How to create a piece of community digital art

One of the better aspects of my lockdown (the summer 2020 one, in case anyone is reading this in the future and the summer 2020 one was the first of hundreds) was a piece of digital community art I created with Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. Though inevitably we learned as we went along and we could refine the process another time, it was easier than you might think to create this beautiful and joyful piece of work. Here’s the step-by-step process.

  1. I worked with Carissa Tanton, an illustrator, to convert a painting from the museum’s collection into a simpler colour illustration. We then split this into squares in Photoshop and, through the museum’s Social Media channels, publicised our plan.
  2. We numbered the squares and logged who had what number.
  3. We sent out squares to anyone who requested one on a first come first served basis. We gave out second, third and fourth or more squares if people wanted them – partly because we didn’t want to end up with unfinished ones, but also because the spirit of the project was creativity and joy, not scarcity. Each volunteer was emailed a colour and black & white version of a square (distributing them so we didn’t end up with a cluster of unfinished ones in one corner) and asked to recreate it however they wanted.
  4. Our co-creators photographed their contribution on their phone and emailed it back. We then added their square to the piece in Photoshop and shared examples on Social Media. The plan was to share particularly brilliant or inspiring ones, but it was actually more of a challenge to stop myself sharing them all.
  5. Most people have a camera phone and an email account but not everyone has a printer, so asking them to copy rather than colour in meant that we didn’t restrict them – it also led to some ingenious solutions. One person arranged pasta, some painted their square or welded precious metals; one child recreated it in socks and t-shirts!
  6. Splitting the piece into a fairly large number of squares meant that most of them were pretty abstract. That meant they were easy to replicate in almost any media, which was both inspiring and achievable for our volunteers.
  7. The most time-consuming work was sending 192 squares out and then receiving them back, logging them and uploading them to our shared drive (since me and Carissa were working remotely). Another time I’d perhaps offer the squares and instructions as a download, the only disadvantage being that it would sidestep the most time-consuming but also the most joyful part of the project – many, many conversations with strangers about creativity during lockdown! We also had to send out quite a lot of reminders and reallocate any that weren’t likely to be completed.
  8. We sent out precise instructions on how to photograph a finished square ‘flat’ but some did come back fairly wonky. But this didn’t matter too much – because there were a lot of squares you don’t really notice any small inaccuracies, and we just cropped to fit if we had to.

We had an incredible number and variety of people joining in from across the country and have even listed the print for sale, with any profits going back into similar community projects. Somehow, we have even ended up on the British Museum’s blog.

Empathy

I talk a lot about empathy in my work. It’s really easy to get into a myopic rut when you’re under pressure – repeating what you believe works or will get your manager’s approval, creating content to please your peers not your visitors, working within academic norms. But it’s really important to try to see things through other people’s eyes. Here are three ways to make your cultural content fresher and more empathetic.

  1. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you’re planning your experience. How would it feel to be represented in the way you’ve represented them? Is there a chance it might feel diminishing? I’m a middle-class white woman from the midlands – if I only ever saw people like me in special exhibitions, created in consultation with middle-class white women from the midlands, would I feel like I had as much right to occupy cultural space as anyone else?
  2. When you’re planning how to turn your research into a story, how can you give a voice to the voiceless? Are you coming at it from the point of view of those who have always held power? How did it feel not to be one of those people? Where are their stories?
  3. Write clearly, vividly and succinctly. Write to sell your ideas to someone with no prior knowledge – inspire them, move them, surprise them, energise them. Never bore them!

Cultural planning during a global pandemic

It was relatively easy to work out how to plan cultural content during lockdown (if you had the energy or manpower) – make it digital, make it empathetic and use it to help people make connections. We probably all feel at the moment that it was dead simple pre-lockdown too, when we had the budget and people didn’t have to weigh up the risk of catching Covid before visiting a museum.

But what about now? We’re being encouraged to get back to normal and then blamed if we do. We want our old life back – but not the bad things. We want to look at something other than our own families’ faces and a cup of lukewarm tea, but we don’t feel safe being in a confined space that’s not our living room.

Here are five tips for creating cultural content in this strange, in-between world we find ourselves in now.

