Collections, Compassion and Covid-19
Covid-19 has changed our world in ways that we could never have imagined. The pandemic has had a seismic impact on our world, its impacts exposing questions about what really matters and what our priorities are in the face of adversity, inequality and injustice.
Common Cause Foundation (CCF) works with what they call the ‘perception gap’. It is a simple but powerful finding that most people care deeply for others and the wider world; but the majority of us underestimate the extent to which our fellow citizens care about these things. This gap is of profound importance, because research shows that when we hold more authentic perspectives of others’ values we are more likely to feel connected to our communities, support action on social or environmental challenges, show greater motivation to become engaged in collective action, and feel higher wellbeing.
During lockdown Happy Museum and CCF held two online discussions (one hosted, with our gratitude, by Culture Declares Emergency) which built on this research and our existing partnership work to explore how we in the cultural sector might help bridge the perception gap, support people to express and celebrate shared values and through these actions to build resilience now and in the future.
Attended by over 70 participants from across museums and the wider cultural sector, we explored these questions:
- What, if anything, are you doing now in a practical way to put ‘compassionate values’ in action and help your communities through this?
- A recent survey suggested that just 9% of respondents want to return to how things were, before Covid. What role might your organisation play in helping people to explore their desire for change, even while your doors are closed to visitors?
- Many people say that they have a renewed sense of the importance of what we call “compassionate” values – family, friends, community, nature, care for one another. What might your organisation do now to help create a foil for these feelings – while remaining sensitive to the fact that many people are also having a very difficult time?
Three participants continued the conversation to explore collecting through the perspective of values: Carrie Canham, Curator, Ceredigion Museum, Rebecca Jacobs, Access and Public Programme Manager. Museum of the Home (formerly Geffrye Museum) and Bernard Hay, Senior Learning Producer, Design Museum. Their conversation highlighted many powerful themes – most significantly, how central our homes are to our experience at this time; and how many of the narratives which people shared, and museums ‘collected’, reflect and speak to our collective compassionate values.
At Ceredigion the team has plans to rationalise their collection and review their collections policy in a ‘big-picture’ way. Before lockdown, they developed plans for an Object Lab in their Co-production Gallery where local people will open boxes, explore collections, categorise, explore their feelings and experiences about these collections and link these to contemporary Ceredigion. The project was informed by a values approach developed in partnership with CCF. This work is currently in ‘dry dock’ but the Museum has launched a contemporary collecting project , Quarantine Quilts – augmenting their collection with quilts (digital and actual) reflecting people’s experience of lockdown. As part of their Council’s commitment to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, it is creating wellbeing packs for 800 isolated people with the museum contributing squares of fabric, pens and pictures to stimulate memories and invite people to make pieces for quarantine quilts.
The Museum of the Home was already closed due to re-development when lockdown was imposed. The team had started to explore how they might develop exhibitions underpinned by a values approach, working with Happy Museum and CCF. In lockdown the museum launched the Stay Home collecting project to document how people are experiencing ‘home’ during the pandemic: how are they feeling at home?
The immediacy of this project is new for the museum: they capture the stories as they happen and share them immediately. The process – posing simple questions, inviting photographs and testimony – focuses on people expressing their feelings around home rather than seeking an object-based narrative. Jacobs observed that compassion often emerges spontaneously from people’s narratives: this is what people want to share in this moment.
At Ceredigion the team is re-framing a planned exhibition to temporarily take a virtual frame. In ‘Go Home Polish’ Polish-born, Welsh-resident, artist Michal Iwanowski asked himself this complex question after he saw the words “Go home Polish” scrawled on a wall in his home town. Iwanowski walked back to Poland. The exhibition asks the question – what does home mean to you?
This theme resonates with the redevelopment of the new Museum of the Home, when it re-opens later this year a new gallery will take the idea of home beyond the four walls of a building, using photographs, films and testimony to explore homelessness, loss, home in the city.
The stories emerging from these museum projects are reflective of and spontaneously speak to compassionate values. As the pandemic progresses and the narrative changes and shifts, one way to harness the compassion in these stories is to share them immediately, to connect recent experiences of collective compassionate values to the values needed to address longer term crises of environment, justice and equity.
The messages we receive, and the values that frame them, have a huge impact on our individual and collective responses. Common Cause here shares research that shows treating people as consumers – rather than citizens – demonstrably increases their materialistic outlook, lowers their wellbeing and makes them less co-operative. This impact is as true in government messaging as it is of the stories we share in museums. A recent blog by Jon Alexander explores the potential impact of value shifts in recent public messaging around Covid19, meanwhile Common Cause call for a Compassionate Narrative to help guide us out of and beyond the crisis.
How can we in museums (notwithstanding our own challenges) use this moment to celebrate and amplify our shared values in order to overcome the perception gap, build common understanding and strengthen action in our communities?
If you are interested in joining this conversation:
Explore the research and resources of the Common Cause Foundation including a new online training course.
Find out more about Happy Museum’s partnership work including focused cultural sector workshops and online group discussions – and to register your interest email us on email@example.com