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.
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 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.
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.
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.
I’m still working – from home, as usual. Please feel free to get in touch for some advice or thoughts on a project – I’m more than happy to exchange a couple of emails or have a chat for free.
My writing and interpretation coaching is now online. If you’re interested in training now, give me a call for a chat. It’s hard to know what to focus on right now, but it’s not a terrible time to get your house in order ready to start afresh when we can all meet up again.
I realise that most heritage organisations rely on income from admissions, and from cafes and shops, and that this stopped overnight with little warning. There are some free process templates on my blog page that can help you get projects started when you were expecting to be hiring consultants or when key staff have been furloughed.
Finally, do bear in mind that there’s a lot you can do remotely and there’s a lot you can do on a small budget. I’ve linked to one example of a project that achieved a great deal for not much money, most of it with people working remotely and chatting on video calls. If there’s something you’re interested in developing and you have a small pot of money, now really could be the time.
I was delighted to work with Royal Hospital Chelsea, one of London’s true hidden gems, on a new interpretation toolkit that would guide the organisation through a period of growth and change. I ran a workshop with staff to explore what their core stories were and how they could communicate them effectively and passionately.
Interpretaton planning is a methodical process, but it’s also about enabling creativity and creating a framework where good ideas can flourish. I took a similar approach with the workshop, making sure we challenged ourselves as well as interogating the process thoroughly.
After the workshop I created a bespoke interpretation toolkit for the RHC, a detailed guide to producing interpretation at the site (a unique place with a special history and the Chelsea Pensioners living on site). The toolkit should act as a sure guiding hand in the months ahead – I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings for them.