How can museums deliver reminiscence workshops online?

A case study from Brunel’s SS Great Britain
Digital Older People
Leila Nicholas
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Before Covid, SS Great Britain ran interactive sessions with care homes and other partners
Before Covid, SS Great Britain ran interactive sessions with care homes and other partners

Brunel’s SS Great Britain Trust in Bristol has been working to become more dementia friendly, as part of its communities programme.

Since 2018, we have been delivering Dementia Friends information sessions that support staff and volunteers to understand more about dementia and how to welcome people with different needs to site. There are now more 130 Dementia Friends at the Trust. 

Building on this, we started engaging with organisations in Bristol who support people living with dementia, including a memory cafe, a day care centre and a care home.

We’ve delivered interactive sessions and organised special guided visits, and developed a partnership with the charity Alive Activities to help us engage care homes.

However, lockdown and ongoing Covid-19 restrictions have made us rethink our offer, including plans to host an Alzheimer’s Society choir performance for Dementia Action Week.

Our Dementia Friends work was easy to adapt, with information sessions delivered over Zoom rather than in-person.

But it has been more challenging to find ways to continue to engage community partners.

The South Bristol memory cafe, which moved its sessions online, asked us to run a session about the return of the SS Great Britain to Bristol in 1970.

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We engaged volunteers to support the session and help run break-out groups where people could share memories and engage with our Global Stories resource, through which people can make a connection to a passenger who travelled on board the ship.

A Zoom memory cafe

Following this pilot, we have run similar sessions for another memory cafe and a group recruited by Age UK Bristol.

There are challenges to delivering these kinds of sessions over Zoom. Previous face-to-face delivery was interactive and multi-sensory; handling objects, costume, smells and games helped to bring the stories of the ship to life.

Removing these elements means rethinking how to engage a group and create a welcoming environment. We have learnt that using images from the collection and playing music from the time help people to engage with the story.

But we are still learning how to get the right balance between information and discussion.

The involvement of communities volunteers has been invaluable: their feedback has helped refine delivery and having them involved in break-out groups enables more discussion. While digital poverty is an issue, people have been more willing to embrace technology to participate in sessions than we expected.

Our advice to other museums looking to do this kind of work is to work closely with community partners to design your activities and ask for feedback. Be willing to adapt things as you go and retain a sense of humour if – or when – things go a bit wrong.

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Our future plans are to continue our partnership with Alive Activities. They visited the site to capture footage of the ship and dry dock before lockdown. We are now planning to use this footage to develop a virtual tour we can offer to community partners.  

Leila Nicholas is the communities officer at Brunel’s SS Great Britain Trust and a Dementia Friends champion. For more information, please email leilan@ssgreatbritain.org

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