Sending out resources for remote engagement during COVID – The Fitzwilliam Museum

Arthur Rank Hospice support adults living across Cambridgeshire with an advanced serious illness or other life limiting condition. Caring for more than 4000 patients each year, at the hospice in Cambridge, a day treatment centre in Wisbech, and in patients’ own homes.

At the beginning of 2020 a community partnership began, between Arthur Rank Hospice and the University of Cambridge Museums, when the team at the hospice who provide Day Therapy, invited the museums to get involved with their Social Groups. This typically took place on alternate weeks at the hospice offering a range of social activities and interactions for patients, aiming to support their wellbeing and provoke group conversations and joint learning.

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Inclusion team has a well-established community partnership programme, engaging people in conversations about art, which often take us on amazing journeys together. Our first sessions with Arthur Rank were in February and March 2020, where we would gather together in a large comfortable room, a circle of arm chairs and small tables ready and waiting for the 20 plus participants, care support and volunteers. We would take along A3 reproductions of paintings from the collection to share round the group and then invite them to relax and slowly explore the painting, inviting people to share their thoughts and feelings about the artwork and imagine what it would feel like to walk in to the painting, provoking lively conversations to bounce around the room. Only after this would we share the historical context of the artist and painting.

With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lock down, the Hospice had a huge task to reach and support its patients at home. They did an amazing job by setting up Day Therapy, Social Group sessions via Zoom and in response to the isolation many people are experiencing during the pandemic, a new group has emerged for Carers (often the wife, husband or other family member). One participant who came along to the Carers Group, said “I’ve come along today as it was highly recommended to me by my husband who loves these sessions. It’s good to have the time to stop, to look and share as there’s always so much going on.” This shared experience allows for conversations about the artwork to take place beyond the session.

The Museum of Zoology learning team offer show and tell conversational sessions to adult groups such as those attending the Arthur Rank Hospice’s day therapy. These are usually informal presentations, with real specimens, centred around a story from the animal kingdom or conservation science; such as camouflage and colours in butterflies. The move to digital sessions as a result of the pandemic motivated us to think creatively about how we replace our object handling activity with something as equally engaging. What emerged were a series of interviews with researchers from across the Department and Museum of Zoology. The speakers share their work and the audience gets to ask any questions that came to mind.

We have found that presenting the content in an interview style works well with our adult audiences. It introduces a conversational atmosphere from the start and encourages engagement from those watching. We ask that speakers come with interesting images, videos or objects to help tell their story, but to otherwise keep things informal. So far we have heard about butterflies from a back garden, snails with the help of a personal collection, and met a researcher’s pet snakes, all over Zoom. These sessions have been met with great enthusiasm and interest, evident in the number of questions that are asked and the many “oh I’m even more interested now!” comments. We look forward to sharing more amazing stories from the natural world and give this audience a chance to meet (and grill) more scientists from the University.

The Learning Co-ordinator at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science was already working with the Arthur Rank Hospice before starting her job at the Whipple, taking in and talking about objects from her other job at Burwell Museum, so was very excited to have a new collection to tell them about. The team at the Hospice have done an amazing job at making the programme digital and at helping both speakers and participants more confident with new technology. It will never be the same as being able to offer handling opportunities with real objects, but in some ways it has opened up new opportunities. We can now talk about objects which are in our stores, or stars of our collection like Herschel’s telescope which don’t quite fit in a bike panier to be taken out visiting! It’s always really interesting to discuss the objects with attendees at the social sessions as they often have extensive experience of the scientific careers reflected in our collections. A highlight so far has been introducing the museum at a social session and then being visited (in the brief time in the summer when the museum was able to open) by a participant who was able to find and tell us about objects on display which he remembered from his work at the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company.

The Day Therapy team always have at least one or two team members present in each session and have shared the feedback they have received from the participants.

“Our patients really enjoy the Museum sessions, as a learning experience, sharing and talking about the collections.  For some it is something they have not experienced before, while others get to explore their passions. The feedback we have got has been so good that we have now opened up these sessions to all who are currently being supported by Day Therapy. We are so thankful for the way in which the Museums have worked with us, both before and during lockdown and really value the service they provide. “

This community partnership between the University of Cambridge Museums and the Hospice was formed during a year of change and challenge. We look forward to developing and expanding how we work together to connect people supported by the Hospice with our amazing collections and each other.

For more about the University of Cambridge Museums’ community partnerships and work to support health and wellbeing, please visit the UCM blog:

Alison Ayres, the Fitzwilliam Museum
Alison Giles, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science
Sara Steele, the University Museum of Zoology