Last summer in Manchester Professor Chris Phillipson gave a wide-ranging presentation on ‘recreating “spaces” for ageing – the role of education and learning in later life’. He used space in the sense of ‘making room’ – finding the motivation and encouragement for study and learning – but also to refer to the actual places – libraries, museums, arts centres, classrooms – whose future (particularly outside the bigger cities) is under threat. This year is the hundredth anniversary of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Report on Adult Education which came out in 1919. A new Centennial Commission, supported through the Workers Educational Association, has been established. It sees the anniversary as ‘a vital opportunity to reflect on the needs and possibilities for adult education today and into the century ahead’ and seeks our views. Much has changed in the last twenty years. Education in later life has dropped off the policy agenda and many of the places where it used to be on offer have disappeared. For various reasons the profile of older people in the current revival of interest in further and adult education is unclear. So there is much to do. But, looking ahead, what sort of places might be needed in response to renewed interest from a future government?
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.