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Sudbury Hall – Developing the Children’s Country House
How do you go about delivering transformational change during a pandemic? AIM spoke to Nikki Kirby, General Manager of Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, about their project to develop the Children’s Country House.
Sudbury Hall – originally the country home of the Vernon family during the 17th century – was passed to the National Trust’s care in 1967 and includes a mansion, formal garden and the Museum of Childhood. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the team at Sudbury is currently working on an ambitious project where the whole property offers an experience in which children are put first.
As Nikki Kirby, General Manager, explains, “Even before COVID we were starting to explore Sudbury’s central proposition. As we have a high, and growing, percentage of family visitors we decided to make more of the museum collection, aiming to unify the three components of Sudbury – mansion, museum and gardens – to become the first Children’s Country House, with children at the forefront of everything we do. So, by March 2020 we had a quite an elaborate project structure set up. And then within a matter of weeks, Covid arrived.”
Like many organisations, staff were placed on furlough and project work ceased, but a core staffing enabled the project to continue, albeit in a different way than was initially planned. “The majority of my team were furloughed, but I was able to keep my creative programme manager, who was leading the Children’s Country House development. During the first lockdown, when the property was unable to open, we used the time to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate what the Children’s Country House could be,” says Nikki.
She adds, “We reviewed our expert counsel and research, rewrote all our strategies, moved our engagement online and recruited a team of child ambassadors who’ve been working with us on the development. We were lucky enough to have some remaining funds from a National Lottery Heritage Fund project, Exploring Childhoods, which enabled us to do some key collecting and put some foundations in place from which to build the Children’s Country House.”
Given the vision of the project – ensuring the Children’s Country House is a place where children feel empowered, important, engaged and that they matter – their involvement in every stage of the development has been central. “The key question has been: how do you take a very traditional mansion house experience and make heritage and history accessible to children.
“A lot of our inspiration comes from other parts of the sector, so the mansion experience will be zoned in the same way that you might get in a science centre, for example. We are trying to engage the child audience with our collections, with stories and with heritage, so we are taking a lot of inspiration from the museum sector, looking at best practice. Our approach is about serving the needs of children with families, not families with children!”
Bringing children into the project was clearly hampered by Covid closures, but the team thought creatively to draw out their feedback during lockdown. “We sent out ‘Museum of You’ packs so children fed in their thoughts about what they would have in a museum if the museum was about them,” explains Nikki.
“We managed to get a group of seven or eight children as ambassadors, who we could involve on a more ongoing, structured basis. They’ve been absolutely amazing and the ambassador programme has now grown to the point where we have over 80 children signed up to take part. We hope they will all be able to come in and do some testing and trialling, and support our development, if restrictions have lifted in summer, and we’re also working with community groups and schools. Then the plan is to do a reveal of phase one in February 2022, all being well.”
And while a challenge, according to Nikki lockdown has provided useful insights to take forward into future projects. She says, “There is something about how less is more when it comes to delivering change. While it’s not been easy, and we are extremely pleased to have more support now members of the wider team have returned from furlough, we had to be extremely focused when there was just seven of us during the first lockdown and we got a lot done. That time of intense activity has also helped accelerate our confidence in the proposition and given us the appetite to be more innovative.”
Pictured: Seven-year-old Mo is one of the child ambassadors who’ve been helping Sudbury develop the Children’s Country House.