Staff Stories – what Culture Recovery Fund support means to us

Front view of The MERL

On July 5 2020, the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced an unprecedented, world-leading £1.57 billion rescue package for cultural and heritage organisations to help them weather the impact of coronavirus. Under an £880m grants programme managed by Arts Council England, The MERL was awarded £74,248. The funding aimed to maintain England’s “cultural ecology” and enable us to be resilient.

We have been able to fund some members of staff to work on a variety of essential projects. Here they tell their personal stories of what the funding has meant to them and what the work they are doing means to The MERL.

Tom Woodhouse, Visitor Services Assistant 

Tom Woodhouse, Visitor Services Assistant
Tom welcoming visitors to the museum, Halloween 2020

Thanks to the CRF funding I was taken on as Visitor Services Assistant, which I had been doing in the summer to fill in for a staff member on parental leave. Before the new lockdown, I spent my mornings working from home on digital projects and my afternoons in the museum shop and café. Now, our online presence is even more important, so supporting the marketing team’s work through two of my key projects is (I hope) really helpful. Firstly, having worked on our visitor booking system and shown the Visitor Services team how to use it, I am now doing the preparatory work for modernising our online shop in early 2021. We already have an engaged global audience online, so we think that a more polished commercial presence will be a huge financial boost for the museum.

Whilst we were open, the second part of my job was covering shifts in the afternoon and updating our training manuals for staff and volunteers. When I was working in this role in the summer, I was part of the team preparing for the reopening and establishing our new procedures, so it was great to come back and lighten the load on our lovely Visitor Services team ensuring that all our guests could enjoy a safe visit. It has been a fantastic experience coming back to the MERL regularly. I have learnt a lot about how the museum works, gained new skills, and most importantly I have loved getting to know my colleagues. 

Anna Jones, 51 Voices Development Manager

Cyanotype made by Anna Jones, 51 Voices Development Manager
Cyanotype Slow Selfie made by Anna Jones

I came to The MERL in January 2020 as maternity cover for Danielle, the Public Programmes Manager. I’d had lots of experience of working in museums project management and arts led public engagement but never the opportunity to combine the two – I was so excited. Working quickly with colleagues and partners to create a wide ranging public programme for April to August, I made the print deadline of early March – but COVID-19 and national lockdown meant no print and, much more disappointingly, no public and no programme.  

We took activities online, including most recently an ambitious MERL Late: ‘GLOW’ complete with home delivery cocktails, but nothing replaces people in and being the beating heart of a museum.     

Therefore, it was with complete delight to learn that the Cultural Recovery Fund is enabling The MERL to design and deliver a year long project – 51 Voices – the vision of our Curator Ollie to reach out to people using the collections. In its infancy as an idea  when we went into lockdown, the future of this anniversary project looked uncertain, with funding opportunities stretched and colleagues working remotely without access to collections for much of the year. Now, as I hand back over to Danielle, in my new part-time CRF funded role, I can make the project a reality.   

Like for many, 2020 has provoked existential questioning for The MERL, particularly in our approaches to participant engagement and digital interaction and how this relates to our core purpose. To answer our questioning, we wish to take an ambitious and new approach to co-curation and co-production starting in January to mark our 70th year. Thanks to the Cultural Recovery Fund and National Lottery Players we are working with people to explore and respond to collection objects from or accessioned in 1951 – relating them to priorities and passions of the past, present and future. 

Stories will be unlocked and shared, communities will become more central and connected to the way our collection is considered and curated. Diverse and different contributors will have their voices heard, shaping the way The MERL defines itself, and is perceived, as we turn 70. It’s really exciting!

