Two very different museums in South Yorkshire have made it on to this year’s shortlist in the only national museum awards to be judged by the families who visit them.
Kids in Museums charity presents its big Family Friendly Museum Award annually to one museum, gallery, historic home or heritage site in the UK that goes above and beyond in welcoming children and delivering memorable experiences for families.
Sheffield’s National Emergency Services Museum and Experience Barnsley Museum and Discovery Centre have made the shortlist, after both were nominated by members of the public for their inclusive, family friendly approach.
Operated by Barnsley Council, the latter is located within Barnsley’s historic Town Hall. Billed as a museum ‘by the people, for the people and about the people’, it’s a relatively recent addition to the town, having only opened in 2013, and tells the story of life in Barnsley, giving local people a chance to explore their heritage.
“However, I think it’s also the welcome that staff provide, the range of displays that we have and how we interpret them that appeals to visitors of all ages. It’s very interactive; parts of the museum are what you might call play areas and the digital interaction on offer through the use of touch screens and videos is appealing to older children.”
As with all of the councils museums and attractions, there’s no admission fee, which is a major draw for families struggling with rising living costs.
He adds: “When you compare it with other museums, not many have such strong links with the local community. The fact that it was developed less than ten years ago also gives it an immediacy as recent generations of residents were involved in creating the displays.
“There are links with local sports teams and with key professions, such as mining and the glass industry, and I think that’s been critical to its success. Our displays are updated regularly and we also have temporary exhibitions. We find that people are now bringing items in for us to display when they clear out the attic - I think people have realised that their stories are important. Whatever profession they’ve worked in or part of the borough they live in, they can see their stories represented here.”
Ally Beckett, formal learning and access officer for Barnsley Council, agrees. “Pretty much all of the items have been donated by local people, so I think it’s the fact that you could go in there and see your grandad’s mining helmet. It’s an opportunity to share memories and learn from old generations.”
The centre is shortlisted under the Best Accessible Museum category. Ally continues: “We’ve really focused on accessibility issues, so it’s great to be nominated in that category. We offer lots of child friendly activities, such as our dress up area and role play market stall, so that children can learn through play. We have an under fives group, the Teeny Time Travellers Club, that meets weekly for themed stories and sensory activities. Since the pandemic, lots of families are coming in with two-year-olds who have not been able to go to group activities until now, so it’s a lovely experience for them.
“We also offer what we call our SENsational activities for children and young people with learning difficulties or who are neuro diverse. Lots have families have told us that there’s nothing else like this and I think one of the things that sets us apart is the way we meet the needs of different audiences. We have a Changing Places toilet, Makaton videos and there’s lots of accessibility information on the website, which many families with disabled children check before visiting.”
Unlike many of the other venues on the awards shortlist, the National Emergency Services Museum, nominated in the Best Small Museum category, is run by an independent charity and entirely self-funded. Based in The Old Police/Fire Station on West Bar in Sheffield city centre, it is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the history of the emergency services and their communities. The building dates back to 1900 and has a number of period features, including the Victorian police cells and engine house that have been preserved within the museum.
Its chief executive officer, Matthew Wakefield, explains: “We have to do the same things as the larger national museums, but we don’t get the financial support to do that. Everything is done in-house, from graphic design right through to restoring the building, so it’s absolutely amazing for us to make the shortlist.”
Matthew believes that the museum’s willingness to act upon feedback is key to its popularity among families, adding: “We listen to what the public say. Every penny counts at the moment, so there’s no point spending money on a new exhibition if it’s not something that people want.” He says: “It might make me sound like a five-year-old but I learn through play and doing, and a lot of people are the same. That’s why this museum is perfect for the young at heart.
“There are fancy things larger museums can do, but there are also a lot of simple things that they can miss. For example, we’ve used Duplo in one of our current exhibitions to provide an extra bit of interaction and we’ve added toilet training seats for families with toddlers. We’ve also put a map on the website so that people can view it before they come and know what to expect.”
Matthew and his colleagues have worked closely with the Autism Centre for Sheffield to give people with autism work experience opportunities at the museum. They’ve also introduced a ‘quiet hour’ from 4pm to 5pm on Fridays for people with additional needs. He explains: “We love that we use smoke and smells in the museum, but people with certain sensory needs sometimes want the lights on and not to be overwhelmed by different effects. Also, the fact that they can see a fire engine close up, without lights and sirens, can help them in real life.”
As the museum is housed in a historic building, providing wheelchair access to all areas is a challenge but the displays have been created in a way that ensures no-one will miss anything, and care has been taken to avoid the need for barriers and ‘do not touch’ signs.
Matthew says: “It’s the little things that make someone’s day a little easier when they come here. Everything in here has been asked for by the public; if you make a suggestion we will try to make it happen.”
Philip Mould OBE, President of Kids in Museums, said: “More than just dynamic learning, this shortlist demonstrates the unbridled delight and joy that our museums can unlock in children and families. They can be the foundations for families to connect to the world around them.”
Undercover family judges will visit the shortlisted museums. Based on their experiences, a winner will be chosen for each category, along with an overall winner of the Family Friendly Museum Award 2022, all to be announced in October.