Temporary exhibition | HumanKind, Calke Abbey, Derbyshire - Museums Association

Temporary exhibition | HumanKind, Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

This show attempts to put a spotlight on loneliness through the stories of six former residents. By Alexandra Woodall
Alexandra Woodall
Recent research by the Co-op and the British Red Cross revealed that more than nine million people in the UK always or often feel lonely, a number greater than the population of London. Indeed, the Labour MP who was murdered in 2016, Jo Cox, was dedicated to combating loneliness. 
“Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate … it is something many of us could easily help with,” she once said. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was set up in January 2017 with the aim of continuing her legacy, not least by addressing the impact of loneliness on society. So what might cultural organisations do to help alleviate isolation?
An initiative to address the issue of loneliness in a cultural setting is bold in its aim, particularly when staged at a venue in the depths of the Derbyshire countryside. So does HumanKind at Calke Abbey successfully tackle the problem? 
The project is in fact much more than just an exhibition and is all the richer for it. It is a research-led collaboration between the National Trust and the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, which began in 2017 as a way to develop interpretive practice at Calke Abbey. 
It led to RCMG being commissioned to develop creative programming to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Henry Harpur, known as “the isolated baronet”, whose family lived in the abbey for nearly 300 years. The property was opened to the public in the 1980s and tells the story of the reclusive and eccentric family. HumanKind aims to develop opportunities for visitors and staff to avoid and tackle loneliness.
Un-stately home
I had never visited Calke Abbey before. As someone with an interest in collectors and their habits of amassing and displaying extraordinary objects in various ways, it was a joy to experience this dilapidated and ramshackle pile, which is billed as the “un-stately” home. 
The house, interpreted as an estate lived in by reclusive hoarders, was left as it was by the National Trust to show the decline of the country house in the first half of the 20th century. 
HumanKind aims to retell the stories of six inhabitants of Calke Abbey. Rather than portray them as one-dimensional and withdrawn from society, it aims to bring them alive by showing other aspects of their personalities, making them more rounded individuals, and, most importantly, as people who gained much from caring for or being cared for by others. 
The exhibition entrance is via the west door of the building, leading to the family apartments. It was not well marked (although it was the first day of the season when I visited so perhaps signage has since been developed) and it was not clear whether visitors were expected to first look at the house, the temporary exhibition spaces or the metal “landscape rooms” in the grounds. I opted for the house first.
Visiting on opening day is perhaps not the best way to get a sense of a place or see a new exhibition. I suspect the guides will develop their interpretation and narrative as time goes on, and there is a volunteer programme that has been created to encourage engagement with the exhibition and shed new light on the stories being told. 
As it was, though, much was left to visitors and I was confused by my initial experience. There was an interpretive leaflet that I had to read several times and I found myself wanting to search for further details about the stories online after my visit, not least because the exhibition had piqued my interest but also lacked context. To understand that a new story is being told, it is helpful to know what the old story was, which, as a first-time visitor, I did not.
Non-traditional interpretation
HumanKind is a bold reimagination that is difficult to define. I was not sure if this was contemporary art, theatrical design or immersive spectacle. It certainly wasn’t narrative or traditional research, and it certainly wasn’t old-school National Trust. 
There were no text panels, just the dense A4 leaflet with brief descriptions of the characters. I wanted to know more about the archival research (perhaps even to see the archives and objects, which are noticeably absent from this non-traditional approach), and I would have loved to have known more of the process that led to this exhibition, which is available in the RCMG report online, but not in the exhibition. Why were these people’s stories the ones that were selected, for example? 
The exhibition, which explores the stories of the six former residents and unlocks some of their secrets, is an audiovisual extravaganza, with stunning immersive film and sound pieces. I enjoyed the meditative chiming while watching a video of crocuses growing under a tree, which represent the relationship of Georgiana, Lady Crewe, with her son, Vauncey. 
There’s quirky use of vinyl (including on the floor, which sadly most visitors were traipsing over without reading) in the portrayal of the journey through speech therapy of Airmyne Jenney (the granddaughter of Sir Vancey and Lady Isobel who lived at Calke), who lost the ability to speak following an accident in which she was kicked by a horse. 
One of the stories retells the marriage of Winifred Harpur Crewe and the subsequent death of her husband, Bertie. This is presented on folded posters, perhaps to represent folded letters, but I wasn’t sure. Most poignant is the story of Harriet Phillips, a housekeeper who kept an ironically described “happy” secret of her illegitimate son and grandchild, represented with locked boxes. 
Then there are the outdoor metal sculptures, which might offer spaces for communication, engagement events and picnics, but were underused during my visit and perhaps not fully understood by visitors. They also don’t give any evident credit to their makers.
This is an exhibition project whose public programme and engagement activity are a significant and vital component. I loved the activities in the stables: for example, communicating with one’s family through a sheet of Perspex just by gesturing; writing ways of being kind to people on a “kindness wall”. 
There were also takeaway cards in the corner of the cafe with various promises to share small acts of kindness, such as “write a letter”, and “make friends with someone who is being bullied”. I would be interested to know how visitors were using these. 
Support organisations were also mentioned, such as the charity Calm – the Campaign Against Living Miserably – and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, and there was a film and information sheet offering sources of advice, all of which are important in fulfilling the aims of the project and positively changing lives.
And as museums and heritage spaces focus on their activist role in overcoming inequalities, the ambition to draw attention to and develop small ways to tackle loneliness is admirable. 
The overwhelming positive publicity will do much to highlight this issue and the role that culture can play in addressing social isolation. But I left feeling not entirely convinced that the displays and interpretation were overt enough to link the lives of these characters with tackling loneliness and the need for kindness today. 
Alexandra Woodall is a museum consultant
Project data
  • Cost £125,000
  • Main funder National Trust
  • Project team National Trust; Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester 
  • Partners Anti-Bullying Alliance; Campaign Against Living Miserably; Campaign to End Loneliness; City of Sanctuary; Claire Keatinge, Northern Ireland’s First Commissioner for Older People; Derbyshire Record Office; Framework Housing Association; Human’s Best Friend Kate Jopling; Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness; Leicestershire County Council; Leicester South Food Bank; Remark!; South Derbyshire CVS; Toys on the Table; WW Engineers
  • Exhibition design and interpretation Julie Howell; Anna Lincoln; Lea Negano; Frances MacLeod; WW Engineers
  • Exhibition ends Spring 2021
  • Admission Open to visitors with general admission

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