Susanna Ivy, Digital Marketing Assistant 

Susanna Ivy, Programmes & Digital Marketing Assistant
Susanna at a family event in the MERL garden before COVID-19

Before COVID-19 my main focus as Public Programmes Assistant was to help groups plan their visits to the museum as well as assisting the planning and delivering of events onsite. Both very much revolved around welcoming people through our doors! Straight away it was clear we would need to find other ways to keep people engaged with our collections and projects, and quite quickly we regrouped and thought of the best ways to shift our programme online. As someone always eager to learn new digital skills, I was excited to see how we could manage it. And so it happened – our planned family events turned into online events, with suggested activities and crafts; exhibitions moved online with supporting blog posts and tweets; and even our popular outdoor session for the under 5s, Friday Fledglings, made its move into the virtual, engaging even our youngest visitors and fans!

The CRF funding has created a new post for me as Digital Marketing Assistant. It is already proving to be invaluable in allowing me to have the time needed to continue with our new ways of engaging with people online.  From uploading and sharing our ever-exciting and varied content on our website and our e-newsletters, to thinking how to best engage our local community wherever possible – there is truly no end to the digital work these days! We now aim to incorporate the digital knowledge we have gained to complement our onsite events going forward, and the funding has even allowed us to embark on an new marketing campaign to reach out to more schools for online sessions. 

It’s exciting to be part of a team that has adapted so quickly and eagerly to use digital to encourage people to safely come back onsite to visit our museum whilst also keeping us accessible to people all around the world. 

Emma Canterbury, Learning, Engagement and Programming Officer

Emma Canterbury, Learning, Engagement and Programming Officer
Emma visiting the MERL garden with her son

Thanks to the Cultural Recovery Fund I have been able to return to The MERL after my maternity break as the Learning, Engagement and Programming Officer. It’s a really exciting time to be part of the team as during the first lockdown, we launched a new learning programme. For obvious reasons, that was bad timing, and we’ve hardly been able to welcome any schools to the museum, and had to act quickly to turn the on site sessions into virtual workshops. We’re now offering online sessions as part of our programme, and a key part of my role initially is going to be engaging with our local primary schools and sharing the new offer with them. Then fingers crossed we’ll be busy delivering sessions, online and on site – eventually! 

I’ll also be supporting the development of films to enhance our virtual and onsite learning sessions, assisting with the planning and delivery of micro-conferences for teachers and developing online exhibitions full of learning resources to support teachers and schools. 

As we start to move through 2021, I’m hoping there will be opportunities to work with families once again by developing exciting resources and activities for them to enjoy during their visits to the museum.

Sue Spiller, Cultural Commissioning Project Officer

At the time that the first lockdown happened last March, I was starting work on ‘Life Stories’, a Cultural Commissioning project in partnership with Age UK Berkshire and involving Younger People with Dementia. We’d just made our project plan and were looking forward to getting started. We would be using our local collections as triggers for story collecting, and working with older people in Reading, including those most at risk of social isolation, to help them share their own experiences and celebrate their stories. But many of the people we wanted to talk to were in the most vulnerable categories and we obviously weren’t able to meet with them as we’d hoped. I was so disappointed and frustrated as I could see that this project would have been addressing the very issues of social isolation that were becoming even more prevalent during lockdown. We couldn’t restart until the beginning of August, when we finally managed to meet some groups and individuals on Zoom. Thankfully, in the Autumn we managed to do some one to one reminiscence sessions, including with care home residents,  a six week programme with Young People with Dementia, and regular online coffee mornings as part of ‘Older People’s Day’.

The CRF grant has given us some additional time, which we will be able to use to create an on-line and (eventually) on-site exhibition to showcase these stories we’ve collected. This means that visitors will actually get to hear the personal stories of the people we have spoken to. We have seen that the act of talking to someone other than a healthcare professional has a major impact on wellbeing and there is also a positive impact of talking about positive memories. It helps with people’s feelings of self worth and belonging to a community.

This extra time will also give us the opportunity to assess the impact of the project and help us enhance best practices for future initiatives. It’s really amazing to be able to create a legacy for other charities taking a similar approach in helping the socially isolated, especially as when we started this project, we had no idea just how important and relevant it was going to be this year.

For me personally, I have got a sense of satisfaction from working on a project that I feel has real value to some of the most vulnerable members of society, and knowing that what we have learnt through this project will help others in future.

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