Like most cultural face-to-face cultural activity, community events have been a casualty of the Covid pandemic. When lockdown restrictions do ease, all the signs are that we will need to be drawn gently back out of our heads and homes to reconnect with each other.
I believe that creating Covid-safe pop-up museums inspired by the heritage you care for could provide a welcome social focus in your local community.
The Ruskin Museum was set up in 2015 at the start of a six-year community-led programme to engage people in Sheffield with the themes of the Ruskin Collection, which is housed at the Millennium Gallery and cared for by Museums Sheffield.
It was based in an empty shop in the neighbourhood of Walkley, a stone’s throw away from the former St George’s Museum (1875-1890), the original home of the Ruskin Collection of the Guild of St George.
Our free pop-up museum was rooted in Ruskin’s belief in engaging people with arts, crafts, nature, heritage and each other for greater happiness and wellbeing.
Through this pop-up and other community-led events in Walkley over the next four years we engaged more than 8,000 adults and children.
Our 12 community partners reported new and lasting connections between each other; deeper connection with the local community; the adoption of new socially engaged techniques; and increased agency to improve local lives.
The project won the 2017 Association for Heritage Interpretation award for Best Community Project and was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Here are my top tips for setting up a local pop-up museum:
Be visible in daily local life. Try to find a location on a main thoroughfare where people will come across the pop-up easily. Most people spotted the Ruskin Museum when they were out shopping or waiting for the bus. Ask around to find out who the landlord is if there’s no ‘to let’ sign.
Plenty of paper
Keep creativity at the heart of things. Offer inviting and accessible drawing, painting, sculpting and other making activities inspired by the heritage you care for. Be on hand to chat while people make. As the space fills up with local creations, local ownership builds.
Putting it simply
Invite warmly and instruct clearly. Use welcoming and jargon-free signs around the space that invite people to get involved and have a go at the activities on offer. At the Ruskin Museum, we used hand-drawn chalkboard signs.
Involve local community groups and businesses in the pop-up’s creation and activities. The local butcher, baker and candlestick maker (literally) all contributed creative activity materials or hosted their own, along with the library, community centre, cemetery and many others.
Personal with people
We trained 10 voluntary hosts to welcome visitors, facilitate creative activity, change displays and programme events. A big central table for visitors to sit around while they make and chat is vital.
Take time to get to know what a community’s needs and interests are so you can engage them with the aspects of the heritage you care for that are relevant to them. Build relationships and trust by going to local meetings, walking around, popping into local shops or centres.
Ruth Nutter is a freelance creative producer and community practitioner. She was producer of Ruskin in Sheffield, a community-led programme for John Ruskin’s charity the Guild of St George from 2014 to 2019, and is the author of Paradise is Here: Building Community Around Things That Matter, published by the Guild of St George. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.