Q&A | ‘You may be the only person they’ve spoken to in weeks’ - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘You may be the only person they’ve spoken to in weeks’

Community engagement leader Rosie Barker on the difference museums can make for those at the sharp end of the Covid crisis
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Before lockdown, the Creative Carers Programme ran regular activities for people with caring responsibilities
Before lockdown, the Creative Carers Programme ran regular activities for people with caring responsibilities Birmingham Museums Trust

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s community engagement team leader, Rosie Barker, recently won a Carer Friendly Business Award for her work to support those with caring responsibilities during lockdown. She tells Museums Journal how she has adapted her regular programming over the past few months to offer a lifeline to some of the people hit hardest by the Covid pandemic.

Congratulations on winning this award. Can you tell us a bit about the work you've been doing with carers and why it was recognised?

Thank you! We’ve been running our Creative Carers Programme for five years now, using our venues, collections and activities to provide a break for anyone caring for friends and family in Birmingham. Normally we’d meet one or two times a month for an activity, tea and cake, but when lockdown hit we obviously had to cancel all our plans. We were very aware that for many people the connections they’ve made with our sessions were a real lifeline, so we needed to keep in touch. Even at the best of times, carers are highly likely to live with anxiety and depression, be isolated, and face financial difficulties, and all of these issues were exacerbated by lockdown.

Like everyone we had to make quick decisions so to start with all I was able to do was send out weekly emails with links to podcasts, virtual tour, creative activities, and advice on the pandemic – not the most inspiring but I wanted people to know I was still here and interested. The weekly emails are still going out – we’re now up to week 39 – and I’ve also been sending letters and printed activities by post to carers without internet access.

Alongside this there have been phone calls with carers who just need a chat; cards for people who are struggling; printing out colouring sheets and activities; tracking down information; and now Zoom coffee mornings – basically doing whatever small amount we can to make a difference!

Forward Carers, a consortium that delivers statutory services for carers in Birmingham, has been a great partner over the last five years, helping us reach and support carers. Their Carer Friendly Brum awards recognise organisations or services that have made a difference to them, so we were delighted to win their Covid Award for “organisations and or individuals who have stepped up during the Covid-19 crisis going above and beyond for carers”. One of the people who put in a nomination said that “lockdown would have been a far darker place for me” without us, which is a real testament to the difference museums can make.

What impact has the programme had on participants during this time?

The biggest impact we’ve made is just reaching out, and being here – at a time when we’ve all been stuck in our homes and feeling isolated, carers are at greater risk with the extra pressures they face, and reduced support. Being a friendly face/email/letter, even if it’s not directly connected with a visit, has made a real difference.

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Inevitably the programme has had to adapt – the pandemic has meant we’ve all had to be flexible. Having the freedom to listen to what carers need or are interested in and digging it out is great – finding tours of cave paintings, virtual planetarium visits, book-making, crafts – but also when you’re a point of contact for someone vulnerable you have to be flexible enough to listen to their problems, dig out addresses for hospitals, track down info on respite… because you may be the only person they’ve spoken to in weeks.

Many people would argue this isn’t the role of a museum, which is a valid point, but if you’re going to run a wellbeing programme, it has to be recognised that you’re now someone’s support, and that can’t always be on your terms. It’s been great that we’ve been able to have some capacity to help out – and that our partnership with Forward Carers has given us the right contacts and information, which was vital.

Craft workshops run by the Creative Carers ProgrammeBirmingham Museums Trust
Has anything changed in the way you're working now compared to the early days of the crisis?

I’m thinking more long term now. Initially I wanted to just try anything to keep in touch, but there’s more time to sit back and think now, and to recognise that we’re going to need to run a more blended programme for some time. I have carers who are eager to be back in a museum, doing things in person, even if it’s socially distanced and masked, and I also have carers who are vulnerable, or care for someone medically vulnerable, or who don’t want to use public transport, who still need that connection but can’t do it in person yet.

We’re in Tier 3 so all our sites are still shut, so now I’m trying to find ways (when we can reopen) to meet needs in a way that isn’t one-size-fits-all. It requires more capacity and a bit more creativity, but we can’t work on the assumption that people need to fit what suits us and not them.

What are the main things you've learned from this whole experience?

Two key things this has really proven are the value of culture and the value of connection.  Carers have talked so much about the boost they get from engaging with history, science and art through the programme, and how much they’ve missed it.  As and when our sites are able to open up, there’s a real opportunity to use what we have to support people as they come to terms with this year’s losses, disconnection and anxieties.

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This has definitely shown as well that so often it’s the people in museums that are what makes a difference. It’s why front-of-house staff are so valuable to a visit because for some people, a five-minute chat with a member of staff may be the only conversation they have. Our collections are what make us museums, but those connections that staff make between the collection and the visitor are so important.

I’ve definitely learnt as well that perfection isn’t everything! I’ve been making activity videos on a not-great phone propped up on books, printing letters on an ancient printer that’s used to only printing homework, talking to carers while cooking dinner. This year has been a leveller as we’re used to trying to present the best version of the museum we can, and while that’s still important, people don’t necessarily want the polish, they just want to be part of something.

How do you think the pandemic might change the way that museums engage with communities?

I hope we realise that we can make a difference, even if it’s not grand and impressive and worth shouting about, but helping someone cope with depression and loneliness is a huge impact to have. Obviously I work in community engagement so that’s where my focus is, and I recognise museums do so much more besides this kind of work, but I’d love to see us recognising just how much what we have can be of service to people who need us, and doing it on their terms, even when sometimes it’s a bit homemade!

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