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Poverty Proofing Museums

Museums, galleries, and heritage sites, along with the many wild, weird and wonderful organisations that make up the UK’s vibrant cultural sector, have a unique role to play in shaping the landscape of our communities. Yet it is a sad fact that how much a person engages with these experiences is often connected to their financial background, even when opportunities are free to access.

Creating cultural institutions that are accessible and inclusive for all members of the community, including those from low-income backgrounds, can be a challenge. The Poverty Proofing© team at charity Children North East have spent over a decade speaking to thousands of people who live in poverty about the barriers they face to accessing public services and spaces and working with organisations to help them remove those barriers. In the last few years, they have worked with a large number of cultural organisations, including Northern icons BALTIC and Sage Gateshead, helping them ‘Poverty Proof’ their experiences.

In this article, the Poverty Proofing© team share some practical suggestions on how your organisation can remove the barriers to access and promote opportunities for everyone to enjoy the benefits of your work.

The Poverty Proofing© process is not about making changes to the business model or ambition of an organisation but making space to immerse teams in the audience experience and asking the right questions. How does a person with limited resources feel during an experience?  What is the minimum a person needs to comfortably participate? In line with this approach, a lot of our guidance is posed as questions, which offer something to reflect on, or even take to your teams.

The cultural sector has historically played an important role in not just offering education but improving the quality of life for so many and we hope these Poverty Proofing ideas may offer a new way of thinking about the next chapter in that story. 

How does your experience feel to someone living in poverty?

Museums can sometimes feel intimidating, particularly for those who have limited experiences of attending them and some people may feel they don’t belong. Exploring how you can create an environment that feels welcoming and inclusive to everyone is a great start to a Poverty Proofing journey. Some practical actions you can take include:

  • Consider the diversity within the displays people encounter when they enter your venue. Do your visuals preference certain types of people?
  • Public fundraising is essential for most organisations, but how can this ask be presented in a way that doesn’t stigmatise not donating or smaller donations? Less discrete donation boxes are an example where families attending group sessions may feel obliged to overstretch themselves to ‘save face’.
  • When guides or education resources are paid for, do you make some available for people to look at in the space, or alternative options? It’s also worth reflecting on how free options are accessed, for example, attaching copies to a wall may feel stigmatising but a comfy reading space promotes a positive experience.
  • Training your staff in the experience you want every guest to have and highlight the importance of consistency. Are there actions you could take to minimise unconscious bias?

What happens at lunchtime?

Everybody gets hungry and on-site eateries are a great way for venues to add to a visit. However, it can be a pinch point for those who know that their funds won’t stretch to catering from the venue, impacting their ability to stay as long as they would like or even encouraging them not to come at all. Those with young children will recognise the experience of juggling different hungry stomachs away from home.

  • Is there a welcoming space for people to eat food brought from home? Sometimes creating a space for those bringing their own lunch can be decided based on leftover space, side rooms, corridors or entrance halls. What can you do with its look, feel and signposting that makes it part of a great day out? 
  • Where can people go if they can’t afford to eat on-site? This is particularly poignant for more remote venues, where popping to the high street or park is not always an option. If you can’t provide appropriate spaces, consider if there are local places or businesses you can signpost people to?

How can you support people planning their visit?

There are many small ways you can promote an inclusive experience and that starts with how you help people plan their visit. From transport to transparent pricing, the information you give people and the way you give it to them can influence their expectations for the day.

  • How do you deal with transport? Sharing local public transport links on your website and showing the walking route from the nearest stops will be helpful for those who don’t drive. If you offer free or reduced transport options, such as parking for those with a disability, shout about these and consider sharing the opportunity with relevant local groups and charities. To go the extra mile, consider offering discounts to those using public transport, supporting sustainability and offering a subtle way to reduce costs for lower-income visitors.
  • Could you offer flexible opening hours? Many families from low-income backgrounds face additional pressures on their time, such as shift work, multiple jobs, limited transport options and caring responsibilities. Offering flexible opening hours can help to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to visit, regardless of their other commitments. Consider opening early in the morning some days or hosting late-night events in school holidays to accommodate those who may have limited time during regular business hours.
  • If you have paid entry and a calendar of events which cost money, could you consider offering a percentage of free opportunities such as taster days or interactive experiences? Consider how these are marketed and explore ways to reach different types of people from your usual audience. Connecting with charities and grassroots groups can be a great way of getting the opportunity in front of people who might not otherwise get a chance to come… they may even be able to support by providing extra support such as travel for their community. Remember giving people long notice periods can help them plan their time and finances.

Here at Children North East we talk about Poverty Proofing as a journey, rather than a one size fits all solution and any organisation reflecting and exploring how people living in poverty may engage with you is a brilliant first step. We also encourage every organisation to consider that the key to understanding the real experiences people have is by listening to them, because those with lived experience are best placed to inform real, meaningful solutions. 

If you are interested in learning more about Children North East’s Poverty Proofing© services and how they can help you achieve your goals for inclusive, accessible services and activities, you can visit their website or get in touch with Poverty Proofing Lead Lorna Nicoll at lorna.nicoll@children-ne.org.uk

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