Relaxed Santa: reaching out to children with additional needs – and their carers

Every year, Abbey House Museum runs ‘meet Santa’ sessions for local children. These can be vibrant, boisterous and hectic sessions, and are immensely popular, but can also be overwhelming for some – particularly for children with additional needs.

We are always at pains to communicate with people who attend our events, and after hearing from parents and carers about the challenges this group experienced, we hit upon the idea of running ‘relaxed Santa’ sessions over Christmas 2014 that they could book to attend with their children.

We ran these sessions when the museum was closed to general visitors, so that we didn’t have to worry about crowds or about non-booked-in people wanting to take part. We also took Santa out of his usual grotto, and located him at the top of our Victorian street. This was so children could choose to approach Santa as and when they wanted to.

We also provided a quiet room, sensory toys, books and some simple craft activities, so that there was a whole package of support in addition to Santa himself.

In all, 29 children with additional needs visited, along with 17 siblings and 33 parents and carers.

The sessions worked really well. The young people got to take part in a Christmas activity they would often have felt excluded from previously. We could see on their faces how much they enjoyed the sessions, but we also got a great deal of very positive feedback from the parents and carers themselves.

We have been running this scheme every Christmas since the success of the first event!

How volunteering with museums improves wellbeing

Kirklees volunteering

There is a wealth of anecdotal information telling us that volunteering with museums is great for the health and wellbeing of participants. There is a lot less well-evidenced data to support this.

In Kirklees, we have a long history of involving volunteers and working closely with our Friends organisations. Our Volunteers play an increasingly important role in supporting our staff as we face significant budget cuts. We have also been looking at the role our museums can play in early intervention and prevention of mental ill health. By expanding our volunteer programme, we thought we could address both issues.

Our volunteers have the opportunity to work behind the scenes with our collections team, to research and develop new learning resources or work outdoors with the rangers at our country park.

We commissioned the Audience Agency to evaluate the impact of our programme on the health and wellbeing of our volunteers, and to look specifically at any unique attributes of volunteering in a museum or cultural setting. We also asked them to look at how we can make volunteering with Kirklees Museums and Galleries more attractive. They conducted their survey with our Museum Friends and volunteers, together with in-depth interviews with individuals, and before and after surveys with some of our newer recruits.

The key findings so far show that volunteers are reporting significantly increased wellbeing, which they attribute to their work with us. Two thirds have also reported increased physical activity as a result of their role. There have also been strong indications of increased self-confidence and positivity.

The report also shows that over the last 12 months our volunteers have delivered over 8000 hours of activity with an economic value of nearly £90,000.

Some of the stories of our volunteers are already being used as part of a new recruitment and advocacy video and in December 2016, we anticipate receiving more detailed information about their experiences from our in-depth interviews.

Museums and mental illness

Working with in-patients in east Leeds


A novel initiative by Leeds Museums and Galleries’ education team, working with in-patients at a secure mental health unit in East Leeds has been having great results.

Since November 2015, we have been visiting the Newsam Centre at Seacroft Hospital, east Leeds. The centre provides services for people with a range of mental health issues requiring in-patient care. In our visits, we take a selection of objects on a theme such as Ancient Egypt, the Stone Age or Leeds history, and provide opportunities for participants to handle and talk about them.

We got such great feedback from working with patients at the centre’s general ward that doctors and nurses asked us to run a session with patients in Ward 2 – the Leeds Low Secure Service. These patients have significant mental illnesses whereby they form a risk to themselves or others.

We delivered our first session to Ward 2 in early October 2016. This followed some detailed discussion with staff of the unit about what would be safe and suitable objects to bring for an hour-long session about Ancient Egypt.

We were amazed at how well the session went and the feedback we got from both patients and staff. Attendance was high, and the ward staff told us they had never before seen such good levels of engagement with a session – engagement both with the objects and each other. Patient behaviour was also very good, even though many of them were experiencing conditions which often make their behaviour very challenging.

As a result, and with the active encouragement of staff at the centre, we are now planning a number of follow-up sessions. The scheme is still very much in its infancy, but we are very keen to evaluate how long the benefits of the sessions last and whether there is any beneficial cumulative impact for participants.

Museums mean business in Kirklees

Working with local private sector employers to invigorate our business style


Johnstone’s Paint, based in Birstall, and part of the global PPG Industries group, is a major local employer and supporter of Kirklees Museums.