  1. What can you offer outdoors? Not every museum or heritage site has the benefit of huge grounds, but can you partner with a local park or outdoor space? Can you create an urban trail?
  2. How can you avoid lots of surfaces to touch without defaulting to a passive experience? Almost everyone has a smart phone and apps don’t have to be expensive or difficult to produce. Why not make use of this and offer enriching content through people’s pockets?
  3. Be gracious and audience-centred. It’s stressful to do so much risk planning, but don’t pass that onto your visitors. Talk about what they can do, not what they can’t. Make safety reminders polite, informative and brief.
  4. Think big. Remind us of what’s good about humanity. Take us outside of ourselves. Connect us to something bigger than this moment. Leave visitors feeling that their horizons have been expanded.
  5. Make contingency planning a creative task, not just a managerial task. How can the same experience be offered to people at home during a lockdown, should it happen at short notice? This is a good habit to get into anyway – many people can’t travel to museums or get up winding flights of uneven steps. Use this time to improve your accessibility and best practise.

As in most cultural planning (and in life in general), it comes down to empathy. How are people likely to feel? Build your plans around that and aim to make them feel better.

Hastings Digital Quilt

It’s all too easy to default to offering a passive experience on social media, sharing the ‘object of the day’ or, during lockdown, photos of ‘what we’re missing’. Hastings Museum and Art Gallery didn’t fall into that trap. As the 2020 lockdown began it quickly became a digital museum, with creatively put together content that actively engaged the community with the museum’s collection and got them taking part. When they shared a call-out for ideas, I suggested a ‘digital quilt’ – a community art piece that many people from across their community – and beyond – could contribute to.

Working with illustrator Carissa Tanton, we created an illustration from a painting by Edward Badham in the museum’s collection. It seemed to represent everyday life and community – two things that felt particularly precious at the time. We then divided the illustration into 192 squares, sending them out to anyone who wanted to take part. They could recreate their square however they wanted – embroidery, arranging objects, colouring in; there really were no rules. Some followed their square closely, others reinterpreted it wildly. We received squares back from professional artists and craftspeople, school groups, families and friends.

Every last square was completed and we had an incredible amount of positive feedback. The project helped get people back in touch with their creativity, made them feel part of something positive and joyful and gave them greater confidence. The key to its success seemed to be that the squares were relatively abstract, so people could take part without having a high skill level, that they could use any medium they liked, and that the simple challenge of recreating the lines and colours and shaped in an individual square inspired all kinds of ideas and responses.

The project was a joy to be part of and the finished quilt is wild, beautiful and infinitely varied – like humanity at its best.

Land of Iron, North York Moors National Park

The North York Moors were, with Leach Studio (now Core Creative), updating their visitor centre and outdoor interpretation. They were telling a story about the intense industrial development in the Moors in the Victorian era, driven by the discovery of ironstone, and the subsequent explosion of mining and railway development in this tranquil place.

They asked me to write and edit the panels, working closely with the client and design team to create enticing and clear copy.

Eastbury House, National Trust

Eastbury House in Barking is a beautiful Elizabethan manor house, set within an early twentieth century housing estate in east London. The National Trust wished to investigate and understand more fully a ‘lost’ period in the house’s history, between the wars.

My research uncovered all kinds of exciting stories, involving Balloon Aprons, Constance Spry, theatre designers, corrupt councillors and angry local meetings in pubs. I looked through many archives and produced a fully referenced narrative for them to share with their volunteers and staff. I also worked closely with the designer in coming up with a storyline and text for the exhibition in the house, and ran a training session with volunteers.

National Museum of the Royal Navy

The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth were creating an exciting, volunteer led exhibition and brought me in to train staff and volunteers, so that they could be sure of a consistent and appropriate tone of voice in the final text.

I ran two workshops in engaging writing for a team across two sites, and edited the final text that the team produced. The text they wrote was lively and clear and read as a single voice – exactly what you would hope for.

British Museum Sheikh Zayed exhibition

The British Museum approached me to write the text for their Sheikh Zayed exhibition. It was important that the text conveyed the British Museum’s character of trustworthy authority and confidence. I created a tone of voice that was warm and personal, straightforward and clear, steering clear of a too elaborate or emotional tone in favour of a sensitive, neutral and sensitive style.