Barnsley Museums: Staying safe and engaged - Barnsley Council

Knowing that residents in lockdown would be facing isolation, loneliness and a lack of opportunity to engage in cultural activities, Barnsley Museums sought to continue their programmes in new and innovative ways.

Knowing that residents in lockdown would be facing isolation, loneliness and a lack of opportunity to engage in cultural activities, Barnsley Museums sought to continue their programmes in new and innovative ways. From heritage-based Barnsley Bingo to virtual pub trips and backyard forest schools, Barnsley Museums provided families, care homes and schools and many others with much needed cultural activity during the pandemic. They also used their existing connections to Barnsley’s refugee, asylum seekers and migrant communities to share vital public health information, helping to keep everyone safe.

Barnsley Museums are owned and operated by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council. The museums include Cannon Hall, Worsbrough Mill, Cooper Gallery, Elsecar Heritage Centre and Experience Barnsley. In 2019 there were over 1.3 million visitors to Barnsley’s Museums. They work with refugees, young carers, Mothers Who Make, care home residents, schools, families and many more to deliver inspirational programmes across the borough. 

The challenge                                                                                         

The COVID-19 pandemic brought significant challenges for Barnsley Museums. On the 18th March, like many others across the country, Barnsley Museums closed their doors to the public. This meant the Culture and Visitor Economy Service team had to rethink how they continue to reach their communities. They could no longer engage with visitors physically and provide the essential services and support that are critical to many of their audiences. However, this also provided an opportunity to be creative, to expand their digital ambitions and connect with people in new and exciting ways. 

Barnsley’s refugee, asylum seekers and migrant communities were recognised as being particularly vulnerable. Members of the English as a second language (ESOL) group, run by the Barnsley Museums, Feels Like Home were often living in poverty, with limited social networks and limited IT equipment. They were encountering difficulties understanding the complex messages about COVID-19 that were crucial to their safety and the safety of others.

The solution

There were plans already in place to develop a comprehensive digital programme and these were accelerated.          

The Feels Like Home group started to provide virtual support with weekly English video sessions and a social media support network for over 60 group members. An ESOL tutor ran crucial extra sessions on understanding the virus, how to socially distance and how the NHS works. In partnership with the Refugee Council the group have created an emergency resource pack which explains how to access services and get support if English isn’t your first language.

Alongside this a comprehensive digital programme included: 

  • Virtual gallery tours and online exhibitions. This included a new 360º digital tour of Cannon Hall Museum which was curated with De Morgan Foundation and featured a live curatorial Q&A session.
  • Virtual trips to the pub and back in time to Barnsley Markets.  People were invited to board the ‘Experience Barnsley Express’ for a special trip down memory lane. using the museums archive collection. 
  • ‘Wow Wednesdays’: a weekly series of films and activities targeted specifically at children under 5.
  • Backyard forest schools, online audiences with basic bushcraft skills and wildlife knowledge. 
  • Poet in lockdown. Poet and author Ian McMillan, the Bard of Barnsley created a series of sonnets and encouraged aspiring poets to have a go themselves. New sonnets were released every Thursday night on Twitter and Facebook and on Tuesdays Ian read one of the poems that his audience posted in response
  • A virtual Pride celebration which formed part of a wider virtual Mayor’s Parade.

One of the more popular activities was the Cooper Gallery’s daily digital jigsaw challenge which has been played by over 250,000 people, as far away as Brazil. ‘Barnsley Bingo’, which involved a Digital Curator using a bingo machine to pick a number and chat about an item in the museum collections, was also very popular.

In addition to online activities, the service acknowledged the need to ensure the offer went beyond digital programming. It is estimated that approximately 39 percent of adults in Yorkshire and Humber are either limited or non-digital users. As part of the Barnsley Cares project, the service sent out 300 reminiscing and activity packs to every care home in the district, local charity partners such as the Alzheimer’s Society and Butterflies Dementia. 

These packs included letters of support, a newly created reminiscing puzzle book, Barnsley Top Trumps and DVDs with rare archive footage of Barnsley. One recipient responded: 

‘Your delightful package arrived!! What a great way of sharing Barnsley Museums while most folks were quarantined—lovely to bring so many interesting things right to them. I love the photos in the book—it is a special pleasure to see photographs focused on Barnsley—a place that has had a spot in my heart for a long time now—and very much renewed’ 

The impact

The digital programme was incredibly well received. Barnsley Museums Facebook page alone had a reach of over 5 million people. Around 500 people a day took part in online daily challenges created under the banner of ‘Beat the Boredom’. Over 20,000 took part in tours online around exhibitions 

The programme not only engaged and entertained local residents, it involved people from around the world, it received national and international media coverage and was recognised as a best practice example by Arts Council England.

"The council and community are extremely proud of our cultural offer and the work that Barnsley Museums do to strengthen our visitor economy, improve life for our residents and showcase the rich heritage of all our places. This has been a difficult time for the sector, but the creativity and innovation shown by the service knows no bounds. They have excelled themselves during the Coronavirus pandemic, their digital programme has reached millions of people around the world and not only helped our residents though tough times but raised not only the profile of Barnsley, but the continuing importance of culture even in hard times.”

As Barnsley Museums re-open their venues, digital engagement will remain embedded into everything they do.

It will continue to be delivered alongside exhibitions and events and museum staff are finding new ways to engage with audiences who are still unable to visit.

Lessons learned   

Barnsley Museums recognise that they were well prepared to develop their virtual offer as it was part of a planned activity. The process was merely accelerated and enhanced. 

It was important to respond quickly and trial different approaches, but mindful of digital exclusion for some audiences, particular efforts were made to ensure that non-digital alternatives were delivered to people at risk of digital exclusion such as the elderly and people receiving food aid. This included a “Barnsley Makes” pack for children containing activities and all materials required. An unforeseen benefit to the council’s COVID response to supporting vulnerable people was that the cultural offer could be directly targeted

This period has provided space for research on the past, present and future of Barnsley Museums wellbeing work. Further consultation will take place with NHS and public health partnerships to build on the success of the cultural offer by Barnsley Museums in supporting positive health, wellbeing and emotional resilience within their communities, particularly as evidence is now emerging that health inequalities adversely affected the impact of this pandemic.