National Trust venues are engaging with new audiences by empowering young people to run events with local communities, says Hattie Clayton.

Photo of a group of children colouring

It is important for the National Trust to get involved in arts and cultural initiatives to find new ways to encourage participation from a wider range of audiences. Campaigns like Fun Palaces give us the opportunity to welcome new people and provide a platform for them to create their own experiences and connect with heritage and nature in ways that are relevant to them. As an organisation that has responsibility for a large proportion of the UK’s heritage and natural beauty, we also have a duty to empower people from all backgrounds to participate in this.

Young people can achieve amazing things when given the skills and confidence to take ownership of projects

Fun Palaces is an annual weekend of action in the form of local events run by and for local communities at the beginning of October. Anywhere can become a Fun Palace, and any community can create one.

Young leaders

At Morden Hall Park, one of the first of two National Trust places to host a Fun Palace in 2017, local young people led on the planning and delivery of the event. They invited people to share their skills, coordinated a timetable of activities delivered by the community, advertised locally and ran the entire event.

They even created the space the event has been held in for the last two years, which is traditionally used as an overflow car park on busy days. They transformed the borders from overgrown nettles and brambles into a space where wildlife thrives and local people can come together.

As people arrive at the event, they pick up their Fun Palace passport and check the timetable and map, which is colour-coded according to categories of activity. People leading activities, called ‘Fun Palace Makers’, wear badges, and people participating in activities are awarded stickers for their passport.

Preparing for the first one, we weren’t sure what to expect. We’d only had six weeks of planning time, so come event day we printed a hopeful 250 Fun Palace passports. Little did we know we were about to spend the next hour frantically printing and folding passports, as over 1,700 local people poured in through the gates to learn something new about art, nature, music and sport from their neighbours.

Fast-forward to last October, and we were welcoming 78 local people volunteering to share their skills, and 1,200 people learning from them. This showed us something powerful: local people want to come together to learn about arts, heritage and nature from and with their community.

My first Fun Palace experience showed me that young people can achieve amazing things when given the skills and confidence to take ownership of projects. Not only did they work as a team to plan a successful event, but they worked tirelessly to make sure every visitor had a good experience.

One volunteer, Veronika, aged 20, said: ‘‘I learnt that you can do whatever you put your mind to. People really want to be a part of their community and the happiness of everybody who visited and the enthusiasm of everyone who volunteered made all the hard work well worth it.’’

Conservation projects

The young people are a team called the Urban Rangers, a group of 11 to 24 year-olds who take ownership of conservation and community projects at Morden Hall Park. This is just one of many groups of young people learning practical conservation skills as part of the National Trust’s Green Academies project, a national initiative funded by Big Lottery Fund through the Our Bright Future programme.

Morden Hall Park led the way for Fun Palaces in London, with two more National Trust places joining the campaign in 2018. One is Rainham Hall, an 18th-century house with a three-acre garden located in the London Borough of Havering.

Sally Parker, Rainham Hall's Volunteering and Community Involvement Officer, said: ‘‘At Rainham Hall we work with members of the local community all year round and want to build even stronger links with those around us through events such as Fun Palaces. The event encouraged new visitors to the hall and enabled those who attended to try out new things and form connections with others in their local area.’’

At Osterley House and Park, a Georgian country estate in Isleworth, Jeremy Dalton, the Lead Ranger, wants to start an Urban Ranger team of their own, and this was the primary driver for hosting the venue's first Fun Palace. For him it was the journey of preparing for the event that was the biggest benefit, as it enabled him to forge closer links with a local community group, Heston Action Group.

Hattie Clayton is Project Manager at Green Academies Project, National Trust.

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