Satu Itkonen:

Adult audience work in National Museums Liverpool Art Galleries


I am an art historian, museum educator, trainer and non-fiction writer based in Helsinki. I have been working in the field of art for more than 25 years – mainly writing and talking about art and arranging exhibitions. Since the beginning of 2015, I work as the Head of Public Programmes at the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery. I am interested in accessibility of arts, new ways of collaboration between museums, hospitals and social services, and in the role of art galleries and museums promoting “using” art in new ways. I have also been training nurses and caregivers to use art in their work in Osaattori project.

My host in the Mobius program was the National Museums Liverpool (NML), a group of seven national museums. Three of the museums are art galleries: Walker Art Gallery (WAG), Lady Lever Art Gallery (LLAG) and Sudley House (SH). NML sees its role to be inclusive, socially responsible and active in the society. During my fellowship I was based in WAG. In WAG and LLAG there have been many educational projects for adult audiences, but at the moment all outreach work has been cut due to financial reasons. Only the extensive House of Memories (HoM) program is still running, with external funding.

The project, aims and methodology

Given my experience of training people to work with older people in residential care, my goal during my fellowship was to come up with a set of recommendations to help NML to serve their elderly audience at the Art Galleries. NML has an opportunity to develop a new programme, resources and activities at the Lady Lever Art Gallery through a Heritage Lottery Funded Project, and there are further opportunities arising through the growing reputation of the House of Memories programme. I was to present the recommendations to the Senior Team of NML at the end of my visit.

National Museums Liverpool already has a track record of developing innovative work for older people, particularly people living with dementia, through the House of Memories Training Programme. To date, much of this work has focused on social history collections represented at the Museum of Liverpool. Now NLM would like to extend their work for this audience to art galleries. This is where NLM could use my professional experience.

The aim of my project at NML was to encourage reflection on educational and audience work that is being done with adults and older audiences in NML ́s art galleries.

My fellowship at NLM for 11 weeks in autumn of 2014 was fairly independent, but it was supported by the Education and Visitors directorate. My schedule consisted of attending project meetings, seminars and following close-up the developing process of the House of Memories project. Structurally, I got to know all the museum units and their educational work. For my report I interviewed members of the staff, observed the displays, visitors, tours, workshops and events. I also delivered creative workshops for the Art Gallery Team and the Visitor Hosts.

Summary of key findings and recommendations to the NML

Here I present a top nine list of recommendations, in a shorter form than my original report to NML. Most of the recommendations have links to NML Strategic Plan 2011–2015. I would like to highlight the first five ones.

  1. Enable visitor services and education teams to share experiences, plan and develop tours together.

    • Methods, ideas and experiences should be shared. The teams should review what the visitors need and if they get what they need. One possible method: Visual Thinking Strategies discussions.
    • Ensure that NML benefits from the deep knowledge of visitor hosts and demonstrators by making sure they are consulted in planning new programmes.
    • Adapt elements of the school programmes for adult tours.
  2. Adapt the House of Memories approach for art galleries.

    Explore in depth the programming and experiences of HoM.

    House of Memories training for group leaders at art galleries
    Parts of HoM trainings could be adapted for the art galleries, e.g. information / live theatre experience / object handling. When delivering the HoM training in spring 2015 for carers living at home or families (“Buddy program”), adding to the training inspiring information about NML art galleries and ideas for using them.

    House of Memories toolkit (folder) Reference the HoM toolkit when planning similar resources for the art galleries. Make this resource available online and include reproductions of artworks in the toolkit.

    Memory Box suitcases
    Three boxes connecting to HoM have been developed for WAG. Further develop this approach, connecting the items and objects to iconic art works in all art galleries and producing Memory Boxes also to LLAG and SH. Emphasis on advising and encouraging people to make their own boxes.

    Themed tours
    Special tours and sessions in the art galleries with multi sensory activities, still greater focus on art works and gallery space.

    The digital app
    Identify extra funding to develop the app for art gallery linked to collections.

  3. Training for leaders of informal education groups to spread the word of the art gallery as a great place to visit and train ambassadors of the art galleries in a cost effective way. Apply the existing expertise of training teachers and delivering House of Memories training to develop an informal training programme at art galleries.

  4. Produce a toolkit for group leaders and educators. Offering a free or reasonably priced toolkit used pre and post visit and offsite would make gallery visits more meaningful. Produced for each art gallery the toolkits would contain ideas, activities, reproductions of art works, discussion points and themes, tips for using multi sensory props etc. Material is also to be put on the website.

