Recently, Learning & Participation Consultant Ashleigh caught up (virtually) with Lucy Turner, Early Years Producer at The Whitworth Art Gallery.

October 6, 2020
Photo of the author - Ashleigh Hibbins

Ashleigh Hibbins

Ashleigh and Lucy chatted about what the Whitworth and other Manchester museums have been doing to engage babies and their families during lockdown, and how cultural venues can be more welcoming to this important but often overlooked audience.

Don’t have time to read the full interview? Here are seven top takeaways from the conversation:

  1. Early years programming is as valuable for parents/carers as it is for the children.

  2. When you make your venue and programming more welcoming to families, you make it more welcoming to everyone.

  3. Instead of lumping all early years programming together under a ‘0 to 5-year-olds’ banner, create targeted activities tailored to development stages such as non-walkers and walkers.

  4. Think outside of the craft box: child-led, play-based experiences are much more accessible and appealing to young children than sit down craft activities.

  5. There’s a huge underserved need for activities for babies under 1 year; parents and carers on parental leave are actively seeking out these activities.

  6. A lot of good early years engagement is making families feel comfortable and welcome in the space by showing you’ve considered their practical needs.

  7. Embracing early years audiences is an investment in the future; the babies visiting your venue today are the adult audiences, supporters, donors, volunteers, and policy makers of tomorrow.

The interview in full...

Ashleigh: The Whitworth is often seen as the gold standard for baby and early years engagement. What do you think has been the secret to its success?

Lucy: When we first developed our early years programming, we started off thinking it was simply for the babies. We were really thinking about brain development, cognitive connections and sensory play. But weve realized the sessions are just as much for the adults – having a supportive network of other people who have similar aged babies, to feel you’re not on your own. Being a parent/ carer of a young baby is quite a vulnerable time, and it can be really lonely. Parents/carers want to speak to other people, so coming to The Whitworth forms a part of the structure of their day, and becomes a drop-in stay and play like at libraries or childrens centres. People who have engaged with our programmes have made really good friends. Getting out of the house and being somewhere stimulating, where you’re surrounded by works of art is really beneficial to parents/carers, even if the baby sleeps or feeds the whole session.

We created Early Years Mondays for that reason, when we schedule baby and toddler sessions on the same day. On Mondays there are hundreds of babies and toddlers around, pushchairs and noise everywhere. It means the whole building is really geared up for that audience on that day. It also allows us to communicate better to other visitors – if you want a quiet experience, avoid Mondays.

We get almost 200 babies and toddlers coming to those sessions. Its just a great vibe. As soon as the families walk in they think this is for me!” rather than feeling on edge or unwelcome. Then they are more likely to come back, and tell friends about it.

Were quite lucky because The Whitworth as a whole organisation understands why early years engagement matters. So, if we do get a complaint, the Visitor Experience team are supported and equipped to answer it.

Most people actually love seeing babies and young children in the galleries. It makes them feel more comfortable making noise too, even if they don’t have a baby. Everyone feels like it’s a more casual space. Even school groups love walking past the babies, that makes them feel at ease.

Engagement with early years is a gold standard for interpretation and programming more generally if you can interest a toddler, you can interest anyone because toddlers are the hardest critics! They’ll just walk away or tell you exactly what they think!

A: How is the Whitworth evolving its approach to baby and early years engagement during Covid? Where do you see the future heading?

L: When lockdown happened we moved our messy play Early Years Atelier sessions online – the Atelier at Home. Every Monday, we suggested ways in which you can set up your own atelier-type space with instructions and photos and shared on social media. This term we’re running live play sessions via Zoom once a month.

We gotten loads of engagement – we had 100 families join us on Zoom for the live play sessions. Things have been really well received, families are keen to have new ideas for activities, especially with materials that are easy to get a hold of like ice or mud. We’ll just continue to experiment until we can get back in the building.

A: How does your work with babies and early years feed into the Whitworth’s wider audience development work and strategy?

L: Early years has been a priority audience for us since 2012. We pride ourselves on being one of the leaders in the field for babies in museums. As the rest of the sector is catching up, we are now trying to push ourselves that little bit further. As a Manchester partnership (The Whitworth, Manchester Museum and Manchester Art Gallery) we want to be an Early Years Centre for Excellence.

