AHSW's Director and Trustees reflect on various aspects of arts, health and wellbeing.
Interview with Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery’s Sophie Harbour
A conversation with RAMM’s Skills Development and Engagement Officer Sophie Harbour on their ‘RAMM at Home’ project, interviewed by Abbi Bayliss.
Following our Annual Conference in November, we decided to catch up with Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery’s Engagement Officer Sophie Harbour. Over Lockdown, the Exeter Museum quickly responded to their communities needs, ensuring they weren’t left isolated and alone through their project ‘RAMM at Home’. Their focus on using creative engagement to better wellbeing and mental health was a form of social prescribing that proved more important than ever. However, we saw how RAMM went above and beyond providing care to vulnerable ones, conscious of the economic divide within the UK, they ensured inclusion and support for all.
Abbi Bayliss for Arts and Health South West: Tell us a bit about the ‘RAMM at Home’ project and the different groups of people you looked to help.
Sophie Harbour: RAMM at Home was an online weekly art challenge developed by RAMM’s engagement team. It launched on the 14th April 2020 in response to the country wide ‘lockdown’ imposed by the government due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The project was designed to allow people to create their very own RAMM collection based on various objects from the museum’s stunning collections. With a focus on areas of the museum such as the Romans, natural history, Egyptian mummies and world cultures, a different creative challenge was set every week, over a 12 week period. Participants were encouraged to email photographs of their creations to be shared on RAMM’s website or to display them in their windows at home for passers-by to see.
RAMM worked in collaboration with two local artists who made weekly YouTube films in order to explain how to go about making each creative challenge. These sessions included guides on how to draw a giraffe, paint a bird on a stone, create a Roman soldier from an old paint brush, make an origami bird, and fashion a beautiful jellyfish from an old plastic bottle. Challenges were released every Friday across our social media accounts, the museum’s website and via our e-newsletters.
RAMM at Home started out as a project aimed at anyone who would like to take part in creative online activities. However, we quickly became aware of a stark digital divide in the UK, with many households having no access to the internet and others reliant on expensive pay-as-you-go services. In order to make sure we were able to reach as wide an audience as possible, RAMM worked with Exeter Community Wellbeing hub and Exeter City Community Trust to send out 500 activity packs to people in their homes. The packs contained three illustrated activity sheets that described how to have a go at the first three creative challenges, plus some coloured pencils, a pencil sharpener, a word search, a postcard, a small gift (a keyring, fridge magnet or notepad) and a Gerald giraffe tie-pin.
“In order to make sure we were able to reach as wide an audience as possible, RAMM worked with Exeter Community Wellbeing hub and Exeter City Community Trust to send out 500 activity packs to people in their homes.”
AB: Where did this idea come from and what sparked the conversation?
SH: The idea came from conversations within RAMM’s engagement team about how to keep people interested in the museum and its collections whilst our doors were closed. We wanted to give people the opportunity to take part in a collective creative activity and learn about an aspect of RAMM’s collections along the way.
AB: What’s the importance of wellbeing at the moment in isolation and how can the Arts/Museums be used to support Mental Wellbeing?
SH: It has been a very difficult time for many, particularly those who live alone or have had to isolate for long periods of time. Museums and the creative industries are vital to helping support people through these difficult times. Here at RAMM we have tried to offer a range of activities in order to give people the opportunity to get involved with their local community. For example, ‘Lockdown Legends’ was a photography exhibition created to showcase local ‘heroes’ and their stories. Individuals were nominated by their community for acts of kindness, courage, humanity or ingenuity. Our Contemporary Art Curator commissioned a local artist, Amy Shelton, to creatively respond to the pandemic by bringing together plants from her daily walks. Plants were also contributed by members of the community collected on their own local ramblings. We also adapted our project ‘Out and About: Queering the Museum’ to co-create new online platforms for members of the LGBTQ+ community to share their experiences. Over this difficult time the local community have taken part in many of RAMM’s recent projects by sharing ideas, offering new perspectives or contributing photographs or artworks that tell a story. By offering a space to share these stories, Museums can provide an important sense of belonging at a time when many have felt an overwhelming sense of isolation.
AB: You’re even going above and beyond delivering physical activity packs in person, how has this impacted and helped your community?
SH: We’ve had lots of lovely feedback from people who received our packs and we hope to be able to do more of this in future.
AB: The packs are a work of art in themselves, what was the process behind creating this?
SH: We worked very closely with a local artist who illustrated the activity sheets by hand. They really are a work of art!
AB: What is the importance of keeping Museums alive during lockdown – in these digital spaces and from the comfort of your own home?
SH: It was really important to keep people engaged with museums whilst they were closed. Museums can offer people from all walks of life the chance to engage with history, art, nature and much, much more! For example, as well as our RAMM at Home project, we also produced some online learning materials for budding time-travellers to offer children the chance to escape their living rooms and explore our shared history through a whole range of new and exciting educational activities.
AB: What has this taught you about your surrounding communities and how to better support them?
SH: The art works, stories and ideas that people have contributed during this period have created a lasting testament to the strength and resilience of the community. Sharing this extraordinary global experience has made our local communities stronger and as an organisation we feel humbled to have been able to work with our local community to document this unique moment in history.
“Sharing this extraordinary global experience has made our local communities stronger and as an organisation we feel humbled to have been able to work with our local community to document this unique moment in history.”
AB: What advice would you give to other Museums in extending their outreach to all members of the community with a real mission on inclusivity against isolation?
SH: Each museum works in its own unique way with its local communities. This difficult time has highlighted more than ever how important creative and cultural organisations are to our wellbeing. Making sure everyone from all walks of life has access to fun, creative ways in which to explore our shared history should be a National priority.
AB: Do you think the creative sector could be a leading force in mental health support and if so, how?
SH: The creative sector has always provided people with a space to explore their ideas and think creatively. We are slowly beginning to realise how important wellbeing is to our overall mental and physical health and being creative is a great way to support positive mental health. There are some fantastic examples of the health service working in collaboration with the creative industries to support positive mental health outcomes. Hopefully this collaborative work will continue, informing on best practise methods in order to effectively to support mental health.
AB: What are the Museum’s plans for the future, with this project and community support in general?
SH: RAMM’s primary aim is to enhance people’s quality of life. The museum is a place of discovery which encourages everyone to be curious. RAMM uses its local and global collections to connect people to the world and inspires them to shape a better future. As an organisation we are enthusiastic about everything the museum has to offer. We are ambitious for the services and the quality of what we do and we continually challenge ourselves in order to provide visitors with a range of different and diverse experiences. And we aim to be responsive to new ideas and views and build on the museum’s reputation by acting responsibly in everything we do. Above all we want to continue to offer a friendly and welcoming service to all.
What the pandemic has highlighted more than ever is that museums are spaces for shared stories. RAMM offers a safe, welcoming and responsive environment for all our visitors to share their comments and reflections. We will continue to encourage new perspectives and stories by building on and strengthening links with our communities.
We also recognise that museums are spaces that can act as catalysts for change. Our collections document the destruction of habitats and the inhuman treatment of communities around the world and throughout history. We aim to continue to raise the awareness of these issues and invite our audiences to question attitudes and behaviour.
The museum comes alive to the sound of respectful debate and thought-provoking discussions and moving forward we plan to continue to explore the many ways that our museum can inspire curiosity and creativity for our communities.
To find out more about the ‘RAMM at Home’ project visit https://rammuseum.org.uk/young-visitors/fun-things-to-do/rammhome/
If people want to request a pack, and feel they fit in the “shielded, vulnerable or isolated” category, they can do so by emailing jamie.vittles(at)ecfc.co.uk.
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