Lifelong learning at the RIBA and other museums

Wilson Yau
Digital Outreach Manager, RIBA

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is just one of many museums and cultural organisations in the UK working with older people to support lifelong learning. Together, they offer cultural activities, each unique to the communities they serve, locality and the historic and modern artefacts that they hold in their collections.

Since 2016 from its London base, the RIBA has grown its outreach activities and it works with older people, both individuals and community groups such as the Ransackers. This work uses architecture to reduce social isolation, break down digital barriers and support older people wanting to stay active and learn new skills. How has it done this? Firstly, by opening up its HQ building, exhibitions and library to enable everyone to learn about architecture for free. Back in May 2017, the RIBA team had the pleasure to spend time with the Ransackers when they visited for a guided tour of its building and architecture exhibitions.

The second was to welcome people by supporting their visits through engaging and free educational and creative art activities, such as drawing on iPads and model making, all with experienced RIBA staff. Uniquely, all visits and activities are inspired by architecture, whether that’s through the built environment in general, the RIBA’s own building or its collection of four million architectural books, models, photographs and drawings. The feedback received is that a visit to the RIBA is a positive and welcoming experience which offers participants a chance to overcome digital barriers in a supportive and social environment, and above all it was enjoyable for everyone involved – both staff and visitors.

iPad drawing workshop at RIBA, London_ Image credit - RIBA
iPad drawing workshop at the RIBA, London (Image credit: RIBA)
Architecture Drawing Day at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London, Saturday 6th October 2018
Creative workshop during Silver Sunday at the RIBA, London (Image credit: RIBA)

In 2018, the RIBA began taking these architecture-based creative activities on offsite visits, leaving our HQ site to spend time with groups in community centres and care homes in their local area. In the same year, thanks to two grants, the RIBA bought other digital equipment: a 3D printer and 3D scanner. These have been used to 3D print durable plastic versions of architectural models moulded in plasticine by people living with dementia. The 3D scans enabled interactive 3D versions of these models to be put online via Sketchfab, allowing an international audience to view and interact with these objects made by mostly older people.

Plasticine and 3D printed models at RIBA, London, made by people living with dementia _ Image credit - RIBA
Plasticine and 3D printed models at the RIBA, London, made by people living with dementia (Image credit: RIBA)

In 2019 the RIBA will continue offering supported visits to community and educational groups. In addition, there will a new series of free, drop-in art workshops suitable for individuals to attend, which will be hosted in the its new learning space, the Clore Learning Centre. Along with other museums, the RIBA will be taking part in Silver Sunday, a nationwide celebration of the contribution that older people make to society.

Other museums have also been pioneering programmes to work with older people. The Pallant Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, has a world-class collection which tells the story of Modern British art from 1900 to the present day. Since 2002, it has had a free community programme which currently engages with around 200 people who are at risk of isolation or have a disability. Recognising that everyone is entitled to a creative life and to be treated equally and fairly, the gallery has offered the local community a long-term programme of activities and new learning in the gallery for those who have an interest in art.

Nearby the RIBA, in Marylebone, the Wallace Collection is a national museum with art collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has an active programme which works with lifelong learners not just in their museum, but also going out to older people in care and in medical and community settings. Activities they offer vary from interactive talks to practical art activities, some with the aim to impact positively on health and wellbeing.

We’ve only looked at three examples, there are opportunities for older people to undertake informal learning at many other national and local museums and art galleries. The offer varies between institutions, but even in this era of budget cuts the cultural sector is one place that lifelong learners can still look towards to gain new skills, learn with others and for enjoyment.

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