Category Archives: Families


There have been some fantastic new species dreamed up by visitors to Walking with Beasts, including this Coloursaurus! We’ve enjoyed them and hope you do too!

Via Flickr:
Name of researcher: Tyler
Food source: bones
Height: 10m
Notes on behaviour: wild

Don’t forget – you can add your own creations to our My Herbert Flickr group:


Musings on the nature of things

There’s just one week to go before we start installing “Wild Worlds” the Herbert’s summer exhibition aimed at families. From last year’s “In the Big Treetop” installation we discovered that mole-hill shaped piles of MDF shapes were incredibly alluring to children. Many children just wanted to stand on top of them, or jump from one to the next, or claim them as ‘territory’. We also observed toddlers just beginning to walk would hang on to mum’s hand and walk back and forth over them again and again, seeming to love how they were irregular, yet dependable.

Lindsay, one of our learning team who has heaps of experience as an artist in early years’ settings, told us she found platforms offered something special, that there is almost a taboo on playing off the ground while indoors.

Our designers have taken these ‘floor blobs’ and put them at the core of our installation this year, and we can only wait to see how well they work.

I’ve observed a category of things (for which I don’t have a name) which seem to work especially well in creative play. These things need to be both unfamiliar and immediately understood by children. A mini-hill of layers of MDF is something quite new, but they understand what it does very rapidly. They sometimes check if the pieces come apart, or if it slides on the floor – both critical qualities to understand how safe it is – and then walk across it, stand on top as if it is a mountain, all with complete confidence.

Another example we’ve used repeatedly are wooden pebbles. We made these from light timber from packing crates, all differently shaped, but roughly the shapes and sizes of seaside pebbles. Children immediately understand what they do and don’t do, and they are collected, arranged, hidden and balanced on top of each other.

Perhaps lengths of cloth fall into this category – children can wrap themselves, build dens, create rivers or skies, but often they check for permission, possibly because different rules apply to cloth (eg curtains) at home.

These sorts of objects are dramatically neutral – they can be used to represent anything at all, and don’t exclude themselves from any sort of fictional game. Things which are more clearly themed, for example a badger hand puppet, would be far harder to include in an undersea world.

I suspect there are some interesting reflections on the wider context of a museum, the place devoted to the idea of things having meaning, but I’ll ponder on that another time.

Musings on the day we hand over the baton of Kids in Museums Guardian Family Friendly Museum of the Year to Mansfield . . .

Last month our Senior Learning Officer, Robin Johnson,  left for pastures new.  He had been here for many years, and his leaving ‘do’ featured several moving and poignant speeches by time served colleagues.   Despite working here for over 7 years, these accolades revealed new dimensions to the Herbert’s history and development and set me thinking.

Robin had joined as a former teacher, but without a specific responsibility to schools.   He joined at a similar time to several other key staff, particularly among our curators.   As Robin developed his interest in making the museum a vibrant resource for schools, his colleagues were clearly on-side, and he was given an encouraging free hand by his manager.   These values were already shared and ingrained in the organisation when new opportunities appeared, such as the “Renaissance” funding and the redevelopment.  

I’ve struck thinking the concept of leadership for our creative and curatorial work.  There feels to be very little influence from the high echelons of management on creative planning, programmes of family workshops, the summer early years exhibition and other events.  I think this is because these principles are shared so widely, so there is no need to enforce these values.  It also supports so many different agendas – drawing in big numbers, offering a unique and genuinely useful service to local people, filling gaps in the activities offered across the city, being welcoming to newcomers to Coventry and the UK . . .   It’s a ‘no brainer’.  

Talking to colleagues with experience of other museums, it seems that we’ve got it easy.   It is not uncommon for inclusion and family work to have to fight its corner against some notion of curatorial purity.   Here it has been built into every corner by the curators themselves.  There is a democratic sense doing family work that I can look to wisdom from almost everyone – from the curators suggesting facts about objects that might appeal to children, to our Front of House team feeding back how families respond to what we offer.

“Family Friendly” seems to be flavour of the month in museums (and long may it remain so).   At the Herbert, these values came from principles and never from fashion.  I’m glad to say museum staff aren’t famed for their fashion sense and we’ll stick with what’s right and sensible.

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February half term is coming!

