Designing Museum Activity Backpacks for Families

Contents of the V&A Time Traveller Backpack

Contents of the V&A Time Traveller Backpack

The following guidance notes are aimed at museums and galleries who are looking to develop family activities in their organisations. The notes will focus especially on the development of family backpacks, though much of the advice, the links and the case studies featured can be applied to family activities in general.

Backpacks can be used to target a variety of different audiences, including:

  • Families
  • Schools
  • Informal Groups (e.g. playschemes)
  • Adults

Experience has shown that backpacks have been especially well used with younger children (under 8s) working with parents and/or older siblings. However, if you follow the advice and leave activities open ended enough, they can be enjoyed by a wide age range.

Benefits for the users include:

  • A focus to their visit
  • A framework for engaging with objects
  • Self-paced activities
  • Activities to suit different learning styles
  • Opportunities for discussion and working with others
  • Opportunities for self-led discovery and personal decision making
  • Clean/non-messy activities
  • Fun!
Family working with the V&A activity backpack in the glass gallery.

Family working with the V&A activity backpack in the glass gallery.

Step 1: decide why you want to have activity backpacks

As with any project, it is important to be absolutely clear about your aims from the outset and how you intend to go about achieving these.

  • Be clear what you and other colleagues want the backpack to achieve and what the theme/s will be.
  • Get curators involved from the beginning and ensure that other staff with a vested interest (e.g. visitor services) have input into the process.
  • Define the key audience that you want the backpack to cater for and to attract - this will obviously shape content, tone and style.
  • Which part of the collection/s are you going to focus on? Be clear in your mind why have you selected them.
  • Ensure your target audience finds the selected collection appealing - keep in mind: 'What is a family?' and 'How do they act in the museum?'
  • For some audiences you might want to make curricular links
  • Decide what sort of activities the back-pack will contain
  • Go and look at existing backpacks in other museums. 'Borrow' ideas!

Step 2: how much will they cost?

Producing simple backpacks need not necessarily be a costly operation. However, there are a few points to bear in mind when you set aside a budget and begin to develop activities.

Initially time and money will be needed for:

  • Designing and making a prototype
  • Devising content
  • Sourcing materials and equipment
  • Risk assessment
  • Prototype testing and evaluation

Once final content and design has been agreed, money will be needed for:

  • Production of finished content, e.g. activities, map, question booklet, replica objects etc.
  • Buying duplicates and spares
  • Buying the backpacks themselves

What will be your on-going costs? This will be difficult to project until you have run the back packs for at least six months, however keep in mind:

  • Whose job is it to maintain the packs and order materials and replacements? Are you buying in extra staff to help? Will they need training?
  • How often do the packs need to be cleaned, and parts replaced? Every week? Once a month? This can be a very labour-intensive task.
  • How easy are the materials to clean or maintain? Parts, including the bag, will need cleaning and mending by someone.
  • Who will give out the packs, and check all the contents have been returned? Will it become part of someone's duties or will extra staff need to be bought in?

Once you have some costings, it might even be worth trying to find sponsors. 

 

Step 3: choose a theme

The theme and content will be shaped by the audience and your collections, so be sure to research what appeals to your target audience.

If the museum's collections are large, test how much ground your target audience is willing to cover. You don't have to cover all the collections! You could see your first backpack as the beginning of a series when funding allows, so start with part of your collection with the greatest appeal.

Think of a unifying theme or storyline that concentrates on a certain collection or collections. The title of the backpack is very important, as it will help sell it. Having words such as explorer, detective and collector in the title will give a flavour of what the pack is about and adds a context.

Remember, though, that the starting point must always be the collections, the objects themselves must dictate how the pack is put together.

Working with the Time Traveller Back-Pack in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries

Working with the Time Traveller Back-Pack in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries

Step 4: developing content

Having chosen an audience, theme and collections with which to link the backpack, develop outline activities to test. These should link to specific objects in the collections and need to be engaging, intriguing and relevant.

