An important part of Encountering the Unexpected was experimenting with new ways of engaging older people with museums and their collections. We found the following characteristics were essential to creating successful creative partnerships:

Open, supportive environments – where activities are structured but not prescriptive, encourage a diversity of responses, and can include unplanned for experiences and encounters. Creating a calm, reflective and safe space for individual exploration, opportunity and creativity. The physical space is also important, in terms of accessibility, atmosphere, stimulation and relevance e.g. using the outdoors as part of a workshop on natural heritage.

Building relationships – where trust and personal connections take place, the experience is welcoming and hospitality is deeply considered and delivered. Creating a respectful and equitable environment, where everyone can participate and there is no hierarchy, is key. Drawing on the skills and experiences of the participants, valuing recognising and acknowledging their skills, experiences and interests, and giving them the opportunity to shape content.

Provide challenge – engagement needs to be structured whilst working within a framework that allows for open-ended exploration. Approaching engagement through layering means that more challenging opportunities can be introduced in stages, which is helpful to supporting participants and building their confidence. At the same time, engagement needs to be adaptable and flexible. Activities are not simply passing the time but are meaningful, purposeful, and encourage people to ‘venture into their curiosity’ outside of their comfort zone.

Getting into the flow – providing opportunities for participants to become absorbed or immersed in the experience, helping them to slow down and really concentrate can be rewarding and opens people up to unexpected encounters. There are parallels between creating art and being in nature, both can elicit a sense of being in the moment (mindfulness).

Be playful – encounters can be personal, opening up new avenues but also fun and playful. Participants are encouraged to be curious and see where that curiosity takes them.

Treat older people as adults – do not underestimate older people, who have a wealth of experiences to draw on. Engagement should not be child-like, school-like, patronising or prescriptive, or a ‘make and take.’ Do not assume they cannot learn, are less active mentally or need greater guidance and explanation.

Connect sessions to peoples’ lives outside the museum – the session should not end with the museum or be about the museum but relate to, and connect to, the rhythm of peoples’ lives beyond the museum. Opportunities should be provided to take the session beyond the life of the project or programme, making it really meaningful to peoples’ everyday experiences.

Provide learning opportunities – in the lifelong and broadest sense, getting outside of the need for e.g. purely ‘scientific’ approaches to natural heritage collections and thinking about how the session can provide stimulation, inspiration, creativity and be relevant to peoples’ lives outside the museum. Active engagement is critical for living and ageing well and part of that is keeping learning.