A series of arts events between October and December 2016. Funded primarily by Arts Council England, with additional funds provided by Swindon 175 and through revenue from events.
The museum has traditionally only been open in the summer months, but we are really keen to open up as often as possible. This Arts Council funded project enabled us to spend three months exploring how we could use the arts in our various environments - the museum itself, its gardens, the local country park, and even other places, such as schools.
This page contains our evaluation of the project, but the essence of what we achieved, and what people thought of it, is encapsulated in the following video by film-maker Jaime Bullock. It says it all much better than we can...
2. The Project Plan
We wanted to invite visual artists, performance groups, musicians and writers to engage with our environment and with audiences and participants, particularly young people, over the autumn and winter. Our plan was to create an indoor-outdoor creative arts centre working with the natural world and responding to our collections of the books and stories of Richard Jefferies. The project had three elements: development, activity, and evaluation.
Our gardens are exciting and engaging. We aimed to be creative in these spaces, bringing to life the visual traces of story and hidden worlds to as many people as possible. Initially we invested time and effort (mostly volunteer) in making our outdoor spaces into places where we could engage people in arts activities: clearance of foliage, weeds, nettles; creation of natural outdoor classroom; building of benches using local woods; adding lighting for evening use; moving tons of wood chip coverage; and fencing off out of bounds areas. To make the outdoor element work fully, we also purchased wet weather clothing (since many of our target audience come from less privileged areas and often turn up inappropriately dressed for outdoor activity) and the necessary materials, storage and equipment.
As the project developed, we learned more and more that there is a real need to encourage families and individuals to enjoy being outside in all weathers, to discover a love of art in nature & story through play and friendship. At the Richard Jefferies Museum, we are constantly realizing that we hold a wealth of opportunities to develop an arts programme that not only honours the story-maps, philosophies, environment, and collections left behind by nature writer Richard Jefferies, but to address some serious issues within our community. Recently in The Guardian (Sally Weale - 25th December, 2016) reported on:
“The decline of outdoor play, increasingly screen-based lifestyles, a hyper-competitive schooling system and the unremitting commercialisation of childhood.”
The project has helped to confirm that our little museum can play a real part in addressing such issues and that we can create an ongoing arts programme that will be necessary and engaging to many people.
The activities we ran were: weekly Wellie Walk Arts Sessions for under 5’s and their families; 6 outdoor art sessions for children and families using different themes (all inspired by Richard Jefferies’ works) plus natural habitats and materials to create art; 4 sessions with the Alzheimer’s Society to offer arts sessions to people suffering from dementia using materials from the museum that celebrate being outside; 6 writing sessions for beginners and emerging adult writers; 6 sessions of creative writing for young people from schools we have working relationships with; 6 arts sessions for young people with disabilities; 2 storytelling/dance events from performance artists; craft-making/sculpture/ceramics using materials found on site; live viola music at three of our events; development of a small group to create and perform music inspired by the open air.
“Good to be outside for part of event. Totally different from any other activity. Great fun.”
Via Survey Monkey.
“The welly walks are just as engaging for my 3-year-old as my 18-month-old, with a familiar story tailored to the history of the museum by the enchanting Hilda. We really appreciate the ability to get outside even if the weather is rubbish, and we quickly warm up during the singing and dancing inside. The craft time is a great opportunity to get creative with the children - at home I'm generally too busy worrying about how much glitter the dog is eating!”
- Wellie Walks. We have had such positive feedback regarding our Wellie Walks. The audience has been consistent and developing rapidly. Families requested the sessions continue and expressed their gratitude for filling a need for different kinds of activity such as this.
- Halloween. 24th October Magic Monday: A Halloween Run-Around and Viola Adventure, open to the public and complete with themed craft events, songs, viola music and (not too) scary stories.
- Music and Poetry. Throughout October & November - five sessions introducing different musia and poetry, especially designed for Special Educational Needs students at St Joseph’s Catholic College, with artists: Jon Buckett, Brendan Hamley, Aidan Sheehan & Hilda Sheehan.
- Creative Journaling.19th November - A one-off class for adults led by artist Jill Carter, in which participants learned completely fresh, creative ideas about how to present diary information. The class was so successful, that several more have been booked in for the year ahead.
- Memory Cafe. For seniors with disabilities, a session with poetry & music with poet Cristina Newton, viola player Rachael Birkin, & Hilda Sheehan.
- Art Cafe. Another session for elders, but this time for those without disabilities, via Extra Time (Swindon Town Football Club's community work). Attendees learned about Richard Jefferies and his work, and enjoyed/joined in with live music.
