We are currently living through a historic event that has caused feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness, and loneliness. During lockdowns and as a result of social distancing, some of us may also have felt disconnected from those around us, isolated from our communities and may have felt our sense of identity shift.
For many of the participants that join History, Health and Happiness’s social sessions and activities, feelings of isolation, anxiety and poor mental health are nothing new. In fact, for many of them, they may in fact have felt even lonelier in the past year. What Works Wellbeing and UCL have found that those who felt most lonely before the Covid pandemic in the UK, now have even higher levels of loneliness (What Works Wellbeing/UCL, 2020).
Before Covid-19, loneliness had already been identified as an important issue. Researchers have evidenced that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% and is just as bad for your heart as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). In 2018 the Government appointed a Minister for Loneliness and a loneliness strategy was published the same year. At a similar time, History, Health and Happiness was launched by Heritage Doncaster when Heritage Doncaster joined Arts Council England’s National Portfolio.
History, Health and Happiness aims to tackle isolation and improve wellbeing by using museum collections as the basis for outreach and community engagement activities. Our activities use history and storytelling to spark conversation, improve wellbeing and ultimately combat loneliness. Simply put- we use history to enable people to feel good about themselves and their communities, and to feel more connected.
History, Health and Happiness works with adults and families. We work in partnership with other organisations and local authority teams, as well as independently. People access our programmes by self-referral, as well as through referrals from social prescribing, and other third sector organisations. The work is evaluated by Sheffield Hallam University and Arc Research and Consultancy Ltd utilising existing wellbeing evaluation frameworks, including an adapted Warwick Edinburgh scale, as well as focus groups, case studies and ethnographic observations.
All of the activities take place outside of our museum spaces, taking accessioned museum objects in to localities across Doncaster. Activities take place in community halls, Family Hubs, parks, and community libraries. This approach helps to tackle some barriers to engaging with culture and historic sites, such as poor transport links, and the ‘intimidation factor’ of walking into a cultural institution. But more importantly, the localities based work means that co-production takes place on someone else’s turf. We believe co-production can only really take place when you hand over the power- and this happens in someone else’s backyard! We are hoping to build on this concept from September, following the launch of the Moving Museum. The Moving Museum will take Heritage Doncaster’s collection out on the road, as well as enabling us to co-curate on the move!
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, activities mostly focussed on social clubs delivered across the borough. One of these groups is a group called Herstory. Herstory, formed in 2019, is a group for women in Denaby Main, a former pit village in Doncaster. Prior to the pandemic, it met once a week in a community library to look at the stories and experiences of women in the past. Pre-Covid changes in Herstory participant’s experience were noted over time, utilising an adapted Warwick Edinburgh wellbeing questionnaire. These included an 11% rise in feelings of connectedness with other people, a 23% rise in their feelings of confidence and an 11% rise in reported happiness. The group continued to meet sporadically online during lockdown (often affected by homeschooling, increased anxieties and lack of routine) and will be returning to weekly sessions from November. Other social club activities include a partnership with social isolation charity b:friend to deliver a monthly History Club, activities with the Alzheimer’s Society and Family Hub sessions.
The lockdown restrictions announced in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic meant that History, Health and Happiness had to change its approach to tackling isolation and facilitating opportunities for connection. We recognised the importance of continuing to support those who accessed our programming, and the charities and organisations we partner with. The impact of our work during the pandemic was recognised by the Museums & Heritage Awards with a nomination for the ‘Community Impact Award’ and a Covid-19 Special Recognition Award nomination for myself.
We responded quickly by implementing offline activity bundles and online social clubs. We recognised the need for both approaches, as we understood digital exclusion to be a driver of social isolation during the pandemic (Local Government Association, 2020). Many of our participants didn’t have reliable access to the internet, or found it to be a source of anxiety. Via existing partnerships, food banks and social prescribing, the team sent monthly activity packs to those who may be isolated and vulnerable- totalling over 8000 sent to date! This is an impressive feat as most distribution took place from my living room. The evaluators noted that “the receipt of something on the doorstep allowed engagement and the prospect of something to do for those shielding or isolating.”
