We were delighted to welcome young parents and their babies from Romsey Mill Children’s Centre to the Fitzwilliam Museum for an exciting new project: Creative Families. This is a newly-created scheme based on Arts Award which provides a framework for adults and very young children to enjoy and create art together.

We began by taking an Art Walk around the museum. I was careful not to plan this in too much detail in order that the walk could be shaped by the interests and preferences of the children and families.  In contrast to the regular toddler and baby sessions at the museum, which focus on objects and themes which are carefully chosen in advance, we wanted this course to be much more strongly shaped by the participants.  We discussed this with the adults at the outset, explaining that we would be following the babies’ lead.  I also provided a range of sensory resources for the children to explore, and to allow them additional modes of communication. This was really important as only one of the babies is walking independently, and none of them are yet speaking fluently.

I like the course because it gives me and my daughter something to do together.

As a child’s first educators, parents can be so insightful about what interests their children, and acutely attuned to their needs, but it was also important that the babies had the opportunity to express their own individuality and perhaps to surprise their parents in the unusual context of the museum.

I was delighted by the way the adults tuned in to what their children were doing and made connections with previous experiences. They paid close attention to the ways in which the babies were communicating using their bodies, gestures, eye gaze and vocalisations.

Two key themes emerged as we moved around the museum space: sound and sociability.

One of the babies repeatedly held the  resources to her mouth and made sounds into them to hear the effect. She tried this with bowls, baskets and called loudly as we entered a new gallery, experimenting with the new acoustics, particularly when in the high-ceilinged entrance hall.

Others in the group were intrigued by sound too, with one baby shaking a rattle enthusiastically, comparing the effect with what happened when he tried the same movement with other items from the discovery basket.  Another of the young participants explored the texture of surfaces and the density of materials by tapping and scraping his fingers on them, discovering the different possibilities of the same stimulus.

Sharing the space with others was a really important part of the experience.   We noticed and remarked on the ways that the babies sought other others to make connections with, whether this was exploring circles, spheres and curves by rolling wicker balls to each other, recalling familiar activities such as mixing in a bowl to establish a connection with home, or observing other babies to inspire new ideas.

A chance to get out, have fun and meet new people

We reflected on our experience by talking together, recording significant moments in our Creative Families journal, and adding our marks to a giant-sized floor map of the museum showing some key objects. We brought some of the individual experiences together, and decided that based on what we had observed, music and sound should be a key focus of the next visit.

None of the babies are yet two years old. However, they demonstrated high levels of engagement, experimentation, curiosity and meaning-making when confronted with the museum objects and spaces. These are competent museum visitors, with experiences to share, and ideas to communicate, and as museum practitioners we must learn how to hear these voices. Seeing their parents advocate for and mediate their babies’ expressions and interests was absolutely beautiful too. We are all looking forward to the next session very much. Watch this space to see what we all get up to!

The Creative Families Award was developed by Dr Abigail Hackett for Cape UK and has been piloted in East Riding Museums Service, Rotherham Museums Service, Heritage Learning Hull and North Lincolnshire Museums.  We have really benefited from learning about this pilot project and are excited to be bringing the award into a new region for the first time.

With thanks to Alison Ayres and Nathan Huxtable, Education Assistants at Fitzwilliam Museum and Ben Wilkes, Young Parents’ Worker at Romsey Mill Children’s Centre for their help in supporting the project.

If you would like to know more, please contact Nicola Wallis at Fitzwilliam Museum.