    • Idea: Art cards kit. Reproductions of art works. Laminated, thick enough. Tips of how to use cards before, during and after museum visit. (see: Ateneum Art Cards).
  5. Build in educational / social space in the Walker Art Gallery to encourage visitors to dwell longer in the Gallery and have the opportunity to rest.

  6. New public programme: grown up’s club in art galleries to develop an audience of more content adult visitors.

  7. Train volunteers to meet local groups to enable more engagement.

  8. Improve the accessibility in Sudley House by improving the lighting

  9. Develop the shops and cafes and their merchandise.
    Widen the range of merchandise in the museum shops, linking them more to the collections.

In addition to these recommendations there were many others in my original report. I also raised the topic of strongly promoting WAG and LLAG as age friendly venues.

A couple drawing in a pop up session, Museum of Liverpool, October 2014. Photo: Satu Itkonen
A couple drawing in a pop up session, Museum of Liverpool, October 2014. Photo: Satu Itkonen

Other strengths and possibilities in accessibility and adult education in NML Art Galleries

In the future, all cultural institutions have to be more alert and ready to serve their older audiences, because of the growing amount of older people in population. Improvements made for older people also benefit other audiences. There are many strengths in the NML art galleries collections, access and audience work with adults and older people.

All art galleries are accessible (see: NML Access Guidelines, May 2014). Visitor services team are well-trained, always willing to help and well prepared to meet adult groups and older audiences who might need some extra help. All galleries have front desk personnel to meet the visitors. They greet visitors; give them floor plans and other current information. All art galleries are safe, peaceful and welcoming. All art galleries offer free access to collections, exhibitions, events and workshops. All galleries are open seven days a week and one can stay there as long as one wants.

An art gallery is a great place to learn (formal and informal learning). The teams delivering tours, workshops and other educational work are very committed, skilled, professional and experienced in their work. SH and LLAG have an educational space, that is suitable also for adult visitors and easy to access. All art galleries have educational activities not only for kids, but for adults as well (mainly talks and tours).

  • Possibility: Improve access to information by providing more materials relating to Sudley House (presently: no leaflet, booklet or book about the collections or postcards on sale).

  • Possibility: Improve the floor plans for all venues
    Welcome sheets handed out to visitors in WAG and LLAG are black and white copies: if copy paper is to be used it is recommended that only essential information and text in large print is included.

    • Idea: print on demand: a printer at the entrance. Include daily activities (trails: highlights in 40 minutes / my first visit / together with my grandchildren / focus in the jewels of British art etc.).
  • Possibility: Improve the labelling at LLAG and SH

  • Possibility: Continue to develop a wider visitor profile in terms of diversity The majority of visitors in the art galleries are middle class white people. Identify partners who can help to diversify the audience e.g. more networking with local community groups.

  • Tactile experiences
    In some of the Walker’s rooms there are carefully planned items one can touch to sense and explore materials. When designing new displays more tactile opportunities should be implemented in all art galleries.

  • Audio guides
    The galleries (LLAG and WAG) have audio guide programmes. When developing new audio guide tours include temporary exhibitions. Develop more themed tours.

  • Possibility: Charging programmes for third parties / commercial companies. Market specially designed tours and workshops to companies including some exclusive features. Priced so that it brings income to the museum.

  • Possibility: Intergenerational guided tours
    Build on the When I was Little programme to enable children to be trained to be guides to grandparents and vice versa.

Many ideas I presented at NML are connected to developing art education and receiving information via Internet. The growing popularity and applications in information technology offer opportunities for audience development work: online version of the audio guide, increase in the amount of videos on the website, art interactive online.

There is a long and rich history in NML for working with adult audiences and older people outside the museum. The museum already has many networks and partners. Recent budget cuts are the main reason why the focus is on education is on work done with schools. In the future it is likely that extra project funding will be needed to enable outreach work. The threat in this is that all outreach work will become temporary project work, which undermines long-standing relationships.

Many of the recommendations presented to NML in my original paper are in need of marketing plans and extra funding. Many good ideas for reaching the adult groups surfaced in the idea workshops I delivered with the staff members. I suggest that they should be looked at carefully when planning the future outreach work.

To get to know a new art organisation, all the professionals and their way of work was more than interesting. I got dozens of ideas for my future work in Finland. The direction in NML, as well as in my home organization, seems to be more towards longer partnerships, not short projects with diverse partners.