Barnsley in Yorkshire is bursting with a unique heritage, but being a poorer borough, it is also bursting with challenges. We have more care homes and complex health needs than the national average, with the council spending more than 60% of its total budget on care. It is not surprising that there are many people with barriers who can’t visit our museums in person.
In 2018, Barnsley Museums launched an outreach project called Barnsley Cares and set up a dementia cafe in Goldthorpe called the Forget-Me-Not Cafe. Weekly heritage and arts sessions were held with Butterflies Dementia Support, Churchfields Care Home, Barnsley Alzheimer’s Society and Age UK.
Partnering with specialist charities and support staff really helped to get this project off the ground. Our core aim was to build long-term relationships with local care providers and their clients.
Getting to know individuals means we are able to react to the interests and needs of groups. Inspired by people’s memories of Working Men’s Club coach trips, we organised visits to our five sites. The groups have danced to brass bands in our parks, listed to a Vera Lynn singer in our second world war exhibition, watched flour being milled in our 17th-century mill museum and stargazed at our astronomy exhibition.
Our community projects are never a one-way street, and Barnsley Cares and Forget-Me-Not attendees tell us about the history of Barnsley, where they danced the night away in the 1950s and what happened during the miners’ strikes. This information has supported our exhibition programme and interpretation.
When you see new social history content in the museum, the older folk have told us all about it – their voices have a place in our permanent displays. The groups have also told us what they find difficult when visiting our sites, from mobility to reading labels and we are changing things on their recommendations.
Since Covid-19, things have been difficult and different. Many group members are in care homes or isolated at home, and sadly some have declined rapidly. But we have kept in contact with everyone: we phone members every week, we’ve sent out 350 wellbeing parcels and Nicole our session leader has made exercise, reminiscing and activity videos.
In the future we will continue to offer ‘take-away’ activities and online content for care homes and carers to access when they need it, but the current crisis has emphasised just how important face-to-face encounters are.
We hope to be starting up small, socially distanced groups soon, in partnership with Butterflies Dementia Support.
Our advice to other museums is to trust in your offer. Facilitating access to your sites and collections doesn’t need fancy and expensive extras to make it rewarding and worthwhile. Building relationships just takes people and time.
Steven Skelley is the community heritage curator at Barnsley Museums