Will the backpack be used by individuals? Small independent groups such as families? Or large groups such as schools or playschemes? This will affect content. Developing a backpack for a group will involve thinking about how many people can be accommodated at one time. The backpacks can be used to break up a large group and guide them to different starting points, improving the visitor flow through the galleries. You could use some of the same activities, but in a different order, thereby starting at different parts of the gallery.

Make sure the activities are of different types, and suit learning styles, (e.g. trying on replica garments for experiential and imaginative learners, creating a story for imaginative learners).

Think about what what the outcomes will be. The Inspiring Learning for All framework is a useful tool to use as it outlines generic learning outcomes that will help you evaluate the learning experience.

When selecting objects to link activities to, choose ones that will be on display for a long time, otherwise your backpack will quickly become out of date. Check that there are no height or access issues for your target audience to see the objects, and that it will be possible for several backpack users to see them at the same time. Large objects, or ones where there are several similar examples, work best.

Once you have a clearer idea of activities, the information that needs to be provided, and the route through the galleries, mock up a backpack. Be sure to get other staff to read over and edit any written materials. Then, ideally, test run it first with visitors from the target audience. If this isn't possible, at least let members of staff (preferably non-education staff) have a run through with it and give you some honest feedback.

Some hints

  • Check that the overall weight of the backpack is not too heavy. The visitor will have to carry it for up to an hour.
  • Remember, if there are three or four people doing the backpack, then potentially it is going to take three or four times as long to do each activity.
  • If one backpack is designed for use by more than one person, be sure to include enough materials so as to avoid any arguments!
  • Parents need to know immediately what you are offering them, packs should be easy to pick up and follow. Make life easy for them - include an introduction sheet for the adults who are accompanying the children (at Walsall Museum and Art Gallery the packs were developed with text on one side for children and notes on the back for parents)
  • There should be as little reading and writing as possible - aspire to there being none at all. Text should be simple and straightforward and activities should be almost self-explanatory.
  • Try to ensure that questions and activities are open-ended enough to allow for personal interpretation of objects - too many instructions can limit this (see bibliography links below for guidance on devising questions)
  • Depending on the complexity of the activities and distance between each one, aim to have about five activities to do. It is better to have the user successfully complete the backpack and want to try a different one, than not complete it because it took long, and be put off trying another.
  • Make sure there is something on offer to the youngest or least able in the group. This could be additional materials/activity (e.g. colouring sheets and crayons for toddlers). They will drive the length of visit. As soon as they get bored, then the rest of the group might have to stop too.
  • Don't have too many activities where materials need replenishing or maintaining every time the pack is handed out (e.g. pencils that need sharpening, tapes that need re-winding).
  • If possible include tools for visitors to maintain things themselves (e.g. a pencil sharpener).

    Popular types of activity
     
  • Stories - making up and listening to stories
  • Tape recording own stories/acting out
  • Interviewing each other about objects
  • Handling objects
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Construction games (pipe cleaners can be handy for this)
  • Observation games (e.g. memorising objects and reciting them back in a set time - include an egg timer)
  • Matching shapes or objects to museum objects (e.g. plastic animals, materials, random objects)
  • Matching replica objects in the backpack with objects in cases
  • Replica clothing
  • Drawing
  • Being in a role as a character while doing the back-pack - e.g. detective
  • Colouring sheets (related to museum objects)
  • Making things (keep this limited - more staff intensive)
  • Explorer passports (ensure staff are available to stamp these).
  • Compasses and maps
  • Big dice - find an object on the face of the dice, in direction shown etc
  • Word games
  • Sorting / classifying objects
  • Torches - good to help focus on objects. Wind up torches recommended.
  • Using old laminated photos of the museum - stand in a spot, note similarities/differences
  • Mystery objects
  • Kaleidoscopes with the end taken off - see objects in a different way
  • Mini-experiments
  • Code cracking
  • Binoculars
  • Fuzzy felt
  • Puppets

The list could be endless! The trick, as always, is to keep things simple. Many of these ideas are simply adapted games and activities that children will already be familiar with. Again, contact other museums and find out what has worked for them, then sit down with your own staff and brainstorm all of your ideas. Consider which ones will work best for your museum and your collections before settling on the ones that you'd like to test out.