The team also launched two new and innovative digital social clubs- the Museum Make-A-Long and the History Book Club. Interviews conducted by Arc Research and Sheffield Hallam University found that these online groups “reached out to the vulnerable and built online communities.” The evaluation concludes that “for those who attend the [digital social clubs] the impact of the project has been considerable, both in terms of connection, mental health, and increased confidence around computer use.” The Digital Social Clubs have enabled participants to make new friends, develop skills and improved the wellbeing of those who take part, with attendees having a 20% increase in interest in new things- a contributing factor to increased mental health scores.
History, Health and Happiness has recently resumed in-person social club activities with activities in collaboration with Family Hubs and social isolation charity b:friend. From September, weekly social clubs will recommence, as well as an exciting new course in partnership with Doncaster Mind and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, where participants will learn to cook like they did in the past. Digital social clubs and postal activities will also remain part of History, Health and Happiness’s social menu.
Each of our activities feels a little different as each one responds to the likes, interests and input of the participants. We aim to co-produce the sessions, and also invite participants to take on a facilitator role. For example, one Make-A-Long participant recently demonstrated her own skills in spinning wool- a big milestone in her mental health journey. The activities do have certain elements in common: a focus on storytelling and a focus on objects. Focussing on storytelling reminds adults the joy of hearing a story, encourages participants to find connections and also allows participants to share their own histories. Objects are also key. Our pre-pandemic social clubs utilised physical objects from Heritage Doncaster’s accessioned collections, and in the virtual sessions these have been missed- “online we can’t touch stuff”. But in 2020–21, the objects have still been present. The evaluation notes that “objects have become woven into personal stories shared by the attendees at sessions. Being in people’s homes means that objects can be brought and the co-production element can happen within a session as everyone shares their object and their story.”
The pandemic has also seen the launch of GLAMCares, a care and support network for museum, library and gallery folk. For me, the pandemic shone a spotlight on the invisible labour that my team and I undertake as part of their jobs. As well as delivering the activities, the team were providing more in depth support for adults experiencing depression, anxiety, loneliness and grief. They also felt an incredible amount of responsibility for the wellbeing of participants, whilst wrestling their own responses to the pandemic. These feelings of responsibility weren’t necessarily anything new, and in talking to other community engagement colleagues I found this emotional labour was common across the board. Myself and three others in the sector were inspired to found GLAM Cares, to offer a safe space and peer support for others in the same boat. By looking after those who deliver community engagement work, we can ensure that the vital work continues.
As communities recover from the impacts of Covid-19, museums will continue to be places of care and connection, utilising the stories contained in their collections to inspire, delight and challenge. I’m going to close this article with the words of Marie, a women in her mid-80s who attends the Museum Make-A-Long. Her words demonstrate the impact wellbeing work can have, and just how important it is.
When the lockdown started I felt like I was losing my spirit. When I read about the group, I thought “you know, that’s for me!” Once I joined the group I felt as though I had a sense of belonging. I belong to something. I’ve got people that are exactly like me… Before I joined the group, I was beginning to lose my sparkle. But my sparkle has come back- and that’s down to looking forward to Tuesdays!
You can read History, Health and Happiness’s full impact report from 2020/21 here.
Victoria has worked in museums for almost ten years. After years of volunteering in museums, Victoria landed her first museum job whilst working in Canada in 2012. Since then, she has worked at a variety of museums, delivering, designing and managing community engagement programmes. Victoria currently manages the History, Health and Happiness wellbeing programme at Heritage Doncaster. She is also a rep for the Museum’s Association, co-founder of the Yorkshire Emerging Professionals Network and co-founder of GLAMCares. Victoria has a particular interest in the role museums can play in improving health and wellbeing and tackling social isolation in communities. She believes in the power of objects and storytelling, and seeks to spread as much ‘Museum Joy’ as she can. You can find her on Twitter.