Fun Palaces and Community-Led Digital Culture

Fun Palaces is a two-pronged approach to community engagement in culture – by which we mean tech, digital, crafts, arts and science.

We are both a campaign for everyday creativity in all its forms at the heart of every community and also an annual weekend of action. The Fun Palaces weekend every October sees professional arts, sciences and tech organisations come together with grassroots enthusiasts to share their knowledge, skills and enthusiasm in a hyper-local event created by and for local communities.

On our third annual weekend in October 2016, there were 292 Fun Palaces, led by approximately 4800 local Makers, with 124,000 people taking part across the UK and abroad. We believe that the best people to create inclusive cultural activity in a community are those from that community themselves. This shows up in our latest evaluation which notes that 85% of Fun Palaces in the UK were outside London (unusual – and welcome – for cultural activity in the UK) and 59% of them happen in libraries, supporting digital cultural engagement right where people live.

The crossover between arts and science, crafts and tech, has enabled locally-led Fun Palaces across the UK to offer hands-on participation in digital activity. Because Fun Palaces are led by local people, they often offer less formal access to digital, and as 34% of Fun Palaces Maker teams include people under 18, this means there is great scope for young people to lead on digital activity, as part of an intentionally intergenerational event.

Many adults have been trained to think of themselves as interested in arts OR science, and the wide range of activities on offer at a local Fun Palace make it possible for people to join in with activities they often feel are not for them. Older people might turn up for the crafts and stay because they discover the code club for adults (taught by children) as at Brixton Library’s Fun Palace in 2015 or the Minecraft session led by a ten year old for all ages at Luton’s Fun Palace in 2014. Conversely we have found in many Fun Palaces (eg at St James’ Piccadilly in 2016) that once a knitters or crochet group are assured of the value of their skills – and that patterns are code, the digital input behind their crafts – then skill-swaps become possible, leading to one of our favourite quotes from 2016, emphasising the value of intergenerational and hyper-local activity:

“I’ve met a young girl today who I’ve never spoken to before and she lives on my street, through chatting I’ve found out her Grandma was my best friend at school…” (South Elmshall Library Fun Palace)

Here’s a sample of the feedback we received from Makers about locally-led digital participation at their Fun Palaces in 2016:

Medway Fun Palace
Medway Fun Palace celebrated their third year as part of this amazing project. Fun Palaces introduced Nucleus Arts to the Medway Science Centre at the very beginning and it has been a dream partnership. Occulus Rift, seasonal experiments and colour experiments exploded alongside bridge-building from The Rochester Bridge Trust, while everyone threw paint around, made submarines, built Lego and coloured in the Fun Palace.

Brilliant Bodies, Bristol University
Running a Fun Palace not only allowed our student researchers to communicate their cutting edge research to people outside the academy, and to invite the community to reflect on important issues, but strengthened the sense of community and warmth among ourselves.
Participant : “Fantastic event! My kids thought it would be rubbish and had to be cajoled into looking for an hour – 3.5 hours later, we’re finally going home! Thank you!”

Lancaster Fun Palace
In 2016 Lancaster Fun Palace makers met the enthusiastic local hackspace volunteers, Lancaster and Morecambe Makers, who, at the mini Fun Palace in summer, led dozens of local children in the safe dismantling of donated laptops. All components were scavenged for future making projects. They collaborated again in October, when they taught basic loom knitting and helped over 150 children construct plywood bugs with LED eyes.

BedPop Fun Palace, Bedford
Through #bedshour on Twitter we got in contact with Paul Johnson at White Label Dev, a local app development company.  Over the Fun Palaces weekend, Paul took over a design studio in Bedford town centre and we offered family app coding workshops. As well as teaching some basic coding techniques, Paul also showcased VR goggles, to much excitement!

Bridgewater Library
The Fun Palace was a very worthwhile event here at Bridgwater Library. We furthered the library’s connection with the local Arts Centre and Digital centre. The library is beginning to place itself at the centre of the community in a new way; incorporating the Arts and the Sciences as well as books. The library had 586 visitors in the three and a half hours we ran the fun palace – twice our average footfall!

Gateshead Library Fun Palace
Being part of Fun Palaces added an extra excitement to the our event as we were part of a National Campaign to involve our local community, extend our engagement with the local community and introduce them to new technology, science and art which is accessible free and engaging. We also supported local creative businesses, cultural venues and artists to showcase their work to a new audience providing lots of opportunities for participation and engagement in digital activities.

Of course there’s much more to do to support fully accessible, intergenerational and participative Fun Palaces to thrive across the UK and beyond, but with 47% of Fun Palaces led by people from the lowest (ie, most deprived) three indices of the Index of Multiple Deprivation*,  62% of the Maker teams including people from an ethnic minority and 34% including people under 18, we are beginning to make real inroads into genuinely grassroots and community-led participation in hands-on digital culture.

There’s a short version of this piece on the DCMS’s #CultureIsDigital page – you can add thoughts or comments there.

*more detail in Fun Palaces Evaluation 2016