Children holding up the contents of a V&A activity backpack.

Children holding up the contents of a V&A activity backpack.

Step 5: design

Once you have selected your activities, you then need to decide how they are going to be presented:

  • The finished backpack will be part of the public's image of the museum, so anything shoddy will give a negative impression, and less care will be taken of the pack.
  • Have something put on your backpack, so it is easily identifiable as belonging to the museum. This will help prevent theft, and will also identify people using them in the galleries.
  • Anything put in the backpack needs to be robust; it will take a lot of wear and tear. Anything too cheap probably won't last, and will need replacing often, so it could be a false economy in the long run.
  • If items have to be especially made for the pack, it will be worth getting spares made, as this should lower the unit cost. Make sure it is fit for purpose before you order. For custom-made items, get a sample to test out first.
  • Keep good records of where items were purchased or who made them if they were custom-made. Even if you buy extras, eventually you will have to re-order. Make sure you have the original artwork or designs, that way if the manufacturer goes out of business you don't have the cost of redesigning.
  • Aim to have the content of each activity in its own numbered or labelled bag/pouch. This way it is obvious which activity is which.
  • For trail-based activities there will need to be a map showing which part of the museum the backpack relates to and how to get there. This could be part of a booklet or leaflet, which gives an explanation as to what to do, where to find the objects, and which object links with which activity. If visitors find this hard to do then they are more likely to give up.
  • The information you provide needs to give the user confidence in using the backpack, particularly if someone has to lead a family or group - information needs to be clear and easy to read. We know people will often make-up explanations rather than admit they don't know!
  • Provide a short introductory page or sheet to cover the following points:
    • About the back-pack:
      aim
      what will be achieved
    • Where to go:
      where to start
      route to first gallery if applicable
    • What to do:
      how many activities
      make it clear that everything needed is inside, including materials and instructions
      ask borrower to replace activities and return back
      suggest pack is returned within a time from picking it up - e.g. 1 hour
  • Provide more detailed information to introduce the theme or nature of the activity, followed by instructions and illustrations for each one. Remember, though, there should be as little reading and writing as possible. Text should be simple and straightforward and activities should be almost self-explanatory.
  • The size of the backpack will depend on who you expect to carry it, an adult or child.
  • It should look attractive and be appealing to the target audience. Pitt Rivers Museum has found transparent packs popular, as users can immediately see what's in them.
  • Bear in mind when sourcing content for your packs, it's always worth trying big companies, like the Early Learning Centre and education booksellers, to see if they would be prepared to offer resources for free in return for some positive publicity - there's never any harm in asking!
A family borrowing a V&A activity backpack.

A family borrowing a V&A activity backpack.

Step 6: how will the backpacks be given out to visitors?

As mentioned before, having your logo or museum's name will help keep track of the packs as people use them in the galleries.

Make sure all contents in the backpack are checked when they are handed back, as tracking missing items after the users have gone is time consuming and often impossible.

For a specific group or school visit the backpacks will probably need to be booked in advance. Decide who will be the contact person within the museum for this.

With families the packs will probably be given out when they arrive, as a drop-in activity. Although it is obviously desirable to make the packs free of charge, make clear they are not free handouts; especially to foreign visitors who may regard it as part of the service! Some form of security is recommended to ensure the pack is returned. This could be in the form of a credit card, driver's licence, library card, or store cards - anything that can provide contact details. In addition, getting a name and address can be a useful means of compiling user data. Obviously any belongings need to be kept very safe. An alternative is to take a cash deposit.

Although the purpose is that the packs are self-led and not labour intensive, obviously there will be staffing implications. Somebody will need to be on hand to give out and collect packs and return any security. Whoever this person is will also need to be able to give an introduction to the pack, and be able to answer general questions about the museum.

