'We must seize the revitalised sense of community and shared meaning in our lives' - Museums Association

‘We must seize the revitalised sense of community and shared meaning in our lives’

Q&A with Paddy Rodgers, director of Royal Museums Greenwich 
How has your work been affected by the impact of Covid-19? 
  The work delivered across all sites of Royal Museums Greenwich has been hugely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. We flagged the epidemic as a problem already in January as Chinese tour groups started cancelling visits. With a significant number of our admissions coming from overseas visitors, we saw audience numbers deteriorate until we closed all our sites to the public on 19 March. Since then we have lost all our income from our commercial activities. 
We organised a programme of work for the period of closure, but this too has shrunk as lockdown intensified and eventually we were asked to stop work to qualify for support through the furlough scheme.
We have had to respond quickly to focus on generating online content to keep connected with our communities, meet their needs and support them through this period. This has been a really positive experience: we have stripped away the formality and process normally associated with a national museum and taken on a 'trekking' approach, only using what we have to hand and telling stories as if around a campfire. It has brought teams together from across the museum to innovate, deliver and work in direct, outcome-focused collaboration. As a house of memory, we should not forget these lessons, and we should ensure we embed them in our ways of working when we reopen and welcome our communities back into their museum. How are you staying connected to the museum community? 
  We are staying in touch with our museum colleagues across the sector informally, through personal contacts and via digital networks. Many of our staff are taking up opportunities for sector training, and are joining networking groups to stay abreast of developments. We play a role in the Greenwich World Heritage Site, in the International Congress of Maritime Museums, National Museum Directors’ Council, many other associations and networks, and also receive regular briefings from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
How has being a Museums Association member helped you and your staff? 
  The MA, both during and before the pandemic, has been an incredible resource in terms of keeping in the loop with trends and news across the sector. As a grant recipient of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund for our project Migration, Heritage and Belonging, we are very grateful to have contact with MA staff. The MA has a critical role to play, not just in networking for the sector but also in co-ordinating its public face, to ensure its importance is not overlooked in the clamour over the very immediate needs of physical health. Museums have a significant part to play in wellbeing and people’s sense of belonging and identity. They are needed more now than ever, as an antidote to the inevitable consequences of a period of prolonged isolation.
How are you engaging with your audiences and communities during this period?
With difficulty! It is very tough emotionally to lose contact but we are a critical learning resource for our communities, so delivering this online was our first aim. Providing digital learning content was prioritised. We began a weekly Thursday podcast, which investigates the resonance across our collection of the dilemmas, limitations and anxieties of the pandemic. Themes in recent weeks have included isolation and living in and surviving extreme environments and communicating at a distance – ideas naturally present across many of our objects through the experiences of life in space and at sea. 
Working digitally has enabled us to reach large numbers across great distances and we hope we have stimulated them to learn more and, when safe, to visit. 
What are your hopes or expectations for museums after the pandemic?
It is said that ‘it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good’ and while this pandemic has been truly awful, we must not miss the opportunity to seize on the revitalised sense of community and shared meaning in our lives. We aim to be relevant, inspiring and welcoming after such difficult months for everyone. We know we have an important role to play in society and we must deliver useful outcomes. We must challenge ourselves to build deeper relationships with communities by recognising needs and looking to support them. It is not time to ask what they will do for us, but what we are doing for them.
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