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It’s all fun and games: how Shepparton Art Museum is using play to engage young visitors

Olivia Trenorden, Public Programs Coordinator at the Shepparton Art Museum, shares how utilising low-tech, low-cost resources can help create a sense of play among young visitors. And how this approach can encourage a sense of community that stretches far beyond the museum borders.

Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) is one of the most outstanding regional art museums in Australia, located in Shepparton on Yorta Yorta Country. It was first opened in 1936, courtesy of a fifty-pound grant from the Victorian State Government. And in 2021, the museum relocated to a brand new, purpose-built building. In its latest incarnation as an independent non-for-profit museum it is redefining the way people – particularly children – think about art galleries and museums.

In her role as Public Programs Coordinator, Olivia Trenorden is integral to the work being done to engage a young and diverse audience. She says,

“At SAM we have placed a real emphasis on introducing play into the museum – not just sitting down and learning to paint or learning to make ceramics. We’re currently in a 24-month partnership with a fantastic company from Melbourne called See Make Play. Their whole philosophy is that art and play are central to the way children explore the world, discover themselves, and build their emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing.”

Low cost, big rewards: simple, tactile play

Everything from baby ‘tummy time’ programs to artist talks are held within the walls of SAM, and the introduction of self-guided resource booklets, activity trails and larger school holiday programs for children are making it a hub for the local community – and particularly families. But something else that has helped enormously is the introduction of low cost, tactile materials. Olivia explains, “Traditionally, art museums and galleries have been these rather cold spaces where you’re told to walk slowly, not to touch anything, to talk quietly, not to laugh. You put googly eyes on anything, and it automatically stops being serious.

“I try to bring laughter into the space. I use activities, and hide and seek, and puzzles, and things that feel good in people’s hands, because that’s how children learn.”

SAM boasts a 4,100-strong collection, many of which are ceramics. Because these brittle and fragile items can’t be engaged with physically, an outdoor amphitheatre and dedicated workshop spaces bring that physical element to life.

“We use items like crepe paper, felt, spray bottles, paints, googly eyes and pompoms,” Olivia says. “We want everything to be tactile and accessible, as well as low cost. I don’t want anyone to come to a program and there be a barrier through expensive equipment or materials. I want people to engage with what we do and be able to replicate it at home so they can keep extending that knowledge.

“Programming with young people makes a space feel warm, welcoming, and wholesome.”

Tackling preconceptions about museums and galleries

One of Olivia’s first tasks in her role at SAM was overseeing two workshops that were “essentially white cubes.” By developing programs through which children created collaborative paintings, and hanging them on the walls on textile banners made by local artist Rachel Doller, she helped create a space that was all about collaboration and conversation instead.

“Our Exhibitions Manager has created a real art museum wall label, which was developed in the same manner as our official exhibition labels and text, that credits the children, so they feel a sense of pride and ownership over the space. During the summer holidays, I also ask children to sign a canvas with their “best artist signature,” and hang them up. Kids come time and time again to find their name from the last school holidays, and see how their handwriting has changed. Some even bring younger siblings and show them what they need to do.

“It’s all about creating agency for young people. If they’re having fun, I’m having fun. And if we’re all having fun, they’re going home and they’re telling their families about it.”
One of the things Olivia believes needs tackling is the preconception that people often hold about art museums being lofty, complicated places.

“It’s a very common misconception for people to think they don’t understand art. And if they think they don’t know anything about art, why would they want to come to a museum?

“We want to tackle that. People come with their families, they play, and they use self-guided activity booklets to explore. The adults love it just as much as the children because they’re discovering the exhibition in an interactive, simple, engaging, and fun way.”

Play creates a community that extends beyond the museum

SAM hosts activities and exhibits for all stages of life, from baby and toddler programs to afterschool classes, internships and talks. Nobody is left out, and this makes sense as SAM is, according to Olivia, a “community hub” first and foremost. The team utilises play in order to create conversation, creativity and new ways of thinking.

“Art museums are public institutions, and entry to SAM is free, which we hope removes an additional barrier to walking through our doors. It’s a place where people should come and gather – it should serve the community just as much as it showcases beautiful or interesting objects.”

Play brings opportunities for connection for museumgoers. Olivia describes their baby programs as just as, if not more beneficial for parents than infants, giving them a place where they can connect with other parents, get out of the house and enjoy social interactions:

“The community trickles outwards as well. We have a playground down the road, and on days when we run a baby or a toddler program, I’ll look out the window later and those families that came to that program are all there together. They didn’t know each other beforehand, but I see that a community has formed.”

For Olivia, interactive elements don’t just encourage people to visit the museum. It also means they’ll take away what they’ve experienced and put it to use both at home and possibly even later in life.

“Statistically, if you engage kids in museums young, they become lifelong museumgoers. Some of my favourite childhood memories are going to museums, and I think it’s probably why I’m in the career I’m in now!”

For museums looking to experiment with play, knowing your audience is key

“It’s easy for museums to worry about allowing children to take over museum spaces. They are loud, messy and potentially unpredictable. But, according to Olivia, this shouldn’t be a barrier to welcoming young visitors through the door.

“The noise, the mess, it’s worth it to see the way that SAM has settled into the fabric of Shepparton. People come here on the weekends with their families, or bring their dogs to the café. You see and hear people wandering around, and their kids are rattling off all the things they learned during a tour or program. They become the tour guides!”

More than anything, it is important for people to understand just how vital play has been at SAM. Olivia says, “Working with young people is perhaps the most beneficial way to serve a community because young people are the future. If we can become part of people’s lives at that early stage, we’re going to stay there.

“Young people are our greatest ambassadors at SAM. They’re our biggest advocates, and that’s something that is going to last. That is something that is going to be passed on, hopefully for generations.”

Clearly, tactile play goes a long way, even with low-cost investments. All the fun and games at Shepparton Art Museum are having serious benefits for both the institution, and the wider community.

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