Encountering the unexpected

Research Centre for Museums and Galleries

As the world population ages, how can museums and galleries nurture living and ageing well?

Dominant perceptions of older age focus on decline, frailty, illness and dependence, linked to a medical model that pathologises and problematises ageing. This deficit model shapes the roles that older people can have in society, the expectations that people have of them, and how organisations, such as museums and galleries, respond to their needs. Instead of seeing ageing as a ‘problem’, how can museums create more opportunities for people in the later stages of life to live in the moment, be actively engaged, have meaning and purpose and feel connected to their communities and the wider world? How can museums and galleries support older people to live and age well?

Encountering the unexpected was an innovative two-year action research project that set out to challenge the (unconscious) assumptions that museums make about older people and find new approaches to engaging them with natural heritage collections. Initiated by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), at the University of Leicester, and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, run by the Museums Association, Encountering the Unexpected worked with six museums from the North West Natural History Museums Partnership (Manchester Museum, World Museum Liverpool, Bolton Libraries and Museums, The Whitaker in Rossendale, Gallery Oldham, and The Atkinson in Southport), to develop a framework that can support museums and galleries to nurture older people to live and age well, reconnect with the natural world and encourage meaningful engagement in the present.

Image courtesy of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, photography by Luke Blazejewsk.

The project challenged the museums to change the way they work with older people by framing their natural heritage collections through the lens of living and ageing well and nature connectedness. The project also focused on offering opportunities for older people to take part in a meaningful engagement experience that would reconnect them to the natural world through an unexpected encounter. It was an experimental process, raising possibilities, asking questions, capturing experiences and reflecting on challenges and opportunities.

As part of the planning and development process we brought together experts from different fields, including museum curators and engagement staff from the six museums, strategic partners with an interest in active ageing, nature and the natural environment, and RCMG researchers, in a series of day-long exchanges. These acted as a forum for the sharing of ideas and stimulating new ways of thinking that worked towards defining, interrogating and connecting the concept of ‘encountering the unexpected’ in natural heritage collections to support older people to live and age well. Encouraging creativity and imagination through interaction and practical activity, the exchanges helped to develop skills in collaborative partnership working, both across curatorial and engagement teams and with external partners. The exchanges offered both support and constructive challenging, whilst carving out dedicated time and space for museum staff to plan their experimental activity and develop their practice, drawing on their expertise and knowledge of collections and engagement work with older people.

Image courtesy of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, photography by Luke Blazejewski.

Each museum’s activity or ‘experiment’ was very different. Museums worked in partnership with a range of organisations to reach older people including progressive housing associations in Manchester (Southway Housing Trust) and Bolton (Bolton at Home), and community groups such as the ‘Golden Oldies’, a group of women aged between 66 and 90 years old who enjoy activities together such as theatre trips, armchair yoga, and music.

National Museums Liverpool worked with an established group of older people who had been meeting for about a year through the ‘Meet me at the Museum’ programme. The Whitaker made the most of their popular and highly regarded café, advertising their experiment workshops to a captive audience in order to attract new participants and making food and drink an integral part of the activities.

Image courtesy of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, photography by Luke Blazejewski.

Other museums such as Gallery Oldham developed activities for their public programme alongside an offer for residential and care homes in the area, using their marketing contacts to advertise to, and recruit, older people. The experiments reflected a range of themes associated with the natural world and ‘encountering the unexpected’ within nature. Natural heritage collections were not always the starting point but broader themes such as bees, trees and seas were explored. Many facilitators used natural materials in their sessions, including wool, plants from gardens and parks to food and drink such as honey. Sessions involved experts and curators but required no natural history knowledge. Rather the sessions were underpinned by knowledge and understanding, creating opportunities for greater depth through exploration of the collections and natural specimens. Connections were drawn across disciplines, bringing science and art together such as at the Whitaker which delved into the microscopic world of plants as the inspiration for artworks.

Image courtesy of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, photography by Luke Blazejewski.

