Working with City of Sanctuary

Creating an Early Years session for refugee and asylum seeking families

"The City of Sanctuary sessions have offered parents with small children the opportunity to engage with some of the brilliant things that the museum has on offer. For most of the people we have been working with it is the first time they have visited a museum in the UK, with many of them not knowing beforehand that the museum is there, is free and is for everyone to enjoy.

The children have all had a great time with so many different activities on offer and to see this, alongside their parents happiness watching the children explore, learn and play has been really special.

For me, this has been a brilliant example of the difference that can be made when organisations are open and creative about making places welcoming for people who are seeking sanctuary in Newcastle" - Rosie, City of Sanctuary


At the Great North Museum: Hancock we welcome around 470,000 visitors annually, of whom the largest proportion are families. We find that many visitors first visit the museum as a child either with their families or on school visits, they then return to the museum again when they have their own children. We are proud to be a popular choice for families within the local area. But what about families who are new to the North East, new to the UK and perhaps have never visited a museum before?

In March 2019 we began working with Newcastle’s ‘City of Sanctuary’ (CoS) after they asked if we could offer any bespoke sessions for refugee and asylum seeking families with children aged 5 and under.  CoS are committed to welcoming those seeking sanctuary to Newcastle and helping them to rebuild their lives.  They work to make Newcastle a place of safety and a city which is committed to including those seeking sanctuary fully in to the lives of their communities.  This is something that fits whole heartedly with the Newcastle University and museum ethos.

At the end of March we offered an hour pilot session, this was a great way to learn how best to engage with the group and what to expect from future sessions.

Unlike other Early Years under 5’s sessions offered in the museum we did not use an online advance booking system for the group. This would not have worked for the CoS families due to English being an additional and new language for most, as well as technology being difficult to access. Instead CoS staff managed the booking; they advertised the session at their own venue, created a signup register and provided families with directions to the museum.

This eliminated part of the session planning however, it meant it was more important than usual to ensure the session was flexible and that teaching could be adapted on the spot.

The pilot session was carried out in the Natural Northumbria gallery; we offered toys, instruments, colouring and crafts and took part in some group songs. CoS staff attended and joined in with the session too.  

After the museum session CoS were really happy and asked if we could consider creating a regular offer for their group. The feedback from families was amazing to hear and so we decided to create a monthly CoS museum session, albeit with a few moderations.

Going forward we decided to start the sessions in a separate space in the museum to allow the initial coming together of the group to be easier. For many families they had never been to a museum before and found the building exciting but also large and loud when trying to get their bearings. CoS staff agreed that it could be a better approach to start in a separate space where we could welcome families to the museum, make them comfortable with the new surroundings before then going on to explore the wider museum.  

Furthermore, based upon the attendance at the session we decided that future sessions needed to flexible so that older siblings, over 5 years old, could also join in. Many of the families consist of older children who are awaiting school places and so, were older siblings not welcome at the session, many families would not be able to attend. For other Early Years museum under 5’s sessions this simply would not work. Older siblings usually become bored by the content of an Early Years session and can become disruptive. However, this was not the case for the CoS families. As English was a new language for most participants and the sessions were aimed at an under 5’s audience the session provided an enjoyable learning experience for the whole family – the museum became a new space where they could learn together. Older children were happy to engage with their under 5’s siblings and the museum became a place for the whole family. 

We began offering monthly CoS sessions in July 2019. Sessions have covered an mix of themes including; Local Wildlife, Dinosaurs, Jungle Animals, Polar Animals and Archaeology.

Making the above changes has allowed the sessions to work much better. We spend half the time in the separate space introducing the session’s theme and then the other half exploring the museum with those who feel ready and comfortable. Anyone who does not yet want to explore the whole museum or who wishes to see one or two of the galleries can return to the separate room, accompanied by CoS staff, at any point.  

Working in the museum on the Early Years programme is really special. We want our smallest visitors to feel welcome and to grow up wanting to visit the museum again and again. Working with CoS families and offering bespoke sessions really enforces this, it is lovely to welcome new families to the museum and to see them become excited as they realise it is a place for them; somewhere they are welcome and can enjoy visiting again and again. To be part of this is incredibly rewarding. 

You can read more about these sessions in our Case Study on the Museum of London's Early Years Toolkit

If you would like to know more about our joined working with City of Sanctuary please contact Amy Baird via


'Sessions are super fun and a brill way for people to access the museum in a supportive way'

‘I did not know museums did things like this for little children and babies. It is amazing, we’ll definitely come back’

‘I feel happy to know we can come to the museum and be welcome’