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People behind the museums: Eleanor Root, Collections and Learning Curator (Community), Colchester + Ipswich Museums

Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich with Eleanor Root inset – Rob Atherton / Alamy Stock Photo

 

MuseumNext sat down with curator, Eleanor Root, to find out why she had been inspired to create a working document filled with ideas to help cultural organisations support their local communities. More than that, we wanted to explore why museum professionals like Eleanor are redefining their roles during this time of genuine need.

As the cost of living crisis continues to bite in the UK and communities face increasing hardships ahead of the coming winter, Eleanor Root’s now widely circulated Google Doc entitled “How can museums support people through the cost of living crisis?” couldn’t have come at a better time.

Eleanor’s Google Doc is a perfect example not only of creative thinking and collaboration between institutions but also, sadly, of the desperate need for a broader support network at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet. All too often, households around the UK (and indeed in many other countries around the world) are having to choose between buying food and putting the heating on, as energy bills reach unprecedented levels and food shortages become commonplace.

In her role at Colchester + Ipswich Museums, Eleanor Root has worked on numerous projects and initiatives designed to reach not only the traditional museumgoer but the broader community. And that includes the underprivileged and unemployed families in the local area. Indeed her team have worked closely in partnership with the local Jobcentre Plus for several years now – looking to bring the benefits of cultural experiences to those who would not typically visit museums. She says,

“By pure chance I found myself having a conversation with a person called Philip Carter-Goodyear at the local Jobcentre Plus here in Ipswich. Together we realised that the museum could do a huge amount of good by partnering with the Jobcentre on our participation initiatives.

“The Jobcentre is such a fantastic resource for the community and I was thrilled to find that the fantastic people working there really believed there was a place for Arts and Culture within their work.”

It is now seven years since that first meeting and, in that time, Eleanor says that the work the two organisations have done to support people experiencing poverty has grown year on year.

Children enjoying Joy at the Jobcentre activities

Putting participation at the core of a museum’s “why”

Asked to share her thoughts on the expansion of participation events and engagement activities amongst the museum community, Eleanor says,

“In all honesty, I think there have been a number of museums that have been working in a really collaborative, equitable way with communities for a really long time – certainly longer than we have at Colchester + Ipswich Museums. And perhaps they’ve been dragging the sector forward. But if I were to pinpoint when my colleagues and I began to look at this issue differently, I would have to say it was probably five years ago.

“It really started by understanding that our museum isn’t at the centre of anything. For me, it’s not about ‘putting the museum at the heart of the community’ but rather understanding that our community is at the heart of us. We are part of a cultural ecosystem that only flourishes if we work together.

“Over time we’ve learnt to be less about going into communities with a plan or a project and more about simply finding out what they are doing and how we can get involved. Focusing on the relationships we build and understanding that our projects feed or nourish those relationships has been crucial to the success we have had in our local area.

“With the turmoil and upheaval of the last three years, that shift in thinking has become more important to us – and I guess it’s been the same for many other museums and galleries.”

In working closely with the Philip’s team, Eleanor says that she has become more familiar with the challenges facing many families in Ipswich and the barriers they face in experiencing any form of art or culture. She says,

“Sometimes it might simply be that people don’t know we exist; it can be thinking that a museum isn’t for them; it might be financial constraints preventing them from travelling to a museum. There are lots of reasons why people – particularly those experiencing hardship – may not interact with our museum. But often those families are the ones who might benefit most from what we, as museum professionals, know cultural experiences can offer.

“All of this encouraged us to simply bring events to the Jobcentre to see what would happen.”

Subsequent initiatives have included everything from crafts and creative events to an artist in residence to live animals and musical performances. Eleanor says,

“The feedback we got from those early initiatives was very positive and they wanted more from us. Of course, the pandemic then hit and we had to pause in-person events. Instead, we went into creating around 3,000 activity packs for families to enjoy at home.”

Coming out of lockdown, Eleanor says that the partnership with the Jobcentre has grown and expanded again. Local theatres and dance organisations have come onboard to improve the variety and broaden the appeal of these cultural initiatives. Programmes such as Joy at the Jobcentre have brought entertainment, delight, education and fun to the local community.

Children enjoying Joy at the Jobcentre activities

She explains that for many parents looking for work and short on disposable income, money might not stretch to taking a bus to the museum with their children during a half-term week. And so, bringing the museum to the Jobcentre enables them to meet with their employment advisor whilst also giving their children valuable experiences.

The benefits to mood and general wellbeing that come from cultural experiences are, of course, well documented. But from a purely practical perspective through volunteering and traineeships the museum can also support the development of the confidence, computer literacy and soft skills that are important to employers, too. Having office-based experience can significantly enhance a jobseeker’s CV, giving them a valuable foot in the door for a future career path.

“In many ways it feels like we’re putting the Jobcentre in the cultural sector. Through this collaboration we’ve seen what happens when you give people the opportunity to creatively express themselves and build confidence.”

Eleanor knows there is still often a perception that there is a certain “type of person who works at a museum” but that in her role it is crucial to change those preconceived ideas:

“We hope through meeting people in person, being a friendly face and actively inviting people to join us, we can welcome more people to participate.”

Supporting vulnerable families

A less publicised but equally important initiative that Eleanor and her colleagues have been running in the background is working with vulnerable families via the Jobcentre. Eleanor and her team have run job fairs for these families – both at the Museum and at external job fairs – as well as training people in word processing, Microsoft Excel and other more technical skills as part of their volunteering programme.

Next on the list for Eleanor is coordinating a gift drive to help families who would otherwise go through Christmas without their children receiving any presents.

“We’re setting up a shop of free presents at the Jobcentre with an accompanying wrapping station. Parents can simply go in, select what they want, wrap the gifts and make the festive season that little bit easier. We’ll also be using it to talk about future support programmes and share details of free events at the museum that don’t require them to pay anything. The key, though, is not to make it about ourselves.”

Other initiatives that are being explored by Ipswich + Colchester Museums include offering free breakfast events, supplying free coats and wellies for outdoor events and making a difficult time more manageable for those who find themselves in need of support. She continues,

“In an ideal world, this shouldn’t be the role of museums. But there is a real need for organisations of all shapes and sizes to support where they can right now, so it feels like our responsibility.”

Sharing ideas and growing support

Eleanor acknowledges that providing large-scale support for those struggling with the cost of living crisis isn’t for every museum and gallery. At a time when institutions are still in post-Pandemic recovery mode and many are focused on conserving funds to keep the lights on this winter, undertaking large community projects isn’t realistic for all. But she says that within the Google Doc there are plenty of small wins to be found. It is simply a matter of museums doing what they can to support their communities.

One of the most heartening things about this now widely shared document is that it has demonstrated the willingness of her peers to be generous with their ideas – helping to ensure that there is something for almost anyone to be found within its pages.

“One thing that we can be proud of as museum professionals is that I think we are naturally collaborative. I never get the sense of competition between institutions; instead I think we are good at working together and sharing ideas. That’s really important in the partnerships we nurture with communities and other organisations, too.

“That’s really been evident in the way that this Google Doc has been embraced, used, expanded on and taken on a life of its own.

“I know that not every idea will be usable by every museum and gallery. But some of them are really straightforward and really impactful. Whether it’s giving away free tickets, offering free meals from the cafeteria or running a volunteer programme that helps individuals to build their CV and gain confidence in a workplace, there are so many ways that cultural organisations can offer support.”

For more helpful information, read “How can museums support people through the cost of living crisis?” or explore the impact report for Colchester + Ipswich Museums’ Joy at the Jobcentre programme here.

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