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Engaging older people actively in museums

Jane Williams, Learning Officer at National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI), provides an insight into three projects from NMNI, which explore ways of engaging disadvantaged older people.

NMNI: Intergenerational Learning

Author: Jane Williams, Learning Officer, National Museums Northern Ireland

At National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI), we’ve been very fortunate to have had the support of the Big Lottery Fund over the past decade for three projects which explore ways of engaging disadvantaged older people in our museums.

NMNI consists of three unique sites: the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, the Ulster Museum and the Ulster American Folk Park. Across these sites we care for and present inspirational collections reflecting the creativity, innovation, history, culture and people of Northern Ireland and beyond.

Our focus has been on people who would not normally visit museums. Well-researched barriers exist for the over 50s such as cost, transport, health and mobility, and the perception that museums are not for them.  In our three projects we’ve set out to break down some of these barriers.

Live and Learn

Our first, Live and Learn project focussed on outreach - taking objects, activities and expertise out to a range of community groups - and offering opportunities for volunteering and intergenerational work. We found that half a dozen sessions, including a museum visit with transport provided, enabled groups to see that museums offered much that they could connect with and enjoy.  

‘It’s stimulating to be in a different environment.’

‘I really enjoyed the paintings. The colours lifted my mood.'

‘I learnt something new today – brilliant day.’

‘The project has brought us all together.’

Treasure House

Our second project, Treasure House, builds on this model of engagement, but responds to some of the feedback from Live and Learn: museum visits were always the highlight and the most repeated comment on evaluation forms was ‘we want more’.

So we formed a partnership with a local housing association, Clanmil, that wanted to develop more activities for their ‘sheltered housing’ or ‘independent living’ tenants. We offer groups of tenants ten monthly sessions a year over the five years of the project, and transport to the museums is provided. As always our collections are the stimulus, and creativity and active engagement are core. The impact on individual tenants is clear, with people gaining in confidence and competence as they build on existing learning, but also learn new things. The most striking impact has been on group dynamics as the shared experience creates more cohesive social groups within the housing schemes.

‘Love the museum. Chance to see wonderful things and know all about them.’

‘It makes you feel like a proper person.’

‘I like doing crafts, meeting people, doing and learning new things.’

National Museums Northern Ireland: Live Well
Live Well

Our third project Live Well, which started a year ago, is funded under the Lottery’s Accelerating Ideas funding stream and is in partnership with Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, an area with similarities to Northern Ireland. We’ve seen how our programmes have had very positive impacts on wellbeing so we are putting 5 Ways to Wellbeing at the core of our programmes, ensuring that they give people opportunities to Keep Learning, Take Notice, Connect, Give and Be Active.

We know we can make our collections and expertise – whether on seasonal customs or the Georgians, textiles or modern art - relevant and interesting to a wide range of groups, and we’re thinking about how we can reach more people with fewer resources. We have returned to the outreach model which enables us to engage a wide range of communities, and aiming to inspire people to take new steps for themselves, from developing new interests to becoming independent museum visitors. We offer follow-on workshops and free open afternoons to over 50s to all three of our museums.

Next year to disseminate our learning we’ll be partnering with regional museums in Northern Ireland and Tyne and Wear to roll out the Live Well programme, and also producing an online toolkit.

To find out more visit 

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Author: Jane Williams, Learning Officer, National Museums Northern Ireland



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