Johnstone’s have had informal links with Oakwell Hall for some time, because they have recognised its value for the health and wellbeing of their staff. They have generously provided funding for community programmes, and volunteers for some much-needed maintenance work at the hall.

More recently we approached them, asking if in addition to their welcome financial support, they might allow us to tap into some of their business and commercial expertise. This is a valuable skillset which can be difficult to acquire for people working in the cultural sector.

This involved one day of site visits and one day looking at how some of their processes and approaches might be adapted to our own needs.

We also learned a lot about their use of quick and effective communication and empowering staff at all levels. Given the current local government environment and our pressing need to maintain great services with reduced funding, this has been invaluable.

We took away ideas from the sessions and have applied them to our own projects. We have also shared our progress with friends in Johnstone’s for ongoing feedback. This has deepened and enriched our relationship with an important local employer, while also nourishing the morale and sense of empowerment of our own staff, as well as our approach to how we engage with visitors and customers into the future.

Christmas at Abbey House for children in care

abbey-house-christmas-children-in-care-2016In December 2016, Abbey House Museum, Leeds hosted a special Christmas celebration for the city’s children in care. This followed on from a toy appeal which they had been running for the previous six months.

As a community museum, with regular displays of Leeds social history and contemporary collecting, Abbey House has always recognised the importance of reaching out to all sections of the local community. They thought that community Christmas event for children in care would be a great way of building on this tradition.

Staff at the museum worked with local councillors and community associations, as well as the Child Friendly Leeds campaign to run the toy appeal. Toy boxes for the community to donate toys were hosted at the museum and at local businesses. They also involved employers like Lloyds Bank, Jet2, CEG and Leeds City College, who between them provided hundreds of toys and over £1000 in cash.

The Christmas celebration was held at Abbey House in December 2016. 180 children and young people aged 0-18 attended with their carers. The children were all from residential homes, foster homes or other permanent care arrangements.

The event included a tour of the museum, a chance to see Santa, performances from local bands who the museum has worked with in the past, craft activities, choir performances and even a magician. Local traders from our monthly deli market provided the food. The centrepiece was the toy room, where we had piled up all the donated toys, arranged into age bands, for the children to select their own gifts.

The children had a great time, and it was clear at the time and from the feedback we subsequently received, how moved both they and their carers were. For many, it was their first visit to a museum, and we know that many of them will be return visitors. We were particularly keen to ensure they knew how to use their Max cards, which provide free or discounted entry to attractions for children in care, for foster families and families of children with additional needs.

We are already working with Leeds fostering services to bring back smaller groups for more targeted engagements over the coming year.

Bringing back Calderdale Industrial Museum

A whole-community effort to re-open the Calderdale Industrial Museum


After 17 years in mothballs, the Calderdale Industrial Museum is re-opening to the public in early 2017, thanks to a ground-breaking partnership between Calderdale Council and the volunteer-run Calderdale Industrial Museum Association.

The Calderdale Industrial Museum originally opened in 1986 to wide acclaim and support from the local community. In 1987 it was awarded “Best Museum of Industrial & Social History”. It had a strong story to tell about Halifax’s industrial past as the ‘town of 100 trades’ and had a strong focus on textile production throughout Calderdale.

However, by the late 1990s, it was struggling against the increased costs of keeping the building and collections open and maintaining visitor interest. The service was gradually reduced, until in November 2000, it was closed.

The museum’s collections were retained in situ and the museum service continued to preserve them after closure. Many were integral to the building, so there was no easy solution for their disposal.

While in many ways unavoidable, the closure of the industrial museum was felt with a great sense of loss by residents and visitors to Halifax and Calderdale. Calderdale Council was frequently approached by people asking for its return.

In 2010, the first serious discussions were held about finding a way of re-opening the museum under new ownership. In 2011, the Calderdale Industrial Museum Association (CIMA) had its first meeting.

CIMA is a voluntary group whose members were campaigning for the re-opening of the museum. Many of them have experience of working on Calderdale Museums’ industrial collections as volunteers as well as experience and skills from working in industry.

Between us, we were able to restore many of the items in the industrial collection and even arrange occasional well-attended open days. These proved so successful that we were able to demonstrate a public demand for an industrial museum in Halifax.

