Museums should develop innovative models of engagement which represent the cultural context of their communities and nations and that are brave and challenging. Community groups should be valued and fully engaged with all functions of the museum.
A case study from Leeds Industrial Museum
In the west Leeds grounds of one of Blake’s “dark satanic mills” is a corner of utopia, an Eden so beautiful even its name evokes rainbows: the Colour Garden.
In June 2016 Hyde Park Source, an environmental charity, and Leeds Industrial Museum launched a volunteer gardening project. The project was one of several in the local area which aimed to establish community gardening and wellness groups.
Hyde Park Source identified and engaged with individuals who they thought would benefit from an outdoor wellbeing project, including people struggling with their mental health, people who have had previous convictions, those who have been isolated and people who have had previous substance abuse problems.
Initially the group intended to grow and display plants which were used to dye the wool originally manufactured at the mill; but as with all good community projects, it outgrew this aim and became a thriving, peaceful and vibrant space for the volunteers, museum visitors and local community to enjoy.
Meeting weekly to work towards a shared goal led to the formation of social relationships and peer to peer mental health support at a pace set by the members of the group.
During lockdown I missed the chance to volunteer. The feeling that progress can be made, in terms of work and social opportunities.
By far lockdown was the greatest challenge the Colour Garden faced. The very nature of the benefits of gardening and socialising is incremental – small weekly planting, weeding and watering, and small weekly chats see gradual changes over time.
The overgrown and empty garden was a symbol of the intangible effect on the group’s relationships and mental health. But Hyde Park Source and Leeds Industrial Museum’s community curator worked hard on garden – and even more importantly, the relationships.
WhatsApp groups and regular Zooms helped to keep the volunteers engaged, and the museum staff prioritised the return of the volunteers as soon as restrictions began to ease.
The Colour Garden is a model of community partnership that we hope to emulate in other projects: initiated by members of the local community, led by volunteers, and guided by strong wellbeing outcomes for both the volunteers, the museum service and the visitors. The fact that it’s made a “dark satanic mill” technicolour – well, that is just a bonus.