Case Study: Claire Collison

Summer of Play: brokering engagement, relevantly and inclusively

by Claire Collison

I’m an educational facilitator with a background in visual literacy and creative writing. I broker engagement between people and places - for example, schools and collections. I do this by understanding what’s compelling about the place, and what people need from it. I then design ways of marrying the two through bespoke resources, workshops, activities and interventions. This triangulation is easier as an outsider: being curious and working out how to creatively employ a place to deliver what people need from it is something freelancers excel at, when they’re invited.

Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) consists of four historic venues: The National Maritime Museum, Queens House, Royal Observatory and Cutty Sark – and, since 2019, the purpose-built Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre (PPMCC). Home to the stores and conservation studios, the PPMCC houses around 100,000 objects, providing behind-the-scenes access to collections not on display. The PPMCC works differently from the historic sites by placing itself as a community hub, where the Collection supports local learners’ development through co-created programmes.

My connection to PPMCC came about thanks to a couple of chance incidents: a lockdown club, and a failed application. I describe these because, in the context of ‘looking at how your programme can better serve and become more reflective of our communities, what insights can be learned from educators about what schools need now, and how hyperlocal partnerships lead to innovative collaboration in the sector’, I believe they are relevant.

I originally approached Matthew Cahill, Collections Engagement Manager, suggesting we applied for a MaxLiteracy award. (I’d been a recipient at Kettle’s Yard, and thought we had a convincing case). In order to understand who PPMCC were not currently reaching, and why and how we might remedy this to support children’s mental health, wellbeing and literacy development, we consulted with local schools, and were overwhelmed by teachers’ responses, and their enthusiasm to work alongside us.

We asked: ‘which learners have missed out most as a result of the pandemic, and what are they struggling most with?One response (representative of many) was:

“…it is the vulnerable children who have not attended school during lockdown (as they declined a place). These children often do not have the technology and devices such as laptops or tablets to access the work. To intensify matters there may a lack of parental impetus to encourage them to do this – due to a possible fear of ‘not doing it right.”

We asked ‘What do you consider to be the most pressing needs of your students, in terms of health, wellbeing, and literacy skills?’ - resoundingly, teachers responded that children were struggling with ‘feeling represented, connected, managing anxiety, and articulating feelings.’

Although the MaxLiteracy bid failed, we didn’t give up on this group, and, supported by Matthew, I devised Summer of Play, a series of Saturday workshops aimed at helping local families support their children develop skills in areas they may have missed out on during the past year due to the pandemic. These sessions focused on family fun and learning through play, and were designed to support parents and carers help support their children. Addressing the confidence of adults in their own learning alongside their desire to help their children, I designed playful ways of connecting with the Collection to develop confidence, particularly around articulacy and literacy, along with ‘take-away’ suggestions of ways to continue at home, with simple and accessible materials.

I came across the PPMCC during lockdown, when, paired with Rise Art Gallery, they delivered the weekly Zoom club, Sound and Vision: invited specialists with a connection to either gallery or RMG talked about a significant object from the Collection, and created a playlist. As their music played, and with their chosen object displayed on-screen, everyone responded by making something - from collage to poetry. It was brilliantly accessible, equitable, and generative. When Tanzanian musician Freddy Macha was their guest, he didn’t think anything in the Collection reflected his experience. I was struck by this, and wanted to design an activity for Summer of Play that acknowledged Macha’s perception, and to marry it with this extract from ‘Charting Our Course’, a strategy RMG launched in 2020:

“Our collections have often been shaped by those with the most power, making them partial and representative only of particular perspectives, diminishing the agency and contributions of many others. However, by exploring, appreciating and celebrating individual and collective diversity, we can nurture greater equality, understanding and accessibility, helping everyone to find their place in our museum, in our world and in the wider universe.”

I achieved this through an activity that symbolically added participants’ own significant objects to the Collection. In the penultimate Summer of Play session, Matthew shared the story of the Titanic Pig, a precious toy musical box salvaged from the Titanic, displayed swathed in conservation tissue paper. Participants were invited to think about their own treasured possessions, which they then brought into the final session. These were lavished with the care and attention, and in the vernacular of, museum artifacts: wrapped in tissue, tied up in burlap, and placed in archival boxes. Participants shared the stories of why their objects were significant, took their own photos of them, and provided captions using their own words. The photographs were printed in-house as a series of exquisite A1 prints, displayed in the community space, and remain as a legacy.

2 - princess carriage.jpg


Owned by: FREYJA

Description: A toy horse and carriage. It makes music.

Caption: It makes me happy when I’m sad. It’s my favourite colours, and it’s got a horsey!

4 xbox.jpg


Owned by: ASHDEN

Description: The console is blue, the headset is camouflage.

Caption: I was able to speak to my friends when we couldn’t see each other.

3 - mr bump.JPG


Owned by: ETHAN

Description: Big blue and white square book

Caption: I like Mr Bump because he bumps into things. I like to take out splinters with tweezers and put on bandages, and that’s why I like Mr Bump.

5 - louise game.jpg


Owned by: LOUISE

Description: Tin with cards

Caption: Represents family time and games night. We all get involved and play each week.

Are we fixated on measuring success in terms of numbers? Unsurprisingly for a family workshop run during a pandemic, attendance to Summer of Play was sporadic. But small is valuable, especially when working with children who had been isolated, and there is support for future programming to reflect this, with shorter, intentionally small sessions. I measure success in terms of one parent taking her learning, adapting it at home, and feeling confident to pass it on to another parent the following week. I measure success in terms of a community being comfortable and conversant with a collection and feeling reflected in it.


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