In March 2020, Covid-19 lockdown began in England, and many communities were plunged into crisis – people were struggling with work, home schooling, and even feeding their children. In this uncertain world, Colchester + Ipswich Museums (CIMS) asked: “how can we be useful?”
By understanding that CIMS forms one part of our communities’ vibrant cultural ecosystem, we can work as collaborators, rather than rely on interventive, unsustainable, short-term projects, which can be exploitative. Rather than just lead projects, we want to support the ambition and aims of our community, grow reciprocal relationships with deep roots, and be useful through deploying our unique resources.
With this approach in mind, when lockdown began, we reached out to community partners and tried to understand what we could usefully offer whilst our doors were closed. We spoke to organisations supporting; people managing unemployment, children in receipt of social care, key workers, families with children who have additional learning needs, teenagers leaving foster care, women leaving domestic abuse, young mental health service users, families in receipt of free school meals, and families on low incomes.
Mike, volunteer, assembling activity packs in outdoors during summer 2020
We listened and reflected on what was already being offered elsewhere. Much of the cultural sector responded with large quantities of online content, but many digital activities came with certain expectations i.e. that families owned a printer, had devices and data to download files or stream videos, had craft supplies or knew to visit cultural websites for ideas.
We wanted to support our most vulnerable communities without expectation, via organisations they already knew and trusted. If we could provide the means and some inspiration, all families needed was imagination. We hoped to offer a bit of creative joy for young people living in difficult conditions and hoped that parents/carers might have a moment’s rest whilst their child was kept entertained.
“I really appreciate it... my favourite was the magnifying glass because it made everything big.” (Recipient)
When things were tough, we wanted to demonstrate our commitment to our communities’ needs, not our own, whilst offering a source of inspiration, curiosity and fun. Many of our partners were delivering essential supplies to families. We asked if craft resources would be useful, and the answer was a resounding: ‘Yes!’.
Unwavering demand and further funding sustained provision through Britain’s strictest lockdowns. Originally made at home by two staff who are housemates, the project grew when restrictions relaxed, with volunteers forming a socially distanced production line outdoors. As word spread, we received direct requests for packs from community groups, and schools, plus more offers of support from cultural partners.
Led by CIMS, this project was a collaboration of over 20 partners and funders, offering emotional and practical support to each other at an otherwise overwhelming time, and getting supplies directly to those who needed them most. CIMS developed new, and nurtured existing relationships with libraries, theatres, archives, and dance organisations. Partners gave not only their time and energy, but hundreds of books, activity guides, t-shirts, reams of printer paper, baby dance leaflets, piles of art supplies, indoor growing kits, and toys.
“One of the major advantages to these packs was the versatility and accessibility – suggested activities and items included in the packs were gender neutral and did not require specialist skills or creative experience, meaning that the packs contents could be used easily interpreted and used.” (Partner)
Contents of an activity pack being made in Eleanor’s garden. Packs were designed to contain basic craft supplies, e.g. colouring pencils, eraser, pencil sharpener, glue, and scrap paper, and booklets with suggestions for activities inspired by CIMS’ collections. These were supplemented with seeds, postcards, toys, and other supplies as they became available
“Amongst the isolation many of us felt through lockdown, it was really great to volunteer on something that connected me to the community again” (Volunteer)
CIMS distributed 2,327 activity packs in 2020.The speed at which we consulted and involved community partners, then delivered the packs, is due to relationships that were established over several years. Those partnerships, plus many more, have been cemented through the effectiveness of this project and our network is still growing.
“We have had some amazing feedback from our vulnerable families... They loved the games and activity books and everyone has been very appreciative.” (Deputy Head teacher)
Having honed the process of making and distributing activity packs, when restrictions returned at the start of 2021, production immediately resumed and a further 700 packs were distributed. CIMS commissioned artists to develop bilingual packs to support mask wearing for Ipswich’s Roma community and encourage disadvantaged children to visit the recently reopened venues.
“We know that families on lower incomes struggle to purchase and access creative materials, but we also know that creative activity is hugely popular with children regardless of community, as such these packs have acted as a creative conduit, providing free activity and an opportunity for children to express themselves creatively at home, as a result we have witnessed the positive impact on wellbeing and family cohesion.” (Partner)
We know that the ‘Museum from Home’ activity packs were not perfect and not nearly enough to meet the creative ambitions of our community. We did not have the resources to provide for everyone who was living through challenging circumstances, and we felt acutely our inability to meet the apparent seemingly need. Whilst we work to address our limitations, we hope this project proved our genuine commitment to working in service of our communities. When times got tough, we didn’t turn inwards. We kept talking with partners, carried on supporting our community, and, we hope, worked to challenge the tokenism and short-termism found in the heritage sector, which remains a cause of legitimate mistrust between our community and our sector.
Through understanding our work as ongoing small acts of care that create sustained relationships, we can build a way of working that centres our communities’, rather than our organisations’, aspirations. By demonstrating our attentiveness, responsibility, and responsiveness to the people with whom we collaborate, we create authentic, sustainable relationships. There is no substitute or shortcut for the time and energy required in creating relationships in this way. However, this commitment is fundamental if the heritage sector wishes to remain relevant in a future that seems less certain than ever.
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