Sheffield's Weston Park Museum Wins Guardian Family Friendly Award

By Caroline Lewis | 30 April 2008
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photo of two men in suits with an award

Brian Stewart with the Director of Weston Park Museum, Nick Dodd, and the Family Friendly Award. © Will Venning

Weston Park Museum in Sheffield has won the Guardian Family Friendly Museum Award 2008.

Brian Stewart, Director of last year's winner, Falmouth Art Gallery, presented the award to Museums Sheffield Chief Executive, Nick Dodd, on April 30 2008 at an awards ceremony in London.

Taking place at the Guardian Newsroom gallery in Farringdon, smiling representatives from the five shortlisted museums and galleries each received a framed certificate featuring the signature Quentin Blake illustration for the Kids in Museums campaign. Culture Secretary Andy Burnham and the Shadow Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, were also in attendance.

"It means a terrific amount to me, the staff, and the community members who have all worked so hard," said Nick Dodd on receiving the winner's plaque.

"This is the accolade we have been seeking all along – we'll treasure this," he said. Treasure it they should – Weston Park beat 200 nominated museums to come out on top.

photograph of a museum gallery with screen interactives and a model of two young polar bears

Weston Park Museum has a dedicated family area in the Arctic World exhibition space, shown here, and loads more to appeal to all ages. © Sheffield Museums Trust

The current Weston Park Museum, opened in 2006, is the result of a multi million pound rebuild project. It received the sought-after commendation of being shortlisted for the Gulbenkian Prize for Museums and Galleries (now The Art Fund Prize) in 2007, recognising the success of the £19m overhaul that turned a crumbling Grade II-listed building into a museum for the 21st century.

Its family friendly credentials were not an afterthought, but an integral part of the vision for the redeveloped museum.

"It wasn't an 'add on', but was something we thought about from the start," explained Adam Lumb, Head of Marketing and Communications at Museums Sheffield (formerly Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust). "We thought about who our audience would be, and decided we wanted to appeal to a family audience,"

Figures show that 65 per cent of the museum's visitors come as family groups – in particular grandparents and grandchildren – and they have come in their droves.

"We predicted we would get 122,000 visitors in our first year, but we got more than double that – 300,000," said Andy, proving that the new formula had worked.

photo of a girl sitting on the floor in a gallery of oil paintings

A young visitor making herself at home in Dulwich Picture Gallery, shortlisted for the 2008 Award. © Family Friendly Museums Award

Caroline Pantling, Family and Informal Learning Co-ordinator at Weston Park, said the secret was a combination of activities being geared towards families and the right attitude, as well as the physical museum being a great, accessible place for all ages.

"The attitude of our front of house staff is very important," she told the 24 Hour Museum, "and our enabler team do a fantastic job." (The enabler team deliver the museum's family activity and tours programme.)

"They never know who's going to come through the door next – it could be a group of four to 11-year-olds or teenagers – but they always tailor to the audience and it's that kind of attention to detail that matters. We've had lots of positive feedback."

Dea Birkett, who spearheaded the campaign Kids in Museums after she and her two-year-old son were thrown out of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2003, praised each of the five museums on the shortlist for the Award.

"What they all have is a commitment to including people of all ages," she said. "It's about including absolutely everyone. These are museums that appeal to young and old alike – the Harry Potters of the museum world!"

photo of a boy with an interactive in a gallery

Pop art fun at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, another shortlisted museum. © Family Friendly Museum Award

Indeed, Weston Park retains exhibits that were favourites in its former incarnation, many moons ago. In the judging process for the awards, four generations of one family put the Sheffield museum through its paces, testing everything from the café to the interactives.

“The last time I went to a museum, many years ago when I was a child, all you could do was look in glass cabinets,” said Maureen Marshall, who was a judge with her mother, daughter and three grandchildren.

“But at Weston Park there was something for all of us to do, noisy places and peaceful places. My mum, who’s 77, saw things she remembered from when she was a child, like the old butcher’s shop. Even the youngest grandchild – he’s just three – had flaps to lift and toys to play with.”

photo of a group of smartly dressed people with an award

The happy team from Weston Park. © Will Venning

The shortlisted museums for the award, now in its fourth year, were: Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; Manchester Art Gallery; Shetland Museum and Archives; and Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Guardian readers nominated more than 200 museums which offer a family welcome. The judges agreed a shortlist of five and each museum was ‘road tested’, unannounced, by a family.

The 2008 judges included: Liz Forgan, Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Scott Trust; Anra Kennedy, Head of Learning at Culture24; Melissa Denes, the Guardian’s Arts Editor; Mark Brown, Arts Correspondent, The Guardian; and Mark Taylor, Director of the Museums Association.

Find out more about Kids in Museums at
www.kidsinmuseums.org.uk.