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May 15th 2020

#RDNetwork: Tackling Health and Wellbeing in Isolated Communities


During 2020 the Cornwall Museums Partnership Twitter page will be handing the reigns over each month to local organisations, who will be guest hosting our Rural Diversity Networking hour; #RDNetwork. 

In April, Nerys Watts, Director of External Affairs for Brunel’s SS Great Britain, kindly took over our Twitter page to discuss health, wellbeing and rural isolation. Please continue reading to hear all about Nerys’ experience of our #RDNetwork Twitter Takeover…

It was a great privilege to host such a rich and thoughtful discussion for Cornwall Museums Partnerships’ #RDNetwork on wellbeing and rural isolation, and the role that museums and galleries can play in addressing these issues. Always extremely important, it felt particularly significant to look at them during a time when we are experiencing a global pandemic and lockdown, with the different physical and mental effects the situation is having on us all.

This is first and foremost a crisis about people’s health, but it is having a widespread and significant impact on museums and galleries, who are currently facing unprecedented and profound challenges. For most, the vast majority of their income has ceased and they are now working particularly hard and creatively at various ways in which to carry out their mission, whilst continuing to serve and support their communities.

The questions we asked during the #RDNetwork were;

1. Has your health and wellbeing been impacted in isolation? If so, how?
2. What have we learnt from lockdown regarding the needs of isolated people and communities?
3. What impact can museums and galleries have on wellbeing?
4. How could museums and galleries help tackle isolation during or after COVID-19.

On a personal level it is clear that people are trying hard to adapt to a very changed way of life, but that it can feel very different for each person. We have gone through significant change in a very short space of time; tiredness, snacking, lack of concentration, uncertainty, and mourning missed opportunities and cancelled plans are all common.

However, what is also clear is how people are finding ways to alter routines, sourcing different means to stay connected, appreciating details that busy lives often meant were overlooked, and allowing themselves to become more flexible. Although people are finding different ways to cope this can still remain an extremely stressful time for most.

When we looked at what lockdown meant particularly for isolated people and communities, an interesting perspective was shared about the impact of the current measures leading to these people suffering ‘double isolation’ – services that were already challenging to access at normal times are now impacted further. With obtaining provisions for basic needs being even more difficult, this also has a knock-on effect on time or energy to then engage with other activities.

Recognizing how important it is to find ways to connect and reach out to people, especially at this time, is at the heart of how museums and galleries are supporting wellbeing now. Although challenging, this period of lockdown is also seen as an opportunity to try new things and experiment. Penlee House Gallery & Museum has launched ‘Penlee Inspired Online 2020’ to produce an online exhibition created by people inspired by their collections, and Museum of Cornish Life is ensuring they are having conversations with their audiences to be guided by their needs. Similarly, Wheal Martyn has been keeping in touch with all of their volunteers, and particularly looking out for their most vulnerable volunteers, including shopping for them. It is evident that museums are there to support their communities when they are most needed.

Whilst we need to deal with the now, and continue to do what we can to engage and connect with our communities and audiences at the moment, we also need to look ahead and position ourselves as a sector for the longer term challenges ahead. Everything points to us heading towards an economic recession, and a recession which many countries will be entering in the worst possible shape, with traditional levers already exhausted. As with other recessions, it will again be necessary for us to make the case for why culture and heritage is important to our lives when things move forward. Our heritage, our museums and galleries provide a vital role within our society on many levels. We will need to make the case again for the significant economic impact culture has of course, but also how it adds richness, builds curiosity and connections, self-esteem and confidence, and brings enjoyment to people’s lives. The benefits we can provide to support people’s wellbeing are a critical part of our value, and particularly now.

This crisis will also have a long-term impact on society. It is unlikely that we will be ‘going back to normal’. Behaviours are likely to have changed. Many people will have faced loss; family or friends, or loss of income. They may feel anxious about visiting public spaces or have lost confidence in doing things they haven’t done in a while. It is likely to prompt a reappraisal of what we – individually and collectively – value. To support wellbeing we need to ensure that we are relevant in a different environment, to build on our connections with communities and look at this area as a long term and genuine priority. Collaborating, listening and understanding what it is we can do to continue to make a difference.

We should be ambitious. Going forward we should exploit the power of digital – a key area where there will be new opportunities, with the current crisis accelerating digital engagement – but it’s more than this. To meaningfully impact wellbeing we need to think beyond ad hoc outreach interventions. These are far less impactful than a long-term and consistent approach done in partnership with others, co-creating what we do with communities and other organisations. It’s less about interventions and more about collaborations, and models which empower and build engagement. This may sound daunting, but NEF Five ways to wellbeing provides useful framework to plan how this could look, and working with the right people will develop thinking further.

We need to think carefully about which communities to target, and how we can meaningfully connect them to the physical space of the museum where engagement has most benefit for health and wellbeing, and what barriers may prevent this. Honest and reflective and ongoing review about the impact and effectiveness of what we’re doing is important, and also that we share that learning. UCL Museum Wellbeing Measures Toolkit is an excellent way to evaluate the impact of work to improve wellbeing – it’s flexible and free to use for non-commercial purposes. It’s work which needs to be properly embedded to be most effective.

A lot of fantastic work is already underway, and there are lots of great examples of how museums and heritage can impact health and wellbeing, including ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ by Jocelyn Dodd/Ceri Jones; Museums as Spaces for Wellbeing National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing; The Happy Museum Project and the Wellbeing Guidance from National Lottery Heritage Fund. The support that’s being given to communities now is valued, and it will be remembered. Building on that for whatever comes next will be a challenge, but it’s one we will meet together.

I want to particularly thank my colleague at SS Great Britain Trust, Lexi Burrows, who is both passionate and knowledgeable in the area of museums and wellbeing. The resources she shared with me and our discussions on this topic have been invaluable.

-Nerys Watts