This is a post that I have been meaning to write for a while. Sometimes, it’s hard to find a time to sit and reflect, so I have carved out some time to stop and think and share. Since starting at Towner Art Gallery, I have focused a lot on developing our Early Years offer and our audience. Tiny Towner is the name of our Early Years Group, and we’re currently on what I like to think of as version 3.0
A bit of background…
Version 1.0 is what I inherited. There was some lower tables, some small chairs and pencils, paper and templates. It… allowed plenty of room for growth. I began to work with our local Children’s Centre almost immediately, and after a period of experimentation, moved into version 2.0, which was a lot more interesting, and looked something like this.
In November 2015, I organised a Toddler Takeover Day as part of the Takeover Day initiative coordinated by Kids in Museums to allow the children and their families to evaluate our efforts and help us move forward. What I learned boiled down to this: they loved what we were doing; they wanted more.
Alas, various internal changes meant that version 3.0 was a bit delayed in its arrival. Along came the summer, and, with new Head of Learning in place, we decided to go BIG on Early Years.
And we got BIG results.
The audience for Tiny Towner had been growing steadily since we started working with our local Children’s Centres. As the quality of our offer improved and we developed stronger links with the Centre, word of mouth spread. Month by month, as I totted up the figures in my spreadsheet, we would notice a growth. Sometimes it would be small, but it would still be there. I did, however, feel like we could be doing more.
As the summer months approached, I looked back at the numbers for summer 2015; they showed a significant drop. Could it be because a lot of the activity was on the ground floor away from the group? Could it be that there were other places to go? Could it be that we were no match for the sunshine – let’s be honest, which museum or gallery is?
Something needed to be done. So we decided to have some fun and start experimenting again. Being a seaside gallery, with a work exploring the sea on display, it seemed like a no-brainer to theme our offer around – what else?- the sea.
What we did
On a practical level, we did several things – we expanded into both educational spaces to allow for a range of activities, we expanded the timings to 10.30-13.00 to allow for children’s daily routine (and to gauge optimal times) and we expanded what we offered to include a stronger emphasis on sensory play, story time, messy play, dressing up and additional activities as inspiration struck and the theme allowed.
— TownerLearning (@TownerLearning) August 2, 2016
This tweet, incidentally, is one of the most popular ones @TownerLearning has ever sent.
— TownerLearning (@TownerLearning) August 9, 2016
Things didn’t always go swimmingly. We did get very busy, very busy. We had already expanded into two rooms (each with a distinct set of activities), so when numbers exceeded comfortable levels in both, we did what we could to make things easier. (Oh, what a problem to have, right?).
My personal highlight was making a fishing game using magnets, paper, paperclips, string and paint brushes for our Boats and Fishes week.
The Learning team also worked closely with marketing to spread the word in the most effective places, such as Facebook groups that share information about local events, and leaflet drops in strategic locations.
Did it work?
Yes. Over the course of the summer, we saw more children and their grown ups attend Tiny Towner than we did throughout all of the previous year. I was immensely proud, and utterly exhausted all at once. Looking the results of our sign-in survey, Tiny Towner had brought 30% new audience to the gallery! As well as encouraging a high % of repeat visitors. An incredible result!
The work with marketing had paid off, as our printed media was a strong referrer, but nowhere as strong as the word of mouth recommendations. I think the crowning glory was the glowing recommendation on that Holy Grail of parenting websites, Mumsnet.
Stats and quantifiable data aside, our experiments were a massive success on so many other levels. Personally, it reignited my creativity for planning sessions and the compliments we got from the parents about the activities did wonders for my ego (and the gallery’s reputation).
It also allowed my team to work more closely together, and introduce other members of Learning to the wonder of working with Early Years. The skill-sharing, and the cleaning up together over a cup of tea helped us to bond.
Between us, we discovered an almost-magic formula, which I like to think of as our 4 Ms – Making, Messy Play, Imagination and Stories. If a session had all four of these in it, it worked particularly well.
So, after the summer of experimenting, we’re on version 3.0 of Tiny Towner. We have kept the expanded space, the expanded activities but we have cut down the time by 30 mins. Moving forward, we are working on making closer links to what’s on display in the galleries (as we have an ever changing exhibition cycle, this will be quite the challenge!) and of course, we’re trying to keep the momentum going!
I wonder what version 4.0 will look like?