Interview with Holiday Donaldson, Public Engagement and Learning Producer at Imperial War Museum
Holiday Donaldson is the driving force behind IWM's successful "Family Mission: D-Day Edition". GEM's Communication's Manager Devon Turner sat down with her to talk about the success of the programme and how it all began...
DT: Tell us a bit about yourself, have you always been interested in education?
HD: I guess what interests me most is creating experiences that really stick with people. At IWM I’m really lucky that I get to work with artists to make memorable moments for a huge range of audiences, from local primary school groups to BBC Radio 3 listeners. Prior to my role here I worked in a couple different theatre producing teams where I covered everything from supporting artist development and producing education projects to programming shows. The team I sit within at IWM (Public Engagement and Learning) is structured a lot like a theatre or arts producing team – so I feel pretty at home here despite my lack of museum background. In fact, our team is made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds including former teachers, journalists, and filmmakers.
DT: Here at GEM we were very excited to hear about “Family Mission: D-Day Edition” – What was the idea behind this project? How did it begin?
HD: We started with the idea of creating a museum ‘backpack’ to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D Day at our historic Second World War sites: HMS Belfast and IWM Duxford. With that in mind, I got my hands on just about every museum backpack going and swiftly decided that the inspiration I was looking for just wasn’t out there. All the backpacks I saw were amazing learning resources, but they were just that; a resource and not much else. They didn’t tell a story, they didn’t take visitors on a narrative journey and that’s what I really wanted to be different with Family Mission. To allow families to experience history where it happened and invite visitors to engage with the stories of real people who served there. By positioning our visitors as new recruits preparing for D Day it not only makes the subject matter feel relevant, urgent and exciting – but also fosters a sense of empathy and connection to the real people who were affected by this chapter in history.
DT: How is both similar and different to a family trail?
HD: Like your typical family trail, Family Mission takes visitors on a journey around the site and gets them engaged with particular aspects of the collection. Most museum backpacks are characterised by bright colours, and often use shiny props like magnifying glasses and tactile items which encourage visitors to explore the museum from a child friendly perspective. Family Mission disrupts this model, the packs themselves are designed to look like authentic Royal Navy kit bags and US Army jump bags, with activities inside based on real military training guides. Beyond a family learning programme – Family Mission is an immersive experience for visitors. Family Mission borrows from site specific theatre techniques and game mechanics to develop a narrative through the sites. I developed the activity with KIT Theatre, an immersive theatre company for young audiences and Set Designer Kirsty Harris. By working with a creative team that traditionally develop live work we were able to create a self-guided activity with the dramaturgy and narrative of a performance.
DT: What measures have you taken to make sure the Family Mission: D Day Edition is accessible for all?
HD: In the development of the activities we made sure to provide different entry points into the subject matter for different kinds of learners, abilities and interests. Rather than relying on pen and paper, our activities foster discussion while highlighting the tactile and physical aspects of each unique setting. Due to the physical challenges of navigating historic sites we focused on developing dynamic activities that don’t need to be completed in a particular order (or even completed at all) to reach the end of the trail.
Since we rolled out the activity we’ve become more aware of the high level of international visitors at HMS Belfast and we are now in process of translating the activity into 3 additional languages.
DT: The interpretation and immersion are amazing, Can you share some memorable family experiences?
HD: I think the most memorable have been the comments from families on the final scene of the narrative. At the end of the Duxford trail, families find themselves looking up at a Dakota Skytrain. When we were initially developing the activity we had the idea to make this scene quite silly, we wanted to have a big fan that you could turn on, and a family member spraying water at the children to create the effect of parachuting into the rain. After sitting with the content I realised that actually this was a point for reflection. Tom from KIT Theatre wrote this brilliant piece vividly describing what it’s like to jump out of an aircraft which really captured the fear, but also the excitement of that moment. In this final activity we ask families to face this reality; what does it actually mean to jump out of an aircraft, in the middle of the night, 300 feet in the air, above enemy territory? Overwhelmingly families have commented on the emotion of this section and how it has really set the scene for them to have a challenging but important conversation as a family. The packs are filled with activities that encourage families to not just learn and play together but also to discuss and explore the human side of conflict.
DT: Last year you won the Robert Logan Award for your work on this project – congratulations! How has that recognition shaped the project and been received at your museum?
HD: I never really expected to win – I just though the application would be great practice for grant writing! The award has definitely helped raise awareness of the programme across the IWM branches, but I think prior to that Family Mission’s impact was already being felt across the organisation. The project has fostered greater cross-team collaboration. One such instance with our Marketing department, with whom I collaborated to develop a trailer for the activities. We brought in Tea Films, whom myself and IWM Marketing Manager Siobhan Sharp had both worked with in our previous roles at Battersea Arts Centre.
In addition, internal advocacy to bring other departments on board to new ways of working has been extremely successful. So much so that the IWM Duxford Master planning team, which are working to redevelop the historic airfield, are now taking inspiration from the programme and looking to employ similar arts and theatre based strategies in their work.
DT: IWM Duxford was also chosen as a 2019 Family Favourite Awards Finalist from Day Out with the Kids for the category of “Best educational day out”. Yes, children are learning, but what else do you hope they take away from your programme?
HD: Let’s be honest, in 2020 families are increasingly disconnected from the D-Day story. WWII is no longer a requirement on the National Curriculum and every year there are fewer people to share their lived experience of the war. Yes, we want to create a fun a memorable experience for families but beyond that, Family Mission aims to engage families with the complex feelings of a service person about to embark on D-Day. My goal is that their engagement with our programme can start difficult conversations about fear, life, death and global politics today that last well beyond a visit to the museum. I hope that we have made a project about an event 75 years ago relevant to the families of today.
DT: What top tips do you have for other family educators?
HD: Don’t be afraid to share it with your audience at an early stage. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t got it right yet, your audience is the expert – let them be your critical friend and show them what you’re working with before it’s polished and perfect.
Don’t just commission artists, collaborate with them.
Be flexible. Families have all different kinds of needs and abilities. Have lots of different options available for them to engage so your activity can enhance their visit not hinder it.
It should go without saying but, be friendly! So much of the success of this programme was down to the support of other departments across our branches. You never know who you will collaborate with and it really pays off to make the effort with people as you never know what role they will play in making your future successes a reality!
DT: Thanks for your time Holiday! It was great to learn more about IWM’s engaging and immersive programming, especially the Family Mission: D-Day Edition. We look forward to seeing what you get up to in the future.