The person giving out packs could also collect comments and keep a record of numbers, and, if needed, carry out further evaluation. It might be an idea to have a form for borrowers to fill in. This will:

  • help you keep visitor numbers
  • give you a contact number (mobile) in case anyone forgets to return their pack
  • let you record which pack has gone out and at what time
  • let you record what type of deposit has been left
  • give visitors a chance to leave a comment
  • allow you to collect e-mail addresses if you contact your visitors by e-mail

Some museums have found this to be a good opportunity to get volunteers involved in a project. Others have had really positive feedback from front of house staff, who enjoy the extra opportunity to interact with visitors.

If you end up developing a lot of backpacks it might well be worth trying to get some form of trolley or cart to keep them in, ideally lockable.

Step 7: marketing

How are you going to let people know you now have backpack?

If you have mail-outs, museum leaflets, or e-newsletters then they can be promoted through those. Local papers could be invited to do an article on them, ideally with a photo of happy visitors using them. Alternatively, contact your local radio station. A short item about a family or other visitors using and enjoying your backpacks would give you good publicity.

You could consider giving out badges to visitors who have done the backpack with a suitable slogan and the name of your museum.

For further ideas on how to market your activities, check the Grass Roots guidelines - Organise an Educational Event - on this site.

Step 8: evaluation

Testing out themes with visitors and trying out prototypes should ensure there are no major problems with your backpacks when you launch them. However, it is still useful to carry out summative evaluation once you have started using them. This would be very useful should you create new packs. Having the whole process photographed with written evidence of testing, learning outcomes and comment from users will benefit any feedback sessions to colleagues within the museum, and for sponsors.

There are a variety of different ways that you might want to evaluate the packs. For example, it's easy to note the number of times each pack is taken out, but what might be more interesting to note is the length of time each one goes out for. Get feedback from children who use them. Simple activities, like having 'smiley' ballot boxes to vote in can be popular. For more ideas on creative evaluation techniques try checking the 'ABC of Working With Schools' website for a list useful links.

Case studies

The following case studies provide a little more information from some of the organisations who have contributed their experiences to the development of this resource. Contact details are listed with each one, should you wish to get further information on their specific projects.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Activity Backpacks

The V&A developed activity backpacks for children aged 5–11 years, which are loaned free to family groups. The packs were developed following pilot studies with 50 family groups who provided feedback to museum staff. The aim of the packs is to:

'… provide more focused visits by families faced with an overwhelming number of displays and to provide a simple and inexpensive method of introducing family interactivity into galleries where displays were not designed for family learning' (Museums Association, 1999b, p11).

The packs include instruction sheets for adults and activities for children (for example, themed puzzles and games, jigsaws, construction straws, magnifying glasses and cassette tapes). More than 8500 visitors used the backpacks in a 12-month period and they are now being copied for use in other organisations across England.

One example of the packs that the V&A provide is detailed below:

Magic Glasses at the V&A
This particular pack is used to engage families with the Glass Galleries. It includes a contents booklet with map giving the location of the gallery, information about the pack and what to do, and information about each activity.

Activity 1 - What's Glass Made From?
-Feely bag with small bag of sand inside.

Activity 2 - Magic Glasses
-Bag contains a pair of glasses, where the focal length can be altered, so distorting the view. Activity is for one person to wear the glasses and describe an object in the case from ten paces away, then ask another family member to point out the object in the case.

Activity 3 - Feel the Objects
-Replica objects from the collection are put back in a bag, for a blindfolded family member to feel. They then have to find the original object in the cases.

Activity 4 - Lollipop Isle (links directly to a glass sculpture)
-Using six different coloured perspex 'lollipops', the user is instructed to overlap combinations of different 'lollipops' to see what colours can be made.