We then decided to look at how such a museum could be reopened and run by volunteers. We considered a number of potential mechanisms, including a community asset transfer or for the museum to be owned by us and staffed by volunteers.

None of these were quite suitable, so instead, we developed what we think is a unique agreement whereby CIMA leases the building from Calderdale for a peppercorn rent. They are given a grant equivalent to the running costs of maintaining the building as a closed store. In return, they have a licence to operate and open the building to the public and have been loaned the in situ collections.

We faced many challenges along the way, not least the costs of repairing the building, but despite this, the new museum was given the final go-ahead and transfer in August 2016. It is now due to open to the public in early 2017 at around the same time as the refurbished Piece Hall and central library. It will form part of the Halifax central cultural sector.

The whole process with its many complexities, pitfalls and hurdles is a testament to the desire of people from all sectors of Calderdale to make an industrial museum a viable proposition. Challenges still remain, but CIMA is already pursuing full accreditation for their service. It shows how, if the collections can be preserved, eventually, there is hope that they can be re-opened to public access.

Museums and Mental Health

How Bradford’s museums are helping volunteers with mental health issues into work

Bradford Museums and Galleries have a strong volunteer programme with over 100 active participants.

Many of these are retired and not seeking paid employment. However, we also work with many much younger volunteers, who would like to find paid work, but for various reasons, lack the skills and confidence to do so.

One such group is people with mental health issues. We have been keen to include them in our volunteer programme, and we have been working with the Cellar Trust – a locally-based charity which helps people who have mental health problems with their rehabilitation.

We believe that everyone has to potential to bring skills which can benefit our organisation, and that learning to work with people whose behaviour can sometimes be challenging can be a positive learning experience for our staff.

The Cellar Trust introduced us to William – a man in his 30s, who has Aspergers.

William was able to volunteer to help on an important collections documentation project. This work can be repetitive, but also requires high levels of concentration, focus and accuracy in describing and recording details of objects in our collection onto a database.

William was able to put a lot of his personal qualities to good use in this work, while also getting used to life in a working environment. We got through a big chunk of our documentation backlog with his help. Gavin, our collections manager, who supervised him, gained a lot of valuable experience of adapting the requirements of his work programme to the needs of individual volunteers, and also how best to engage with support workers.

We have been able to use our experience of working with William to improve the quality of our evaluation tools, so that we can be more responsive to the needs of our diverse volunteer base.

Following his time with us, William has gone on to achieve his first ever paid job, working on large and complex databases for Bradford College. He believes that the skills and confidence he gained whilst volunteering with us have been directly responsible for his success.

We are continuing to work with the Cellar Trust to support more people like William through our volunteer programme.

Volunteering at Wakefield Museums

Building a new volunteer programme from scratch for Wakefield’s museums and castles


Between 2012 and 2014, Wakefield Museums were unable to maintain a volunteer programme, due to a combination of a high level of organisational change and the relocation of museum sites.

However, in 2014, with support from Museum Development Yorkshire, they put together a brand new volunteer programme, working with York CVS.

Because Wakefield Museums do not have a volunteer manager, they needed to develop a programme which would operate satisfactorily without one. This meant that instead of recruiting a pool of volunteers, they recruited to individual or specific projects.

Now, whenever a member of their museums team needs volunteer support for a project, they put together a role description for that specific purpose and then recruit short-term volunteers to assist.

For their castles, they have taken a slightly different approach. At Pontefract Castle, they have the benefit of HLF-funding for four years, which includes support for a volunteer co-ordinator. The co-ordinator is currently developing a longer-term programme for a number of volunteer roles including an events assistant, customer services (which include visitor guides and front-of-house) grounds maintenance and administration, using the museum-developed structure of defined volunteer roles.  This approach will help to promote sustainability after the end of the funded project.

A four year project

The four year project aims to recruit 40 volunteers over its lifetime, and has already attracted 19 recruits from a range of ages and sectors of Wakefield’s diverse communities. These roles complement rather than aim to replace the work of paid staff and the museum service works to ensure that the volunteers gain the skills and experience that they desire from volunteering.

An evaluation of the volunteering programme shows it is demonstrating its valuable role in developing important skills and engaging diverse communities in the life of Wakefield’s castles and museums.

They believe this approach is an innovative and effective way of creating a sustainable volunteer programme, which will continue to benefit us through the coming years.