the year. The museum services use it as a sharing day for schools, undertaking arts award, which is an official arts recognition in Britain.

The children who took over at Richmondshire Museum Art now helping staff develop activities programmes for the summer holidays. Takeover Day kick-started a young curators group at the National Waterways Museum, with members giving behind the scenes guided tours, and interpreting objects for the public. Remember, the vast majority of these young people are those who had never visited before. At the Teenage History Club at Ancient House Museum in Norfolk, when they successfully took over the museum, staff approached a local school to work on a Takeover exhibition by a younger group that will open this summer, guided by the older group.

Lots of other examples. The Oxfordshire Museum is planning a network sharing event for the Takeover Day young people to share the work they did to create an exhibition at the museum. The young people will then mentor the next group to take over. So, these are the sorts of examples of the ongoing, the more than the day, after the Takeover Day, that Takeover Day, that intense, focussed national campaign, enables to happen.

So, I suppose the real testament to the importance of Takeover Day, in making museums less hard to reach for those young people who don’t visit, is the words of the young people themselves. So, I just want to say a few things that a few of the young people involved last year said.

‘This has changed my attitude of being part of a museum’. Being part of a museum. Another child: ‘This has been great, as we get to be part of it. I feel more connected with the museum now, and it has really inspired me in my learning about history’. ‘I love my role’. 11 year old – ‘I love my role. Just being in this atmosphere has changed my whole idea of history’. A 14 year old: ‘People don’t realise their heritage and what people have done for them. We are living history. On a normal day, you don’t get to see it. This was such an opportunity’. Another 14 year old: ‘We only learn so much in school, but by doing this, we know it more. It’s made me want to pursue history in my exams’. But, my very favourite one is, ‘It makes me feel powerful. It gives me confidence in what I’m doing here. It makes me feel part of the team’.

Thank you. Stop! I’ve got three minutes, and I forgot something, so I’m just going to say, part of what we do at Kids in Museums, the support we offer museums in Takeover Day, is our resources, which you can all go and pick up, which is our Seven Reasons to Do Takeover Day. Every young person who takes part in Takeover Day gets a pack which contains a certificate, a postcard, a poster, and most importantly of all, stickers, because we all love stickers. I’m taking over stickers, and I’ve got lots here, so please come and wear them. Put some on, wear them now, particularly if you’re here with your manager or boss, so that you can let them know what your intentions are. Thank you very much.

Dea Birkett from Kids in Museums spoke about their UK based Takeover Day at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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