Engaging older audiences with the Arts Council Collection

Engaging with people over the age of 75 in arts and culture can present a series of logistical and contextual challenges as well as huge rewards. Too often dismissed as an audience, they are stereotyped with notions of immobility, ill health and an inability to connect with contemporary life, technology or challenging works of art. Through the Arts Council Collection’s National Partners Programme, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery have been challenging these stereotypes and engaging with older audiences through fully interactive, live streamed tours of the gallery made available in a series of local care homes.

Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.

In 2016 the Arts Council Collection embarked on a three year partnership programme with four galleries across the country, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Towner Art Gallery Eastbourne, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.Through a sustained presence at each venue the Arts Council Collection aims to build a deeper relationship with regional audiences. Building a UK-wide network across regional partners connecting local visitors to their national collection. The Partnership Programme enables the venues to develop and deliver a series of exhibitions utilising works from the Collection and enables learning and engagement teams to develop innovative ways in which to connect to audiences.

Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.

Visiting the gallery – without leaving home

Having developed expertise in live streaming tours of the exhibitions to online audiences across the world, Birmingham Museums and Galleries took the initiative to explore how they could use this digital expertise to connect with more local audiences who may not be able or lack confidence to visit the exhibitions. Understanding that engaging people over the age of 75 with arts and culture can present a series of logistical and contextual challenges, Jon Sleigh, Learning Officer, Arts Council Collection at Birmingham Art Gallery, developed a pilot programme that would enable residents at a local care home to visit the gallery without having to leave the safety of their own space.

Working with staff at Tandy Court care home (part of the Anchor care network, the largest not for profit care networks in the country) Jon and a team of volunteers discussed the possibilities of engaging with their 40 residents, most of whom are over 75 and living with differing stages of dementia. It was essential for the programme to be a collaboration between staff across the care home and the gallery in order to truly understand the needs of the residents and to develop ways of working that were supportive, flexible and also challenging traditional approaches to working with older audiences.

The programme initially took place in the care home and was designed to enable personalised engagement, being responsive to the needs of the individual residents and giving them full control over their experience.

The process was to develop a one-to-one interaction between the gallery staff, the volunteers and the residents (supported by care staff). This built trust and established a positive environment in which to introduce ways of engaging with the exhibition, in this case I Want! I Want! Art and Technology.

Two different approaches were taken to engage the residents with themes from the exhibition and directly with the artworks, object handling and a live stream interaction with a volunteer at the gallery within the exhibition.

Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.

The object handling activity comprised of a wide variety of original domestic objects from the 1970s a decade that connected with an artwork from the exhibition by Stefan Gec, Untitled (Apollo – Soyuz test Project) that documents the historical moment in 1975 when two spacecrafts docked to work on the first ever US Soviet space mission.

“The resources were such an essential component to the session, as they offered a tactile gateway to incite conversation. Having a combination of visual resources (magazines) and physical objects (clothes and accessories) was useful, as each resident responded differently to each stimulus. Some were interested in the magazines and conversations, others would light up at the sight of a tie.” Rebecca Williamson, Volunteer

The live streaming was conducted within the I Want! I Want! exhibition. A museum enabler was on one side of a video call and the care home residents were on the other. Using iPads, the enabler was able to hear the comments and requests from the residents and respond accordingly by taking the screen to a new area of the exhibition or to get close up to a requested artwork. Residents were invited to direct the museum enabler around the space and take full control of their experience.

I found reactions to the live stream incredibly moving and rewarding, and an excellent experiment into its viability. Of particular significance was seeing the Toby Zeigler piece, provoking laughter, wonderment and distaste for it. Comments include ‘Is this happening now?’ ‘Where is it?’, ‘What a treat!’ and ‘Turn that off!’

Jon Sleigh
Learning Officer
Arts Council Collection, Birmingham Museums and Gallery Trust

The multi-layered approach tailored to the audience worked well, with two facilitators and two contrasting experiences to evoke interest. Where the object handling promoted reminiscence and the recanting of past experiences and memories, the live streaming tour of the gallery space offered a fresh experience rooted in the present.

The session had a positive and visible effect on the majority of the residents, the value of which was confirmed by the residential care staff. Staff were as much part of the process as the facilitators and the residents. One member of staff became very emotional when seeing one of the pieces of 1970s clothing and proceeded to show the residents a picture of her mother via her mobile phone dressed in a similar way before asking them to share stories about what they wore in the 70s.

Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.
Drawing by Andrea Bonnell. Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.


For this first pilot the team engaged with 15 participants and each resident responding differently to the experiences. Following the success of the session, two of the residents asked if they could visit the gallery as a day trip. This was then supported by a member of staff from Tandy Court and Birmingham Art Gallery. As an additional layer of connection, the residents were introduced to an artist at the Gallery who made a drawing of the residents so that they could take it back to the care home and remember their experiences.

The feedback from the care workers at Tandy Court confirmed the wellbeing benefits of the interaction with the gallery. The staff appreciated the fact that the residents now have the mechanism to engage with the Gallery even if the weather is bad or it is impossible to get residents out of the care home. The programme has found new ways to address barriers to engagement and has enabled the care home staff to find relevance for art as a tool for wellbeing. It has been a moving process for all staff, volunteers and care workers involved. Working with the residents and introducing them to new stimuli without having to leave the care home has had profound effects and has been energising for everyone involved.

Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.

Jon and I experienced a very special moment with an 84 year old lady named Iris. As soon as I approached her and introduced myself, she lit up and became engaged. She was overwhelmingly positive and responsive, commenting on images of actors in the 1970s magazines: telling me about the sort of things she used to wear and marvelling at the concept of the art gallery. During the course of the interaction she expressed some very poignant views, including ‘Don’t take any of this for granted’ and ‘There is so much beauty in the world’, in response to the live streaming tour. We later learned from a member of staff that Iris is not always so responsive, and in fact that on many occasions appears very insular. To witness her in such bright and positive state of being was truly a joy and privilege, and will remain as both a personal treasured memory and a point of significant professional growth.

Rebecca Williams
Drawing by Andrea Bonnell. Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.

As a result of the pilot, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery has now begun work across the Anchor Care Network in the local area and now has a waiting list of care homes wanting to participate on the programme.

This project was developed and led by Jon Sleigh at BMAG for the Arts Council Collection’s National Partners Programme.

Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.

Natalie Walton
Learning and Outreach Manager, National Partners Programme, Arts Council Collection

This project was funded by Arts Council England.


Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery


Arts Council Collection 

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery