The Arts Pioneers is a monthly Saturday club based at the Fitzwilliam Museum that encourages disabled young people to be inspired by the richly diverse arts and science collections of the eight University of Cambridge Museums and the Botanic Garden. The club is for young people aged 11-15, who are eligible for Short Breaks funding.

The University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) have won a Cambridgeshire County Council tender to deliver an activity club for young people aged 11-16 who have physical and learning disabilities.

The group are called the Arts Pioneers. They attend the Fitzwilliam Museum on the first Saturday of every month, and then rotate around the museums and Botanic Garden for holiday sessions. We take a different part of the collections and explore it using a different art forms. So far, we have explored the Fitzwilliam’s Degas exhibition using dance and sketching, the Botanic Garden using photography and the Polar Museum using animation.

I developed this project after seeing the results of the audience development research. We had very low attendance numbers for disabled visitors. In 2015, 7% of our visitors were disabled. I felt it was important for the UCM’s Children and Young People programme to try and do something aimed at young people with disabilities.

Why was there a need?

  • Children and young people with disabilities are underrepresented in our audience, compared with local demographics.
  • There is a gap in targeted provision for children and young people with disabilities across the UCM partnership.
  • Cambridgeshire County Council identified a shortage of cultural provision within the Short Breaks offer.

How did we get funding?

I applied for a Cambridgeshire County Council tender to run an activity club for young people requiring short breaks funding.

Short Breaks Duty offers…

  • Disabled children and young people enjoyable experiences away from their primary carers, contributing to their personal and social development and reducing social isolation
  • Parents and families a necessary and valuable break from caring responsibilities
  • Families with disabled children support to enable them to do more things together as a family.

We won the tender and that means we have two support workers recruited and an artist at every session. Winning the tender was important as it’s a more sustainable source of funding (including statutory services) It also means we:

  • Work with more diverse and new audiences
  • Align the Museums with local core priorities

There of course have been challenges, from working out parking issues to recruitment. The Pioneers started out as an after school club but we were struggling to recruit. After speaking to some parents and the Council, we took the decision to move the club to a Saturday. We now have 5 young people enrolled as Pioneers but, due to the nature of the group, don’t always have everyone in attendance.

The feedback from both parents and participants has been very positive:

“Previously he was not able to go to any of the arts based children’s projects offered at the museums because of his special needs and I’m really grateful that this side of Cambridge has opened up to him. Arrangements for the sessions have been well planned and he has been able to try different mediums like painting, animation and photography.” – Parent of participant

“The sessions have helped with his confidence, he can very anxious about trying new activities and working with new people but the staff have been so friendly and interested in what he’s doing he is more relaxed and more willing to let people know what he’d like to see and do.” – Parent of participant

We are led by the young people on the day as sometimes they may not be able to cope with certain activities, so we always have lots of back up activities. We always keep the same format of 30 minutes in the museum and then arts activities to keep the sessions familiar for the young people. We also invested in sensory toys in order to have an area that young people can go and rest when they need it.

I had to problem-solve a little when in the galleries, as some of the Pioneers like to touch, so I always start every session with a reminder that we don’t touch things in the museum. I also give something to hold for Pioneers who seem a little unsettled.

Future plans

Eventually we would like the Arts Pioneers to include a mentoring scheme in which young people can choose to mentor other participants on the project. They will receive training on how to communicate effectively, listening skills and how to motivate others. This strand will empower young people to develop their social skills and give them tangible expertise to assist with future training and employment. There will also be links into the UCM’s Opening Doors Project, an integrated programme of career development opportunities for people from all backgrounds and at all stages in their careers. Work experience sessions provide varied opportunities for young people to experience and understand a wide range of museum-related roles. We would like to offer them employability qualifications as well.

I would also like to run a series of Pioneers taster sessions in order to encourage recruitment. I’d be interested in using what we’re learning from the Pioneers to have an impact on our visitors, perhaps creating a visual story for each of the University museums and thinking about relaxed openings for visitors with disabilities.