We’re looking to widen what the programming might be. Last year at the Whitworth we launched a programme around baby loss called Still Parentsart workshops for anyone who has experienced the loss of a baby during pregnancy or just after birth. We want to make sure we cover all areas of parenthood and that includes loss. We’re working towards an exhibition showcasing the work produced in these sessions to create a platform to open up conversations about what is still a really taboo subject. These sessions are in partnership with the charity Sands.

Manchester Museum run a programme called Musobaby for parents experiencing Post Natal Depression, working in partnership with health visitors in Manchester, and providing music sessions for parents.

Manchester Art Gallery run Healthy Child drop in sessions, in partnership with the local Surestart Children's Centre. Health Visitors use the gallery spaces to do weigh-ins, help parents with feeding problems, and provide general support for local families with new babies. Imagine having your baby weighed in front of an amazing art masterpiece!

In Manchester we want our work to be more useful, impactful, and tackle social issues within the city and nationally rather than simply running nice baby sessions. We want to take our work with babies to the next level. Our Early Years provision is becoming much more embedded within the wider museum work, feeding into exhibitions, design, interpretation and programming. We’re not just the ‘crafts people’ anymore, Early Years is actually seen as an early audience development and community building intervention.

People have realized the impact that art and culture can have on health. Our baby sessions are a lifeline for parents. These sessions are doing something powerful, theyre not just cute. Theres a lot more to them than people first realised.

A: Many organisations offer programming billed for ‘early years’, but they are often still inaccessible to younger babies and toddlers. Why do you think this is?

L: A lot of early years programming lumps 0 to 5-year-olds together, whereas we distinguish the difference by development rather than age. We have sessions specifically for non-walkers and walkers. Non-walking babies need relaxed, stationary experiences. When you mix the two groups together, we found younger babies have more of a passive experience because carers don’t want babies to get trodden on by toddler. We run the non-walking babies sensory play sessions in the gallery spaces themselves which allows the babies and the grown-ups to soak up the environment of a gallery.

We set out rugs with lots of sensory and tactile objects in front of artworks and in the middle of exhibitions. There is no minimum age for our sessions we say to parents/carers that just coming into a different building with different sounds, lights, smells is enough for a young baby, and as they get older they will start to interact more with the objects.

Early Years programming roles in museums are often jumbled in with families in general. The fact that we have a specialist position is quite unique. My job straddles informal and formal learning – drop in family sessions, but also nursery and reception classes.

I think the sector is still quite scared of early years children people are nervous of doing the wrong thing. They are quite a hard audience to engage in some ways, so workers in those family roles often focus on children aged 5 and up. But they are actually such a rewarding audience to work with and let’s not forget – they are our next generation of museum visitors. If we engage them early then museums and galleries will become part of their lives forever.

A: What advice would you give to organisations that want to improve and increase their engagement with babies and early years?

L: There’s such a big audience need and desire for baby sessions, especially under-1s. You’ve got parents on maternity and parental leave actively looking for things to do, so it’s a captive audience ready and waiting. It’ll start small but spread via word of mouth quickly.

Think beyond craft drop-ins. We used to include a craft activity but what you actually find is adults make the craft, and children have a very passive experience because they cant do a lot of it themselves. So, I introduced child-led play-based sessions where we set up environments, and then the child leads the way rather than the adult. That’s the focus you need for those ages.

Put across the message that the early years audience is important to your organisation. Doing anything to suggest that they’re welcome is better than nothing. It might be you have few picnic rugs and objects that babies could pick up and play with. We always have nappies and wipes in baby changing areas, so people can see we’re thinking of them and their needs. Even just a sign in the toilets saying you have emergency supplies at the front desk can be so important to families. You probably won’t get through as many as you think, but the people who do need them will be forever grateful. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small but valuable gesture.

Other important things are quiet spaces designated for infant feeding (whilst still making clear people can breast or bottle feed anywhere in your venue), and space for buggy parking. It’s about basic, practical things make people feel welcome.

If you’re worried about young children touching artworks, I’d challenge you to ask your Front of House team. They’ll probably tell you that adults are far worse in terms of touching and breaking things than children. The fear of early years in cultural venues isn’t evidence-based, it’s perception.

Funding for Children’s Centres is being cut and we find more and more closures – we as museums have a responsibility to pick up some of that community provision. Our buildings are places for people and they need to be used for civic purpose. By investing in your early years audience now, you invest in your museums future.

For more top tips, check out Lucy’s blog on Babies in Museums and our previous TLD posts on the why and how of early years engagement.

Author note: We’re happy to announce that The Whitworth has re-opened, for the time being, to visitors big and small.