Where the heart is - Museums Association

Where the heart is

How audiences have shaped the Museum of the Home during Covid-19
Sonia Solicari
"My tiny lockdown space. I work, watch TV, and sleep here. My sofa is now the shape of me, as if we are merging into one."

This is Alex’s caption to a photo he uploaded to the Museum of the Home’s new Stay Home collecting site . In two short sentences Alex has captured the experience of many during lockdown: the need for space that serves a multitude of functions; the challenges for those living in cramped accommodation; the shifting relationship between us and our domestic objects; the mix of anxiety and resignation that many of us feel in the face of an unprecedented crisis.

When the museum launched Stay Home it was a risk. We had a collective ambition to be more agile but had never really tested this. We knew personal stories were at the heart of our new mission but we were yet to define our new collecting policy. Nonetheless, in the context of a capital redevelopment project, we were resolute about our new vision: to reveal and rethink the ways we live in order to live better together.

Stay Home is a completely digital collecting initiative. It follows our successful Documenting Homes format, launched in 2007, which uses a survey method alongside images selected by the participant to represent their domestic experience.
To take part in Stay Home you are asked to complete seven questions that prompt reflection on the physical, psychological and emotional aspects of home life during lockdown. You can write as much or as little as you like or upload audio testimony. You can then add up to five images of your home, ideally honest representations, rather than Instagram-ready shots.

If we had conceived this project during ‘business as usual’ it would almost certainly have taken months to launch, with copious testing and consultation on methodologies. With Stay Home, we felt the fear and did it anyway. The submissions that we have received so far have been touchingly candid. Beyond our wildest dreams, our audiences have created a collection of feelings that is immediate and poignant.

The project has opened up dialogue, which gets to the heart of what it means to be a museum in 2020. The vibe of Stay Home isn’t so much curators versus visitors, but people in it together. The fact that most of our staff at the museum have also taken part shows the project has been a cathartic process for everyone. We asked the questions that we wanted someone to ask of us.

There have been challenges, of course. Through our community networks we’re addressing a lack of diversity in responses. We’re also planning how we’ll resource the cataloguing of the material. In the meantime, we’re publishing submissions on our website, talking about them on our social channels and wondering what an exhibition might look like, when we reopen.

The process has made us stop and think again about how we collect going forward. We have a new-found confidence built by our audiences and their willingness to share and by our ability as an organisation to act quickly and instinctively. Together we are creating the new Museum of the Home – a place that asks everyone: "What does home mean to you?"

Sonia Solicari is the director of the Museum of the Home in London. She is currently co-director of the Centre for Studies of Home, a partnership with Queen Mary, University of London and an international hub for research on the home, past, present and future

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