The Cold Truth

Changing the conversation around Child Sexual Exploitation

At a Glance:

Campaign: The Cold Truth

Client: Plymouth City Council, Barnardo’s

Goal: To gather insight into effective service design for children with experience of sexual exploitation, through proactive early intervention.

Result: Recognition of young people’s voices by policy makers and commissioners; a conversation on early intervention ignited.

Project Details

In 2016, five young people with firsthand experience of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) curated and produced an audio-visual gallery installation to raise the profile of CSE and help redesign the services that could have helped them.


When it comes to making an impact, empathy beats sympathy. Hearing the facts has nothing like the power of firsthand emotional experience.

Commissioned by Plymouth City Council, the project sought to meaningfully involve young people in redesigning the services they could have benefitted from, while increasing public awareness of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and encouraging more of a dialogue around it. And sparking empathy is the most effective way to do that.

So, working from personal experience and desk-based research, we trained five young curators in artistic and curatorial practice, giving them a safe space in which to explore and communicate their experiences on their own terms through creative collaboration. No focus groups, No post-it notes. No interrogations.

The outcome was a “profoundly moving” visual and sound-based installation that took visitors into the emotional reality of a child experiencing CSE, centred on a mausoleum of ice- and glass-cast shoes that slowly disintegrated over the course of the day. Headphones playing a commissioned score heightened the feeling of isolation and vulnerability in gallery visitors, creating an experience of ‘feeling with’, rather than ‘feeling sorry for’ the young people affected.

The Facts and Figures

Influence on local policy and practice

Findings from The Cold Truth campaign directly shaped the “Voice of the Child” agenda on Plymouth’s Multi Agency Child Sexual Exploitation (MACSE) working group. In collaboration with Barnardo’s, we hosted a scoping exercise with multiple relevant commissioning partners.

46% average increase in “protective factors”

The experience positively impacted the wellbeing of every young person involved, notably boosting their confidence and ability to communicate complex emotions.

 National recognition and reach

The subject of CSE gained national recognition and focus when the project was nominated for a National Lottery Award in 2016. Several local and national galleries expressed an interest in recreating The Cold Truth and the show was a headline presentation at an international symposium on best and next practice in socially engaged art.

Impactful local engagement

The show drew a high number of visitors to Radiant gallery and it got them talking. Written visitor comments were significantly longer and more involved than in any show previously.

“ This project has profoundly changed our approach to service design for the future and uncovered a need to evaluate the impact of the arts process in therapeutic recovery from type two trauma. ”

Kerstin Neason, Assistant Director, Barnardo’s.