Remembering Helen Pike
Written by Debbie Challis, Jenny Pistella, Martine Rouleau and Dean Veall.
It is with great sadness that we share the news that Helen Pike, a Public Programme Manager at University College London and Course Director for GEM, died after a short illness on 9 May 2021. All of us worked with Helen over the last ten years and we wanted to take this moment to pay tribute to her vitality and creativity and reflect on her contribution to museum learning and engagement.
If at any point since 2012 you happened to find yourself at the Petrie Museum of Egyptain and Sudanese Archaeology, whether as a visitor, an attendee to one of her events or as someone stopping by for a meeting, you would have certainly met the force that was Helen Pike and remember your encounter. Over the nine years she was in post as Public Programme Manager at the Museum and more widely at UCL Culture, Helen pioneered an approach to learning and engagement that was creative, energetic and uniquely her own.
Helen’s experience working in the arts and cultural sector for organisations such as the British Film Institute and National Federation of Artists Studios, and being an artist herself, provided a wealth of knowledge and networks she drew on to develop her practice. She excelled at, and thoroughly enjoyed, developing creative collaborations with established artists, such as with Bompas and Parr for their immersive audio-visual takeover, Curses!, or with up and coming artists in an annual competition she ran with the UAL: Central St. Martins to create work in response to the Petrie Museum’s collection. Her innovative programme, Timekeeper in Residence, took this approach even further, working with artist Cathy Haynes, to devise and lead a project that brought together audiences and UCL academics to meaningfully engage with the collection. This work created a model of engagement that has since been adopted widely across UCL Culture and that’s credit to Helen.
Helen was a disruptor for good – challenging the way things were done in ‘dusty old’ museums – and was never afraid to ask, “who is it for?”
Inclusion was at the heart of Helen’s practice. Helen took the opportunity during a short closure of the Petrie Museum to engage traditionally underserved local communities with the collection. During the Festival of Pots she used art and creative practice to work with a diverse range of community groups around Holborn and Camden over six months, which culminated in a co-produced exhibition of ceramics made by artists and community members hosted in the community and at UCL. Helen also pioneered programming for LGBTQ+ representation and was one of the first to do so across the sector. She led on Objects of Desire, a series of events developed with Egyptologist John J. Johnston, which asked LGBTQ+ people to name an object and speak about why it’s important to them and their sexuality or gender identity. And who could forget the performance of Get Hur, a mock musical hall take on the life of Hadrian, performed in the Petrie Museum at Helen’s behest by legendary activist artist Bette Bourne and his renowned gay theatre troupe Bloolips.
Always generous with her time, Helen nurtured and supported those she worked with. In particular, she took the time to give volunteers at the Petrie Museum new opportunities and build their confidence to pursue new ventures, whether in museums or outside of them. She shared her experience of her creative practice with placements from the Institute of Education’s Museum and Galleries in Education MA students as well as through her role as a Director of the GEM course for ‘Working with Artists in Heritage Settings’.
Working alongside Helen over the years, it’s fair to say she has left a lasting impression and has shaped the way we each approached our learning and engagement practice. She would make meetings lively and inspiring, bringing out the vast array of colourful Sharpies and A3 paper to sketch out ideas for theatrical activities that would open the venues and collections at UCL out to new audiences. Our immersive A Wake for Jeremy Bentham that explored the notion of death was planned this way, as well as our annual murder mystery evenings for Museums at Night and the extraodinarily popular steam-punk inspired late opening Fin de Siecle at the Petrie Museum. Then she’d charm us all into dressing up for the occasion so that when the event was over, we’d sit around under the lights of her portable disco ball dressed as one of Agatha Christie’s detectives or ‘vamps’ having a ‘glass of’ gossiping and plotting more fun events. We’ll always remember the joy of running events with Helen. Helen helped us all in pushing the boundaries of what we could do with our collections and produced events that were highly popular and thought provoking.
Helen thrived on collaborative working and pulled us together as a team to work on numerous events and programmes, including the award-winning Museums on Prescription which worked with bringing together older people in UCL museums and spaces. Helen was an energetic force who pushed forward progressive change and connected people – students, her colleagues, all types of audiences – in heritage settings. Helen had an abundance of fun, which she shared with us all. The world is a darker place without her. She will be greatly missed. As ever, Helen looked to the future in 2021, and these are her own words from an interview she gave to UCL Culture volunteers:
“Well don’t give up! It’s not been a great year and things will be tough going forward but it also offers a chance to do things differently so that means there’s lots of opportunities out there. [. . .] Next year I think will be the year of reinventing how we do things and not reverting back to the pre-covid ways ”