Archives for Families: Encounters with the Royal Opera House

This month’s blog comes from Stephanie Rolt, Archivist at the Royal Opera House, London as well as our very own APAC Secretary extraordinaire! Here Steph tells us about the ways her team engages families with their archive collections and the trial and error steps it took to establish successful family activities.

Public Engagement at the Royal Opera House Collections falls into four main strands: Events for families, events for adults, social media and exhibitions.

We don’t have a public facing research room, so participating in public engagement activities is really important to us, as it is our main way of sharing the amazing ROH Collections with people. Being situated in the Opera House’s Learning and Participation department puts us in a great position to get involved in the variety of learning events which are constantly taking place.

An archive display at a masks themed family event
(c) Royal Opera House

In this blog I’m going to talk about one particular strand of our public engagement work – events for families. There are two types of family events that we are involved in: 

  • Family Sundays: These are events aimed at children and their families. A range of activities are run in the front of house spaces including crafts, singing workshops, dressing up and performances. Each Family Sunday has a theme and might be linked to an upcoming production. Past themes have included “Magic and Trickery” and “Fabulous Creatures”.
  • Welcome Performances: These are performances for families who have never been to a ballet or opera at the Royal Opera House before. Before the performance, attendees have the opportunity to “Meet the Makers”, where various teams (including Collections) demonstrate how they contribute to the work of the Opera House.
Members of the Archive Team at a Welcome Performance
(c) Royal Opera House

The children at these events are usually aged between 5 and 12, so we run a range of simple, participatory activities which are tailored to the event’s theme. Where appropriate, we try to make activities into a game. A typical event will include:

  • Object handling: kids like to get up close to the objects and enjoy learning how props and costumes are made for the stage. We encourage the children to guess what an item is made from, how old it is, or what it was used for. Telling a child that an item is “even older than Granny and Grandad” often elicits a wow!
  • Collections display: we usually have a display area, clearly separated from the handling area in a location that small hands can’t reach! The focus here is on large, striking items – usually from the Costume Collection – which will draw people to our activities, supplemented by 2D items such as posters and photographs. We try to include images of characters or performers that the children may recognise or who may be in the performance they are going to see.
  • “Match the Design” activity: a fun exercise where children match a costume design to a photograph of the final costume. As well as introducing children to the creative process of costume design and manufacture, it demonstrates the detective skills required to be an archivist.
Some ‘Fabulous Creatures’ on display for families to enjoy
(c) Royal Opera House

It took several events and unsuccessful activities to find out which activities worked best. For example, earlier activities proved too complicated for younger children, or we had too much information in the display which made our area look cluttered and unfocussed. There has been a lot of learning by trial and error – so we’d like to share what we’ve learnt. Our top tips are:

  • Choose handling items carefully: Object handling, especially with children, can be a bit nerve wracking. Some items are very robust whilst others are delicate, so choose wisely, and accept that there might be casualties. At the Opera House we only use items for handling if there is a duplicate in the Collections. We have also started to create a Handling Collection of programmes, wigs and other items which are used solely for handling sessions, thereby protecting the rest of the Collections.
  • You can buy child-sized nitrile gloves: Children must put on nitrile gloves before they take part in object handling. Size Extra Small fits your average junior school kid perfectly, and it’s a good idea to have stocks of larger sizes for parents, who often want to get involved. As well as protecting themselves and the object, the act of putting on the gloves helps the children to realise that they are about to hold an historic artefact, which must be handled carefully. For some reason, kids love the purple gloves, and often want to keep them as a souvenir!
  • Make sure enough staff are available: It’s easy to get overwhelmed at a busy family event. We have learnt to limit object handling to four or five items, with two members of staff on duty at all times. If you are using volunteers, make sure they have been briefed in how to handle items correctly.
  • Know your stuff: Parents (and sometimes children!) have a habit of always asking that one question you don’t know the answer to, so do your research! If you’re doing an event focussing on a particular work, read up on the storyline and the different productions that your company has put on over the years. I’ve found it useful to have a crib sheet of key facts readily available. Similarly, only choose objects for display or handling that you have sufficient information about. In the past, we have displayed “mystery” items at events and asked people to guess what they are. But rather than finding this a fun activity, people are mainly unimpressed when they discover you don’t know what it is either.
  • Be aware of your competition: At family events we are often one of many teams running activities, so it helps to know what others are doing when you are planning. If your stall is next to the armoury’s, children aren’t going to be very impressed by staring at an old sword they’re not allowed to touch when they can handle a new one next door. Similarly, don’t put lots of effort into designing an elaborate craft activity if creative departments already have this covered. Focus on your strengths, and talk to the event’s producer about your ideas to see if there are any gaps you can fill.
  • Take part in trails and quizzes: Many family events have a trail or quiz with a question for each stall or participant. This is a great way of making sure the children come to visit your stall.

Do you work with families? What activities have gone well? We’d love to hear from you: archives@roh.org.uk

To find out more about the Royal Opera House Archives visit https://www.roh.org.uk/about/roh-collections

Want to write a blog for us about your archive, project or star item? Get in touch with us via info@performingartscollections.org.uk