One hundred older people participated in the museum experiments. Museums did not specifically target older people through their medical conditions (such as dementia) or those with a specialist interest in natural history which enabled them to attract a breadth of older people, representing a great diversity of life experience and background from engineers and factory workers to former teachers and advertising professionals. Some were more mobile than others, many were living with medical conditions which affected them physically and/or mentally. Regardless of their backgrounds, many participants were very active in their local communities, they loved nature and were still actively interested in politics and global issues, with a range of interests including music, photography, walking, singing, cooking, arts and craft, theatre and culture. There were different levels of experience of museums and galleries, from those who visited museums regularly to those who had not been prior to taking part in a museum experiment, and very different experiences of natural heritage collections. Their ages ranged from fifty years to late eighties, most (but not all) were retired. Many older people had experienced loss and bereavement including family and friends; some experienced a deep loneliness, often because of the loss they had experienced. They lived in different places, some in their own homes, some were housing association tenants, some in very urban and some in semi-rural environments.

Image courtesy of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, photography by Luke Blazejewski.


An important element of the project was to capture the impact on older participants. Considering the experiences and perspectives of the older people participating in the museum experiments, as well as the impact on museum practitioners and partners, we used a range of methods to answer the following research questions: How can natural heritage collections support living and ageing well? What are the opportunities and challenges of this work?

Participants, staff and creative practitioners shared their experiences with us, some keeping reflective journals throughout their engagement journey. We also captured evidence of the impact of the project through conducting over 40 interviews with participants, museum staff, partners, creative practitioners and artists using open-ended questions to encourage dialogue and reflection. Designed response cards asking ‘What does nature mean to you?’, were also used with all older people participating in the museum experiments to elicit thoughts, feelings and responses in written or drawn form. Both methods encouraged participants to reflect on their experiences and it was critical to foster an open, equitable and reflective environment so that participants could talk freely about their experiences.

The experiments enabled participants to access, and become interested, in natural heritage collections in ways they had not previously imagined. These ‘unexpected encounters’ created new, surprising and fascinating encounters with nature and natural heritage collections that sparked their interest and curiosity. Coming into close contact with the wonders and complexities of nature, including things that were everyday and familiar, stimulated further interest and questions, and provided inspiration for creative activities. People’s experiences of taking part in the experiments also helped us to understand from their perspective what it means to live and age well. Living in the moment, connecting with people and the natural world, keeping actively engaged, and having meaning and purpose in life are all important. The diversity of peoples’ experiences also shatterconventional stereotypes of ageing and older people, opening up new ways for museums to work with older audiences now and in the future.

Encountering the Unexpected led to the development of the Unexpected Encounters Framework that aims to support more museums and galleries in their work with older people and their collections, and involve the sector in broader debates about how older people are recognised and valued within society. This framework, along with further findings from the research project can be found in the publication Unexpected Encounters: How museums nurture living and ageing wellBuilding on the powerful work done by many museums around memory, reminiscence, health and wellbeing, the research seeks to significantly extend it and considers the wider role of older people within society and how museums can contribute to enabling them to live and age well. The research seeks to challenge how museums – and society more broadly – perceive older people and hopes to move conversations about older people and ageing to new areas, encouraging a fundamental shift in the way that many museums and galleries perceive, and work with, older people; to go beyond the deficit medical model that perpetuates negative perceptions of ageing and older people by focusing on a vision of a society where all people are empowered and enabled to participate to their fullest, and where museums actively nurture and support older people to live and age well.

Jocelyn Dodd
Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester
@LeicsMusStud / @McrMuseum

All videos hosted on YouTube

Challenging perceptions of older people

How can museum engage older people

What does encountering the unexpected mean to you?

Living in the moment

Connecting to nature, connecting to people

Museum Partners: Manchester Museum, World Museum Liverpool, Bolton Libraries and Museums, The Whitaker in Rossendale, Gallery Oldham, and The Atkinson in Southport. Strategic Partners: The Eden Project, RSPB, Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Public Interest Research Centre and active ageing specialists Age UK, Age Friendly Museum Network and Equal Arts.

Funders: The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, run by the Museums Association.