Creative bridges

At Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

What gives us meaning in our lives? Partly it’s a sense of achievement through employment, a study programme or volunteering. A sense of achievement can be ten-fold if it also entails overcoming a barrier to develop self-belief. Equally it’s social – spending time with colleagues, family or friends. With this in mind, it’s shocking to learn that only 6% of people aged 16-64 with a learning disability were in paid employment in 2014-15. Creative Bridges seeks to improve these statistics and aims to enable young people (16-25) with additional needs to have a meaningful role in society. Aged 19, it’s unnerving to leave special school and face the responsibility of making key life choices. We aim to provide additional support a year before this stage happens, the chance to experience offsite learning for one day per week for the academic year.

Off-site learning is a critical factor in nurturing the confidence to make those key life choices. Many secondary schools facilitate weekly off-site learning sessions through a “Work Related Learning” programme to give learners exposure to industry professionals. Through such a programme, we discovered behaviour for two autistic learners was considerably better out of school simply because they were given the freedom to explore a topic they loved in-depth in a professional, creative environment with, crucially, creative professionals. From this seed, the idea for a mini-college in a museum emerged. From 2014-2017 we delivered a pilot programme with funding from Esmee Fairbairn foundation.  Working with three special schools across Warwickshire, teachers have selected 10 participants per year. The project is supported by teaching assistants initially, with support being withdrawn over time to enable independence. The programme offers two vocational qualifications – Arts Award (Bronze or Explore) and Open College Network West Midlands Level 1 Award in Employability and Development Skills.

According to the World Forum, creativity will be one of the three top skills for 2020. Our aim is to encourage creative thinking both in how we deliver and also within the young people themselves.  It’s a reciprocal relationship – we learn from tailoring our service to them and they learn new skills to prepare for further learning or the workplace. We select qualifications based on flexibility – Arts Award Bronze can be scaled down to Explore level if necessary, for example, so that everyone walks away with a qualification. Our temporary exhibition programme provides the opportunities to evidence Arts Award outcomes; soft skills for work are developed through team-working units over a longer, co-produced project. “Thriller-inspired” Monster Party music video was one such project, gaining acclaim by winning an Oska Bright Emerging Talent award in 2017. Our learners usually fall into three groups; back-stage technicians, crafters/makers and performers. Over 10 weeks, the group co-produced the film, writing the lyrics, performing and acting in the video and making the sets.

Other landmark projects included Be Nice to the Big Blue Sea, a co-choreographed dance performance in response to the painting by Cecily Brown of the same name. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Freefall Dance Company provided enabled each participant to develop a signature move in response to a segment of the painting. Emphasis was on finding the moves they wanted to perform rather than learning a set style of dance. It was this freedom that gave participants ownership of the final performance. Freefall’s composer, rather than purely responding to the painting himself, responded to participants signature movements using musical phrasing to piece the composition together. Both projects can be seen at

The programme is always designed to suit these roles but is flexible enough for us to also cater for a group’s passion or interests. Our core media team support the development of multimedia and storytelling skills in one longer term film-production or performance project each year. 

So, why have a mini-college in a museum? Museums are comparatively small sites which can help with orientation for anxious learners. Our activities take part in a small, dedicated area in the building. Our galleries are intrinsically chill-out spaces, except during school visits when we offer a quiet space for those with sensory sensitivities. College-based multimedia courses help students to develop storytelling skills but our USP is that we offer an in-house changing exhibition programme which can be responded too so those skills can be put into practice. Naturally, as part of the learning and engagement team and as an NPO, it is in our remit to make an impact on the creative case for diversity. To achieve all this we have studied (staff have all achieved CTLLS qualification and an IQA Level 4 Award) but there is no course that can prepare you for the diverse needs and abilities of any one group – our real USP as a sector is that we are creative problem solvers, so ideally placed to meet diverse needs.

We align our methodology to the African proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. All partners reflected a common belief that the profound impact of the Creative Bridges programme could only have been achieved through the multi-agency delivery approach adopted by the project team.

Our core project team, Herbert Media, falls within the Learning and Engagement team at Culture Coventry. Our four staff are complemented by a range of freelancers with extensive experience in working and communicating creatively with young people. Open Theatre Company workshops enable the development of non-verbal communication skills and improvisation, Let’s Animate offer a tactile experience and an opportunity to tell new stories in response to our collections and Freefall Dance Company extract movements and new choreography from participants.

A further outcome for the work is to share practice and contribute to a transformation of the ways that museums and galleries engage with people with learning disabilities. Further information can be found by clicking here.

Looking forward, our ambition is to develop the programme into a commissionable model that can complement the current offer for young people with additional needs at 19.

100% of Creative Bridges Education Programme graduates have made positive next steps with 75% progressing to college, 15% working and/or undertaking apprenticeships and 10% moving forward into Sixth Form. Improvements were made to cultural, social and employability skills but most importantly to their confidence in working with new people and new topics in an unfamiliar, new environment. Many highlighted developing friendships as key, helping them to feel capable of embracing change more readily.

95% of the participants have earned their Arts Award – Bronze after submitting their portfolio. 76% of the participants entered have achieved a Level 1 qualification in employability or creative workplace skills.

We continue to build on our new partnerships with the local creative community but also with referrers such as the Job Centre, local council and support organisations for young people with additional needs.  Specific learning outcomes include:

  • Improved verbal and non-verbal communication skills
  • Improved personal and technical skills
  • The achievement of accredited qualifications
  • Improved self-confidence and self-belief
  • Relationships built with work placement partners, recruitment partners and special schools regionally

The project has highlighted the need to develop and share skills across the organisation to enable insight into how our learners see and work in the world. Our evaluator found standard methods for reflection were not appropriate and we continue to develop new ways to enable them to express their views. Evaluating over a long time period was the biggest challenge and continue to be something we will focus our efforts on.

Kerrie Suteu, Creative Media and Digital Manager
Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
@Herbert_Media | @CrBridgesUK
All images and media courtesy of Herbert Art Gallery and Museum