- Our World. Ouside playdate for 5 to 9 years.
- Tree Dressing Party. With Le Bicyclettes performance artists, Hilda Sheehan, & Suzie Simmons.
- Poetry. Throughout October & November - four poetry sessions with new audiences from well-being groups, low-income and people with mental health issues as well as more advanced writers. The diversity of this group worked well.
- Awards. Two artists gained Arts Awards Training to help us deliver more Arts Awards to young people.
Through our own experience, we created our own reflections and evaluations and have also used the Arts Council England advise sheets to keep us up to date. We also have a strong ethos of recording everything as much as possible, through word of mouth, photography, social media and video, including the engagement of a dedicated photographer to help us keep strong (and beautiful) visual records. This means that we always have a mass of evidence of what we have done and what our visitors think of it – perfect for evaluating our work.
We are also fortunate to have had input from a professional media adviser, who has many years’ experience in creating evaluation reports that not only tell others what has been achieved, but are also very astute for telling us where things have not worked so well and where there may be areas that we could develop further. However, as well as the text and images in this report, we felt that a visual record was teh most appropriate way to catch something so visual as this project. Consequently, we engaged an artist and film-maker, Jaime Bullock, to make a film that captured most of the activity along with feedback from participants. We also felt this would be useful to develop our digital plan, for sharing what we do with a wider audience. As you can see from the film at the top of the page.
3. Our Conclusions
The Open Air project has been key to our future development, allowing us to test a number of different approcahes to working with the arts in our different environments, inside and out, and in any weather. By utilising the spaces we have, plus establishing the arts as a primary element of our business/development model, we have brought fresh life to a local arts establishment that has for too long been underused and undervalued.
We have now used the grounds of the museum in all weathers, and as such we are creating a new type of arts venue in the town. The success of the three month project has shown that we have opportunities to be open more often, reach different audiences, offer more varied activities, stimulate different ways of creativity and thinking, give local artists new challenges and chances to engage, and reach out to other places (e.g. schools, community centres) in new and exciting ways. The project has also led to increased awareness of the museum and, as we are already finding, to more people coming to find out what we do.
Our aim is to now formalize an annual programme and to share the word of what we do even wider, one that will engage a wide range of people and is diverse, creative and friendly. Underlying this will be a business plan, based on the evidence of this project, that is authentic to what we are trying to achieve, and that works with our ethos, enthusiasm and passion. The questions for us at the beginning of the project were:
Do families want to engage with arts outside, in all-weathers? If so, for how long?
Discovery: They certainly do. Timings were controlled by reacting to participant response (what the parents told us in the case of smaller children), which meant having flexible and reactive timetables.
Will our spaces, in the winter, work for new audiences, e.g. under 5’s, elders, artists?
Discovery: Overall, the differing events worked well, but some adapting took place and, as a consequnce, we know we need to develop our indoor spaces to be appropriate for each audience type when the weathre becomes very severe. This will include devloing our outbuildings which are currently underused.
What happens when it rains?
Discovery: For smaller children, parents generally came very well prepared and liked the idea of getting their children used to wet weather. Also, our wet weather gear has greatly increased our capacity to accomodate children. However, as above, we do need to make sure our indoor spaces are fit for purpose.
How can we develop these spaces?
Discovery: Weather issues create extra safety issues (slippery paths etc.), and need different risk assessments, which we have now developed. Inside, collections need to be considered in light of wet visitors, and because radiators need to be on, radiator covers are required to avoid accidents. Initially we had intended to make tables and benches outdoors with local wood. However, because of the need to move indoors at times, in the end we bought foldable tables that are solid enough for outdoor and indoor use. We still built ourdoor benches, and they are designed to work with the tables.
What infrastructure do we need?
Discovery: Using outdoor spaces as well as indoors means more mud and more mess. Consequently, we have developed a much more robust cleaning schedule. Plus, in light of the effect of colder weather, we have also developed plans for improving our hospitality (hot drinks etc.). This has a secondary advantage of increasing our revenue.
How will our marketing and audience development do?
Most of the events we ran were full, and, as the three month project went on, there were more and more requests for the events to carry on after the project was finished. This indicated that our marketing, particularly through social media, has been a great success. As a result, we have now pushed forward with plans for a digital strategy, including the creation of this website, and embraced ideas like Tripadvisor and Facebook ranking.
How will staff, volunteers and artists feel about the project?
Tired but very happy, and looking forward to an exciting year of more events, more arts, and more people joining in!