Activity 5 - Colour and Shape
-Observation questions about glass to get people thinking about what might have inspired the makers to create the glass objects. Visitors need to draw an object they like for its colour, and draw an object they like for its shape. They then choose their favourite object and write a sentence explaining why they like it.

City of Edinburgh - Museum of Childhood

Storytelling trails

A slightly different approach has been adopted by the Museum of Childhood, on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Though it attracts a lot of families, the venue can be a frustrating experience for parents, as the collections themselves are not really geared towards young children.

In order to go some way towards addressing this, and make the visitor experience a more family friendly one, the City of Edinburgh Museums have developed a new storytelling initiative for the venue.

It was initially trialled with a local nursery school. The process that was followed to develop the resource is outlined below:

  • The nursery class were allowed to explore the museum and staff noted what caught their attention.
  • Teachers then got feedback from the children back at school - what did they remember, what did they like?
  • The results proved quite interesting - the children had chosen objects from the collection that learning staff would not initially have thought of.
  • From this feedback, learning staff chose five key objects from the gallery to concentrate on.
  • Simple stories were then devised to go with the chosen artefacts - which were partly derived from the histories of the objects themselves.
  • A set script was then put together for each object. This was supplemented with other suggestions for stories, rhymes, songs and activities that could accompany the script.

The aim is that the resource will be made available for use by families visiting the museum; with parents - or older siblings - taking on the role of 'storyteller'.

The idea for this project stemmed from earlier work done by the service to develop a schools resource at Lauriston Castle, working in partnership with professional storytellers.

For more information and support with developing storytelling resources, visit the Scottish Storytelling Centre website.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

The Pitt Rivers and the Natural History Museum in Oxford were winners of the 2005 Guardian Family Friendly Museum Award. One of the key components of their success has been the popularity of simple family activities that the museums offer. Central to this has been the development of their family backpacks over the last four years. The packs consist of a range of activities - many of which are included in section four of this resource. They now have 20 backpacks available at a time and have developed six different packs for each museum, allowing them to offer 'new' activities on a regular basis for their visitors.

Royal Armouries

Under-5's Bag Project

The Royal Armouries at The Tower of London developed their own 'Under 5's Bag Project'. These consist of simple bags with a variety of activities for younger children. The bags include:

  • fabric 'helmets' to dress up in
  • mix and match armour puzzles
  • identifying materials activity
  • stick puppets of famous visitors to the Tower
  • feely bags

An evaluation proved very positive. The packs have enhanced opportunities for parents to become more involved in the collections on a level with their children. At the same time, older children have enjoyed them as well and seem happy to step back and let the younger children do the majority of the work.

Other useful links and resources

ABC of Working With Schools
This website provides a lot of very useful resources, guidelines and case studies to help develop learning activities - not just for schools audiences. This includes sections on:

  • developing and using handling collections
  • using loan boxes
  • asking questions
  • running family workshops

Group for Education in Museums
Be sure to refer to other Grass Roots resources on this website to help you develop these activities. Especially useful ones should be:

  • Developing Learning Activities
  • Make Loans Boxes

Also, if you aren't already on it, the GEM jiscmail list can prove an invaluable source of information on any and all issues relating to museum education.

Kids in Museums Campaign
Launched by the Guardian newspaper, the campaign promotes family-friendly policies, attitudes and exhibitions throughout Britain. A Kids in Museums Manifesto has been produced and there is now a national Family-Friendly Museum Award. It is a useful source of information on good practice for museums looking to develop their family learning programmes.

Other museums who have some experience in running family backpacks and may be worth contacting, include:

Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Natural History Museum

Whitworth Art Gallery

The British Museum

National Portrait Gallery

Questioning techniques in museums
For useful tips and links on using questioning techniques when developing family activities: www.museumse.org.uk

Acknowledgements

These guidelines have been put together with the help and input of a variety of organisations. Thanks also to Andrew McLellan at Pitt Rivers Museum and Sandra Marwick and Margaret Findlay at City of Edinburgh Museums for their time, expertise and contributions.

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