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How attractions are using trails to take their work into the open air

Turner Contemporary in Margate presented April is the cruellest month by Michael Rakowitz, one of seven new art commissions, as part of England’s Creative Coast trail

COVID-19 has changed the way that we use our outside spaces. Through the course of the pandemic, getting outside has been an opportunity for exercise, to socialise, for wellbeing, and for escape.

For city dwellers, this has led to an upsurge in the use of parks with The Art Fund reporting that  some inner-city parks experienced a 300 per cent increase in visits last spring. This benefits of the outdoors were highlighted in a report commissioned by the National Trust, which showed that more than two-thirds of people said that noticing the nature around them had made them feel happy during lockdown. Further research suggests that spending time in nature can be as beneficial as talking therapy or antidepressants.

Accessing outdoor spaces has been important for wellbeing – and over the course of the pandemic has offered a safer space to engage with culture.

“The repurposing of and focus on outdoor space has been of huge benefit to many venues in the quest to pursue inclusivity in a restricted world, especially during periods where indoor engagement has not been possible,”  The Audience Agency, said. “Our COVID-19 Cultural Participation Monitor has shown us that, even if people haven’t been doing anything else cultural during the pandemic period, a lot of them have still visited outdoor exhibitions and heritage sites, and many organisations have flourished in their ability to pivot their attraction to one of outdoor-led activity.”

Why try trails?

Trails are about movement. They are about seeing spaces in a new light, even though these places might be very familiar. Which means they are perfect for times of restricted movement and for those who still feel unsafe attending indoor venues. They offer a change of pace, a shift in perspective and a breath of fresh air.

Trails can tell a multitude of narratives – they are incredibly flexible tools for storytelling and engagement. They offer opportunities to collaborate and strengthen our connections within our communities, and by working collaboratively museums can create an outdoor offer – even if they don’t have outdoor spaces of their own, such as the Museum of Homelessness’s interactive, immersive trail to find the Secret Museum.

What’s more – they offer opportunities to work at reaching different geographic areas. They could be within a single venue, such as the National Museum of Rural Life in Scotland’s new Willow Sculpture Trail which guides visitors from their museum to their farm. Or they can span much larger areas, such as The Creative Coast art trail which has been taking place this summer.

England’s Creative Coast

Cement Fields in Gravesend presented The first thing I did was kiss the ground, by Jasleen Kaur, as part of England’s Creative Coast trail

In the southeast of England, an innovative new project has beckoned visitors outside with a new trail of artworks. Spanning some 1,400km, this epic art adventure has commissioned seven outdoor artworks and has been developed in a collaboration between seven arts organisations led by Turner Contemporary.

England’s Creative Coast launched in May 2021 and has been on show all summer (to close 12 November – so if you’re quick you can still catch it). The project joined up arts organisations based along this coastline – Cement Fields, Creative Folkestone, De La Warr Pavilion, Hastings Contemporary, Metal, Towner Eastbourne, and Turner Contemporary. Each worked with an artist and with their communities to create a joyful programme of commissioned artworks and public engagement projects.

“Ultimately it is about using the power of partnership to forge human connections: allowing people to explore a place, an artwork, and its community, together — something that is needed now more than ever,” Project Director, Sarah Dance, said.

The community have been vital to the development of an Art GeoTour to accompany the trail – the world’s first. The GPS enabled treasure hunt hid caches of stories around the artworks, the galleries and towns. With guidance from the project artists, a wide range of community groups added their voices to the project. Narratives were included from groups including school groups, community groups and charities.

Liz Gilmore, Director of Hastings Contemporary, said: ‘We’re really excited about the extensive programme of community work that we’re doing. Whether that’s with our rough sleepers’ programme, with a bourgeoning group of primary school children locally, and also, with our refugee groups, and these incredible memories of the sea project. As we celebrate English seaside and staycation tourism this could not have come at a better time for Hastings.”

Cromwell in the Community

Of course, trails don’t need to span such vast geographies to be incredibly effective.

The Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire has also been running a trail over the summer. This project, which took place with support from The Art Fund, took reproductions of 12 of the museums’ artefacts out into the town, from a supermarket to the railway station, and in the windows of empty shops.

Visitors and residents were invited to hunt for the exhibits, and their locations were chosen for their relevance to Oliver Cromwell, who was born in Huntingdon.

A replica of Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of Cromwell, from the Museum collection, was shown at his birthplace, now a nursing home, while a copy of his funeral banner was displayed in the window of the Coop Funeral Services, and a replica of a painting of Charles I was shown outside of the George Hotel where he stayed in 1645.

For the launch, costumed characters took to the street to tell the museum’s stories – and an audio guide was made with Smartify which gives a rich accompaniment to the trail.

Closer to nature

Morris Hargreaves McIntyre’s rolling research considered what visitors would be looking for at cultural attractions on reopening. They identified seven key factors which would motivate visits, which included the desire to get closer to nature.

Trails don’t just offer a way to meet this immediate need, but also a way to engage new audiences into the future.

The Association of Independent Museums tell us that ‘outdoor interpretation has a role to play in sustaining audiences with new stories told where they feel safest’ and trails provide a space to tell different narratives in new ways, and to reinvent communications for the new normal.

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.

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