When the world closed down in 2020, heritage and culture reached out.
The sector engaged in its incredible and innovative rush to digital triggered by the pandemic. And some organisations set to work to find ways to continue to provide real-life experiences, connecting directly with their audiences.
Many of these experiences took a hybrid digital/real-life form – making great use of online workshops and tutorials while providing hands-on resource kits.
These kits filled a void left by the lockdowns. They provided children with resources that might usually only be accessible in the classroom, offered haptic experiences and the opportunity to develop manipulative skills and concentration away from screens – combatting the dreaded screen fatigue.
Now, while lockdown is gradually lifting and schools have fully reopened, these kits continue to be embraced in the community. Many are even being re-issued.
So will at-home kits stick as an outreach opportunity for culture and heritage organisations?
Bridging the lockdown
In May 2020, The Arts Council launched their Let’s Create Packs, explaining ‘At the Arts Council, we want to ensure all young people across England have access to creative resources – now, during the coronavirus crisis, and always.’ Staying creative helps us feel good! | Arts Council England.
Bridge organisations, community services and charities distributed 25,000 packs to children and young people. Funded by the National Lottery, these boxes included art materials and an activity pack (the pack was also open to all to download online), seeking to enhance wellbeing while developing creative skills.
In addition, the project was delivered in partnership with the Art Fund and the Crafts Council. The Crafts Council collected donations to sponsor their ‘Let’s Craft’ packs, and these donations provided over 11,000 packs to children in need between the launch of their kits in July 2020 and the 2021 summer holidays.
Clay to stay
In the UK Midlands, The Acorns Project has also seen sustained interest in their at-home kits. The Heritage Action Zone Creative Newark Project funded the kits, which enabled 14 – 18 year-olds to learn clay sculpting skills. Participants signed up online to receive a resource pack and a course accessed as both a printed guide and online tutorials. Project artist Jessica Collin explained “We designed the packs to fulfil a need for activities that aligned with specific aspects of the GCSE and A-Level Art curriculum which local secondary schools said they had struggled to deliver during the lockdown period. The Creative Kits offered us an opportunity to engage with 14 – 18 year-olds, a target demographic we had previously struggled to reach. Drawing in local artists was key in helping us to attain a broad local reach and an even wider audience across social media. Engagement levels were high, with creative and innovative responses”.
The kits have been so successful that The Acorns Project issued an additional batch in June.
Clay kits have been especially prominent, and seem to have particularly captured the need for tactile experiences lost in digital-only resources. Touch has a myriad of benefits. It can support wellness, as well as teaching non-verbal communication skills and developing manual dexterity.
In Lambeth, London, community pottery Mud Gang worked with local charities to deliver clay kits to children in the area. The kits intended to give children an escape, teach making as a therapeutic hobby, and with the potential to inspire a new generation of makers.
The first 50 kits were given to children that receive free school meals, with support from The Childhood Trust and funding from a crowdfunding campaign. Circulation was kept local, and so it was easy for participants to return their work to the studio to be fired. As crowdfunding exceeded its targets, the project has been extended. ‘We’ve already run drop-in workshops in a neurodiverse gallery, for claymakers to try out, and we hope to expand so we can have an after-school club for pottery, sessions for the over-65s, who can’t pay for private studio space.’
Mud Gang also sell the kits through their website, and many other pottery studios have used at-home clay kits with online workshops to continue to deliver their programmes during lockdown. Kana London’s Stay Home Clay Club is one such example, offering a luxurious subscription service to its members.
Home kits have great potential to be adapted to different audiences and price points – from free outreach activities to retail products, subscriptions or benefits to membership. The mental health charity Mind, for example, has recently started to offer a monthly creative activity box with a regular donation.
So how have hands-on kits been used in heritage? These kinds of activities have supported learning across the curriculum. The Works Museum (Bloomington, USA) sell excellent at-home engineering kits to local families (kits are collection only).
The National Science and Media Museum (Bradford, UK) sent out 27,000 printed STEM packs to support local families with little or no digital access. The packs were created from existing resources, which meant that they could be developed and distributed with lightning speed.
Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK) developed an extraordinarily comprehensive programme that included story packs, doorstep storytelling performances, and the provision of hot meals. ‘The resources and activities aimed to support those families who would be disproportionately affected by the national lockdown and support positive mental health, wellbeing and resilience during uncertain times.’ The project was a collaboration with Barnardo’s Community Family Hub East, Food Nation and Byker Community Trust.
During the pandemic, at-home kits have given cultural organisations the means to deliver experiences closely aligned to a real-life museum or gallery visit – while benefitting from the huge leaps in digital engagement made in the last year.
Kits have also maintained engagement with families and offered support to those particularly vulnerable in the pandemic, perhaps due to lack of internet access, technology, or making materials at home.
And by building engagement, they have enabled museums to nurture their roots in their community and grow towards the future.
But what comes next? Using at-home kits is an incredibly practical approach for outreach, and it will be interesting to see as museums open back up how these relationships are nourished and develop.
About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell
Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.
Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.