Family festivals: what have we learnt?

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Tudors at the Tower

Challenge: our Tudors at the Tower Festival saw us battle against the rainy weather

Hard to believe it’s nearly the end of 2014! As the Christmas holidays loom and winter weather takes hold, we’re thinking back to warmer days, reflecting on our first summer of family festivals: Tudors at the Tower, and the Glorious Georgian Family Festivals at Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and Kew Palaces.

Family Festivals are new to Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) and an important part of our new Learning & Engagement strategy. We visualised these festivals as distinctive, large-scale, participatory learning experiences for families, with the aim of attracting new and more diverse visitors to the palaces.  The idea is to do a few big, impactful events rather than lots of smaller ones.

The challenges of a festival…rain

Our first festival was Tudors at the Tower in May.  Doing anything for the first time can be a challenge and this was no exception, how on earth were we going to get portable loos (a family essential!) into the Moat? The Tower is a fortress and access isn’t easy, even these days. To add to the practical challenges, a ceremonial event, Constable’s Dues, was taking place. Oh, and a crane would be in action that weekend, dismantling a huge marquee near the site of our event.

Just when all that was under control, the heavens erupted with  a rain storm of biblical proportions, complete with lightning strikes, as we were erecting Tudor tents and installing the 360°  digital ‘Pop up Palace’. Would we ever be ready in time for our joint launch party with Kids in Museums that evening?  Peter Bazalgette, Chair of the Arts Council, broadcaster and HRP Trustee Trevor McDonald, and historian Bethany Hughes were due to speak in just a few hours, and we were expecting 200 guests. Just in the nick of time, everything came together and the sun broke through, our guests arrived and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the party. The summer of family festivals was well and truly launched.

Sir Trevor McDonald

Launch: Sir Trevor McDonald, a trustee of Historic Royal Palaces

Working with high profile creative and local community partners is another important part of our new strategy, so we were delighted to present our new animated film of Anne Boleyn’s coronation procession, made by children from Shapla primary school in Tower Hamlets with the help of our new partners, Aardman Animations, in the Pop up Palace. Have a look and let us know what you think of the film.

Over the May bank holiday weekend we welcomed about 10,000 visitors to Tudors at the Tower, who enjoyed discovering what life was like in Tudor times.

Glorious Georgians

The  ‘Glorious Georgian Garden Parties’ at Kensington, Hampton Court and Kew Palaces in June, July and August respectively were more genteel affairs, with families invited to immerse themselves in a Georgian world and adopt the etiquette needed to become courtiers. Visitors learnt how to dress and conduct themselves at court, and our more boisterous guests enjoyed sword fighting, duelling and military drill. We wanted to give visitors a real sense of what life was like in Georgian times and feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with one 6-year-old boy telling us it was the best day of his life! For many, the festivals far exceeded their expectations:

“It’s been really, really great. I thought it would just be a few craft tables, or something but this has been great. It’s been amazing.” (A mother at Hampton Court’s Glorious Georges Family Festival).

The Audiences Agency conducted independent evaluation of all our festivals and found 98 per cent of visitors thought the events were good or very good and 79 per cent to the Hampton Court Palace Garden Party said they had learnt something new – so they weren’t just having fun! We want all our family festivals to be more than a great day out, so they all have clearly defined learning outcomes, involve creative and community partners and have learning programmes attached to them.

Glorious Georgians

Glorious: the Georgian events at Hampton Court, Kensington and Kew proved a hit

What’s next?

We are firming up our plans for big family events next year and will be sure to act on all the lessons that we’ve learnt from this year. Tickets have just gone on sale for Tudors on Tour – our first ever off site family festival taking place at Tatton Park over the first May bank holiday. More soon – but in the meantime book early to avoid disappointment!

We would love to hear from you if you’ve organised large-scale family events – any tips we could share? Or anything you would do differently? Thanks!

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