Lockdown Learning: what do we take forward, what do we leave behind
How the Creative People and Places Museums Northumberland bait programme sustained creative connections during the 2020/21 lockdowns and the learning they are taking forward post pandemic.
Covid safe meeting. Photo: Bridie Jackson
Museums Northumberland bait is one of thirty Creative People and Places programmes in England. Our consortium is led by Museums Northumberland in partnership with Northumberland CVA, Northumberland College, Queens Hall Arts, Northumberland County Council Public Health and Culture. The current programme funders are Arts Council England and Northumberland County Council Public Health.
We are working in South East Northumberland, an area made up of small towns and villages (including Ashington, Blyth, Bedlington), with a total population of 145,000 people.
Our ten-year mission (2013 – 2023) includes four elements of change:
- more people involved in arts and culture;
- more people making decisions and shaping the programme;
- positive impact on wellbeing;
- legacy of increased skills and capacity with groups and organisations running their own projects.
Our approach has been to work in partnership with groups and organisations people know and trust, including voluntary sector organisations such as Action for Children and Northumberland Recovery Partnership, public sector organisations such as Northumberland County Council resettlement team and volunteer-led groups including residents' groups and voluntary arts groups. Before the covid-19 pandemic this was an entirely face-to-face practice, largely working in community venues, with some events taking place at Woodhorn Museum, along with regular immersive trips to other cultural venues and festivals.
Pre-pandemic, Audience Spectrum analysis from 2014 – 2019 shows an average of 7.5% of people taking part from high engagement groups, 34.5% from medium engagement groups and 58% from traditionally low engagement groups.
Moving into phase three of our programme (November 2019 to October 2022) we had also used programme data to identify four priority groups:
- young people aged 13yrs+,
- older people aged 65yrs+,
- people with refugee status.
Museums Northumberland bait, decision makers group. A sharing of self-portraits for the closed Facebook group.
Responding to the pandemic
The pandemic triggered a rapid move from face-to-face work in community venues to exploring ways of combining digital opportunities with door-to-door engagement, while still delivering our mission. It was about adapting methods not mission. This is a trend we’ve observed in the work of many other organisations and CPP programmes over the last year, and we are sharing our learning as a starter for ten, for others to add to.
How did we adapt?
There were lots of steps, reflection and adjustments and this is a summary of two examples during the year:
At the start of 2020 we were working with a group of twenty people to develop briefs and recruit artists for two new commissions, in a process we anticipated would take four to five months. These meetings included people from all four priority groups described above and were very sociable occasions, involving adults and their children, with simultaneous translation between English and Arabic and creative activities led by artists.
Before lockdown, this ‘decision making group’ had met three times and so were still in the very early stages of bonding. At the start of lockdown, we set up a closed Facebook group and the immediate priority was to stay connected. Our Creative Producers posted creative activities into the group, and we commissioned short research and development projects, linking artists with individual members of the group to explore the commission themes.
This approach of one-to-one work was also new in response to the pandemic and proved to be a rich part of the process. Looking back, we can see how in some cases it accelerated how people stepped into leadership roles and became invested in the projects.
By October 2020 everyone was ready to confirm the artist briefs, which went out to open call and members of the group were involved in the recruitment panels. The whole process took nine months, roughly twice the time envisaged pre-pandemic and needed careful facilitation at every stage.
As the Days Get Lighter photography project
The second example is a project called ‘As the Days Get Lighter’ which began in spring 2021 during the third lockdown and combined digital engagement with door-to-door connections. Led by photographer Lindsay Duncanson the digital element included a 14 day photography challenge and over 1000 images were posted, mainly to the closed Facebook group of one of our project partners.
Simultaneously, visual arts packs were dropped off to 30 households without digital access. This was supported by chats on the phone and people were invited to make artworks to gift to other people. The whole project built on learning from earlier in the pandemic when we worked with CELL Big Local (across four villages in our area) to experiment with new ways of staying creatively connected.
One of the things we also noticed was the collaborative energy triggered by the pandemic response, and the number of individuals who stepped into roles of community leaders.
Using online platforms to maintain connections. Photo: Jason Thompson
What are we learning?
We’re learning how to navigate the opportunities and challenges of blending on and offline work.
- Linking local to global; connecting with communities and artists in other parts of the country, or the world, can add richness to place based work. It was always possible to do this digitally, but we rarely did. The response to the pandemic has changed mind sets about what is possible.
- Increasing access particularly for people with some disabilities and long-term health conditions. Where leaving the house may take a lot of energy, with the right welcome, it can be easier to join in on-line.
- Greater empathy for what isolation and separation feel like. Lots of people were living in a version of lockdown before lockdown and there is now much deeper awareness of the impact, particularly on our sense of wellbeing.
- Digital exclusion: this can take the form of having little access to equipment or broadband, but it is also about confidence. It takes a lot of confidence to step into digital space and this needs careful facilitation. We have seen the impact, particularly in the very low numbers of young people getting involved on-line. Bespoke work with pre-existing groups of young people is essential to build confidence.
- Blended working takes nearly twice as much work and resources to do properly. There needs to be holistic planning at the start of a project and there are also implications for budgets, artist and staff time in figuring out the balance between ‘in person’ and ‘on-line’.
Face-to-face conversations and ‘in-person’ creative activity remain essential for building relationships and trust. Some of our most successful digital practice in the last year has been possible because of existing relationships built up pre-pandemic. Some of these relationships now need nurturing (we can see a lot of tea being brewed in the next few months) and the trick ahead will be to remain responsive, continually asking people what’s useful - on-line or in the room?