Finally after months of preparations we are ready to open our doors to the hundreds of families we are expecting over the next few months. We have already had our first schools through the doors earlier in the week, but next week it will be the turn of our family visitors as they explore our Secret Egypt exhibition and take part in our hands-on family activities over February half term and beyond.

Egyptian ActivityMy main priority as Family Learning Officer was to provide a variety of workshops that will encourage our families to explore and engage with the themes within our Secret Egypt exhibition. This is not always as easy as it sounds as there are so many different ages, tastes and abilities to suit! This is where working as part of the Learning Team is of great benefit as all our research for the schools sessions, including many visits to other galleries and museums, has helped to positively shape the plans for the family programme.  Here I was able to identify what topics to focus on, what had the most potential to be developed into creative workshops and what would further encourage learning outside of the classroom.

I have tried to use all this new knowledge and research to work on the content for the next 20 workshops which cover all the holidays from now until June, early years sessions and the ‘bring your dad’ event day!.

 This has included:

  • Working on the content first and then with the designers on the look and layout of a family trail that encourages visits all the permanent galleries, promotes the use of our Secret Egypt family break out space (more details below) and also combines with an art and craft activity that we will then use to create a fantastic Egyptian display to show our other visitors!
  •  Ordering stacks of unusual and exciting materials, cutting up decorative papers, metals and card, working out templates and making examples, all to make sure we are all prepared for our very popular art and craft sessions.
  •  Co-ordinating the use of our Studio space so our family visitors can use it as an extra activity/break out area. Here we have designed a make-and-take activity that can be done without the need for a facilitator! So, if the activity room downstairs or the exhibition becomes too full, then there is always an area for families to go and do something.
  •  Learning about our 3000 year old Egyptian artefacts and how to use this information for family object handling sessions. Our families will get the chance to handle genuine objects and try on costume that would have been used by ancient Egyptians.

Printing off hundreds of trails, writing up marketing content and working on a timetable for our family activity facilitators has meant for a very busy 6 months. I am now really looking forward to the families coming in and being able to enjoy the benefits of a lot of hard work for such a fantastic exhibition!

We look forward to welcoming you!

Mel, Family Learning Officer
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Coventry Blitz 70th Anniversary

Noreen Dalglish (top right)

To commemorate the 70th anniversary since the Coventry Blitz the Herbert has all sorts of events and projects happening… in fact the whole of Coventry has lots of things going on. We’ll be hosting a Blitz family day in conjunction with the Coventry Transport Museum and one of the History Learning Officers is running a project called ‘We Will Remember Them’ where people can send in photographs of themselves, family members or friends who were a part of WW2 along with some information about who they were and what they did.

As a part of this project I have been delivering WW2 assemblies for local primary schools where we have been testing out an air raid siren, trying on a gas mask and helmet and most importantly learning about the lives of some of Coventry’s citizen’s who contributed towards the War Effort.

One of the people we have been looking at is Noreen Dalglish, an Ambulance driver for the Civil Defence. Noreen was only 20 years old when she joined the Civil Defence in 1938, a year before war was declared on Germany. She said that everyone knew the war was going to happen and rather than be forced into a job she wanted to choose what to do. At the time of joining the Ambulance service, Noreen did not possess a driving licence and instead had to learn as part of her training. When it came to taking her test she drove up a road and straight into a tree, but the Civil Defence needed as many Ambulance drivers as possible so they passed her as she hadn’t caused any damage to the car!

When describing what it was like to be driving out during a blackout with a full uniform on she said, “You’re driving in the dark with your gas mask on, you couldn’t see or hear anything – or breathe! It was horrible. And you had your gas outfit on. All the trousers and the jackets and everything. And driving in that… it was awful. It was like driving down a dark tunnel with a blanket over your head. It was really awful.”

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Big TreeTopping Out

View of In the Big Treetop during the final stages of installation

Most museum work is planning, but every so often I get to do the business – actually mount an exhibition.  “In the Big Treetop” is an installation for children and adults to explore together; it doesn’t have valued objects like most exhibitions, but instead has large structures which have to be strong enough to survive six weeks of lively play. 

We used cake to lure our staff into the Big TreeTop before it opened . . .

Because this is an annual fixture, the process begins with the evaluation of last year’s exhibit.  The planning started seriously in December and our technician began constructing the design in May.  Then two weeks of building and painting in the gallery and finally the public arrive. 

