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In conversation with: Heidi Holder, Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chair of Education, The Met

Over the course of the pandemic, cultural organisations around the world turned to digital in order to gain and retain the hearts and minds of the public. But while there is much to be said for the great online pivot in terms of engagement and accessibility, Covid-19 has also given us examples of how the physical and the tangible remain integral to our health and wellbeing.  

In her presentation at the upcoming MuseumNext Health and Wellbeing Summit, Heidi Holder will share how The Met partnered with a food delivery programme to get art experiences into the hands of home bound seniors in New York with the aim of reducing social isolation. Ahead of the Summit MuseumNext caught up with Heidi to find out more.

It would be fair to say that Heidi Holder’s first year at The Met was far from normal. Having assumed her role at the end of 2020, her tenure as Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chair of Education has been one punctuated by challenges unlike any that most of her predecessors had experienced.

Having said that, she explains that her time at The Met has been filled with opportunities to explore different ways of working and re-imagine approaches to engaging with audiences:

“For museums, I think the whole point of wellbeing has to come back to audiences and engaging with them in new ways. That has been something that museums have been trying to achieve for a long time but I would say that in some ways the onset of Covid has forced things to cohere in, sometimes, surprising ways.”

“Suddenly, when the usual formats for education and engagement are removed we appreciate how valuable those things are. Out of the chaos of lockdowns we actually found space to think carefully about who was historically coming through the door and who wasn’t; who benefits from museum offerings and who doesn’t.”

As Heidi explains, the idea of museums as therapeutic spaces isn’t anything new but it is something that came under an intensified spotlight with doors closed for months on end. The urgent need to respond to the health and wellbeing crisis taking place in the community, quickly forced its way to the top of The Met’s agenda:

“At The Met people at the highest level were saying yes, this is important and we want to focus effort and resources towards addressing this challenge in very concrete ways. The ‘Your Met Art Box’ project that I’ll be talking about in more detail at the Summit is just one of these. But there are many initiatives that the museum has undertaken during the pandemic . . . and will continue to undertake in the future in order to support our community’s wellbeing.”

A box of delights

Isolation is always an ongoing problem for older adults: an age group in which people may begin to develop mobility issues, have a reduced social circle, may no longer live in close proximity to family or simply seek out fewer human contacts on a weekly basis.

“But the pandemic increased that isolation ten-fold. It became something that was …experienced by everyone, across the world.”

And so Heidi and the team at The Met sought out a partnership with local food delivery charity Citymeals on Wheels to circulate boxes filled with art materials and other objects to 1,000 of their elderly neighbours and volunteers. As she will share at the MuseumNext summit, the boxes that her team created touched on many different themes and engaged with New York seniors in authentic ways.

Heidi says, “Distribution programmes and mailing things out to the public don’t always work, it would be fair to say. It’s very costly and things don’t always get there on time. But by forming a partnership with Citymeals we gained access to a team who really had that distribution work down to a fine art. That was what we were missing in order to retain that physical connection with the elderly people we wanted to reach out to.”

Such has been the success of the pilot that The Met plans to scale up the programme over the coming years. The intention is to eventually reach 5,000 seniors in the city with plans to also provide boxes that accommodate more than the English-speaking audience targeted throughout 2021.

Measuring impact

Commenting on the impact reporting and assessment phase that follows any wellbeing initiative like this, Heidi shares her belief in the importance of gathering both quantitative and qualitative data in order to build a rounded picture of the impact of wellbeing initiatives.

“Even feedback like ease of opening the box upon delivery helped us to refine the programme. We actually found that after our first box we did have to change the packaging – it can seem like a small thing to get a knife or a pair of scissors to open a box, but for this audience it is important to make it easy and safe for people to be able to engage quickly and safely.”

Asked whether the logistical challenges of packaging, delivery, distribution and logistics disincentivise physical mail-outs in an era where digital is fast-becoming the more popular option for wellbeing programmes, Heidi says,

“For us, it is important to have both digital and analogue opportunities for our audiences. There are still many people in the world, in New York, who don’t have access to a computer or a smart phone. Others, not just the older adults at Citymeals, don’t want to engage online, especially around wellbeing. Analogue programs are about access and inclusion to ensure that various audiences can be in conversation with museums. The art box goes to specific users so this kind of distribution can be challenging without a partner like Citymeals. Many museums, including The Met, routinely mail materials to schools or participants in family classes to ensure that participants have materials for a digital class. Materials are also mailed to support at-home, in-person making. In the end, the logistics of packaging and distribution is part of worthy museum work that we do to reach our audiences and it’s important to find a way to do so in ways that are feasible and sustainable.”

Asked what she is looking to learn from the summit, Heidi says, “I really want to hear about other institutions’ experiences during Covid and how their plans for health and wellbeing in the future have shifted or have been shaped by the pandemic. I’m also keen to find out what other museums are doing to increase access around culture and how museums are coping with challenges to existing narratives and including new voices. That’s a really interesting piece that I think many cultural organisations will be wrestling with over the coming years.”

Hear more from Heidi and an exceptional range of other museum professionals at the Health and Wellbeing Summit running 31st January – 2nd February 2021. Find out more about the conference here.

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