I am currently working with Jackie Goodall from The Cottage Museum in Woodhall Spa http://www.woodhallspa-museum.co.uk/ through a research partnership co mentoring programme. We have both identified audience development as our focus. It links into research that I am doing into the impact of new technologies on the traditional concept of audience and the museum’s continuing work to engage with the local community.

I have recently read the ACE taking part in the arts report ‘Not for the Likes of You; How to Reach a Broader audience’. http://www.takingpartinthearts.com/content.php?content=943  Not for the Likes of You was a project that worked with 10 organisations prepared to embrace radical change to reposition themselves through identifying strategies for removing barriers to attendance and participation.


 As Jackie and I are both kinaesthetic learners we decided to use the research partnership as an opportunity to explore barriers for audiences through experiencing an activity that was ‘not for the likes of us’. We chose to visit Gala Bingo and the results were revealing. As Bingo novices we had to negotiate an unfamiliar building and process. We relied on the kindness of other bingo players and the patience of the staff to guide us through a complicated and confusing programme. We were unaware of bingo protocol, etiquette and diplomacy. We were out of our depth and at times we felt quite stressed!

The large steel shutter concealing the entrance to the bingo hall presented a very physical barrier and was our first introduction to the Gala experience. It was a bitterly cold morning and the shutter gave us little comfort that we were even in the right place. A lack of signage and dirty cigarette butt bins shouted out ‘seedy back entrance’ and we feared that we had made a big mistake. Ivy and Sheila were our saviours; silver haired bingo natives who inducted us through an engaging chat about the magic of the game. We discussed the most effective way to mark our cards (dabber v felt tip) and heard wondrous tales of a computerised pen! Shelia alluded to the fact that she now plays on-line in a hushed whisper, protecting her guilty secret from the disapproval of the hardcore players within earshot.


At 11.30am on the dot a senior citizen flash mob appeared from nowhere, headed up by the gleaming steel of wheelchairs. There was a quiet and well ordered anticipation that something was about to happen. The crowd moved closer to the entrance and Jackie and I found ourselves within the jostle of shopping bags freshly filled at the market. I felt a sense of awe and wonder as the shutter slowly raised revealing a plush interior complete with escalator moving towards the dizzy heights of Bingo Heaven.

As the crowd surged forward, I experienced the same excitement I had aged 16 on making it into Rock City to see The Jesus and Mary Chain; Oh how things have changed! The excitement quickly turned to panic as we witnessed the flash mob scanning their membership cards to ride the magic stairs to the bingo beyond. Surfing the crowd, Sheila shouted directions to us… ‘Fill out a form at the desk’. We waited patiently as the Gala Bingo lady made enquiries for a punter who had been separated from her favourite cardigan and then filled out forms which were quickly exchanged for cards.


At the top of the stairs there was another desk to negotiate and more Gala Bingo ladies with all the shazam of airline hostesses. They plied their wares, a bountiful supply of bingo cards, books and dabbers with warmth and confidence. Jackie and I were brave enough to reveal our bingo ignorance and were guided through the various combinations of games and trade-ups. Although pleased with our £3.50 purchase we left the desk feeling distinctly discom- bingo-bobulated and clutching our dabbers made our way through a corridor of one arm bandits to the next stage.

The bingo hall itself was immense and I was unprepared for its scale. The colour scheme, lighting and island seating created an atmosphere that instantly transported me to an evening out. It was plush, clean and presented excellent facilities. It was indeed Bingo Heaven; an immersive environment with everything that a discerning bingo player could need (bar, canteen and vending machines). We sat near Tracey from Birmingham, her mum and her aunt who guided us through the unwritten rituals and routines of the beautiful game.


I was particularly impressed by bingo technology. A large board advertised what I can only describe as a bingo i-pad using touch screen technology as an alternative to card and pen. We also played a book of games which linked Gala Bingo halls across the nation in an act of social bingo inclusion. I recorded an audioboo which documented the exciting moment that Wakefield and Nottingham St Anne’s halls completed a line in real-time. ‘Bingotastic’  http://audioboo.fm/k8iesmith

In between panic eating two snack packs of biscuits I surveyed the hall to gather some bingo statistics. Approximately 95% of the bingo demographic were female and over 60. The majority of players were in pairs or friendship groups although there were some lone bingo players and the friendly environment appeared to support this. Engagement with the programme was interrupted by breaks for food (and possibly cigarettes) but there was little evidence of players leaving after an hour. A big money national game and free games scheduled towards the end of the session perhaps motivated players to stay longer.


The logistics of Bingo rely on concentration, lightening reflexes and confidence. Jackie and I found ourselves just content to be able to find the numbers on our cards or books. The speed of the game was the only cause of stress for me. I did feel that I needed a bingo appreciation course or ‘how to’ guide but loved the experience and was very surprised by how much I learnt from it. It was engaging, sociable and accommodated us as new comers. I felt that we were welcomed into an experience rather than being isolated through our obvious lack of knowledge.  

Jackie and I have reflected on our experience in the context of young people visiting the alien environment of a museum and questioned how we can identify the barriers that may prevent engagement. Our next step is to work with a film maker to capture our bingo experience in an attractive format. We then hope to work with pupils at St Andrew’s Primary School in Woodhall Spa though sharing our film to explore their preconceptions of a visit to a museum.

We hope to encourage small group trips to the museum and will support the young people to audit their experience in the same terms as our visit to Gala Bingo. In an open ended experiential collaboration with a creative practitioner they will then help us to explore our enquiry question of ‘How can we build a vibrant, creative environment that will encourage young people to visit a museum’. In the same way that Jackie and I felt that we needed a ‘how to’ guide, the young people may choose to create some form of instruction to support the visitor experience in an exciting and visual way. We will however leave the question open to interpretation and avoid assuming that we know what young people think!

The partnership research co-mentoring programme has been developed by The Mighty Creatives as part of its workforce development programme and the MLA Strategic Commissioning Learning Links programme. http://www.themightycreatives.com/