What happens then is the “Death of the Author” moment – all our ideas are rendered unnecessary as the public reinterprets the space and invests it with their own meanings.    

For the first time this year we have chosen not to have an area for displaying visitors’ work, which has been a coincidental mechanism for communication between visitors – so the interpretations might be different every day.   It will be an interesting chance to explore how this might impact on the sense of community that can exist amongst our regular audience. 

Enough of this seriousness . . . we have a magical gallery full of very happy children and parents and that is all that matters! 

View more photos of In the Big Treetop on our Flickr page: 

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Talking, travelling, waterways and summer fun!

Family enjoying craft activities at the Herbert

 In my previous blog I mentioned the work the Herbert learning team have been doing to prepare for upcoming temporary exhibitions and the schools programmes we offer to go along with them. Well that is all still happening, but I thought I’d give you a catch up on how things have been going. 

1. The From Here to There exhibition is now approaching its final week of being on display and so far I’ve gone through 13 guided talks around the exhibition and have another 5 to go, which all means it’s been a very good success. This was the first time we have catered guided talks around an arts exhibition to Secondary schools, so it was new ground for us, but the school groups who have visited have all said how they felt the benefits of the insight into the art works and how useful it was to the pupils’ development and research work, so hopefully it is an area we can explore again in the future. I have personally thoroughly enjoyed leading on this project, as I have an arts background myself and I am a particular fan of Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn, 2 of the featured artists. 

2. Our travels around the country have continued in our quest to research how museums are delivering the subject of Ancient Egypt to school groups. Two of my colleagues recently visited the British Museum in London and I have just visited Bolton with another colleague to meet with one of their learning officers. It did require both of us being on the train at 6am and 3 changes along the way, but it was well worth it, as Bolton museum is one of the sites who are going to be lending the Herbert artefacts to contribute towards our Secret Egypt meeting so it was very interesting to see how they bought the topic to life with the use of handling collections, costume and different activities around the gallery. 

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Matters physical, thoughtful and sensory: part 2

Construction on In the Big Treetop begins!

View of the construction of In the Big Treetop

In the Big Treetop has just come a step closer with the delivery of 33 sheets of MDF.  Now our technician Steve has the huge task of converting the 1:25 scale model into a reality that can stand everything that hundreds of children can throw at it.

We’ve also made some progress on the theoretical questions.   I am currently exploring the tension between how the installation respects the visitor by offering a carefully designed aesthetic, and how it can honour the participants in the space by letting them shape it. 

One of the special things about the Herbert is the combination of Gallery, Museum, Archives and Media.  Having been up at 5am on the May bank holiday recording the dawn chorus, Daz, our sound engineer, had the brilliant idea of using the great quadraphonic sound system in the studio . . .   So at 3.30am on Sunday I will be trudging through a nature reserve with 4 mic stands, cables, two recorders . . .   Those birds better sing!

Wednesday’s update:  On Sunday, the birds sang, the bunnies lolloped, herons rose from the mist and terns flashed bright orange as they caught the dawn sun . . .

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Matters physical, thoughtful and sensory: part 1

In the Big TreeTop is our summer exhibition for younger children and their families.   We’ve been running exhibitions like this for seven years, and it is something of a speciality, with great experience amongst staff, great expectations from our visitors and the reputation to live up to of “Family Friendly Museum of the Year“.

Today our designers Janet Vaughan and Nicola Richardson delivered a model of the installation, which looks really special.

The project is a strange combination of playfulness and utter seriousness – analysing last year’s installation in detail and trying to make every aspect a little better.   We’ve kept the scale of last year’s “Under the Big Tree” but spread the structures throughout the space. We are putting lots more into the safe area for babies and the central structure has far more playful flexibility.

The design has a clever combination of enclosed and open areas.  Some of the open spaces can become focal points for static play as well as routes for hurtling games, and there are plenty of options so if one place becomes a beautifully decorated den, it won’t interfere with other games.

 Our big influence is the “Reggio Emilia” approach to creative play which is pioneered in Italian pre-schools.  Of course we need to take account of the many differences between a gallery and a nursery, for instance we don’t have a small number of familiar children. Instead we welcome hundreds, some coming day after day, others perhaps visiting the Herbert for the first time.   Although this must have all the safety considerations of a children’s centre, we also need to meet the expectations of visitors to an award-winning art gallery of an elegant and designed space.

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