Culture: Lockdown in 30 objects

Art galleries have fully reopened across the country hoping to bring joy and to lift the spirits of visitors this spring. Many arts organisations are offering a variety of new exhibitions from contemplative and reflective shows to bright and immersive experiences, to help ease us back into cultural spaces. One of the trends over the past two years was the upswell of community activism and resourceful creativity we witnessed during lockdown. Are there useful insights we can take away from this period of creativity?

St Andrews, Hertford envisioned, curated, and hosted a lockdown exhibition in October 2021 titled Our Lockdown in 30 Objects (loosely inspired by Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects.) Kath Oates (Pioneer Enabler) and Nick Hoyle (PCC and incorrigibly creative) reflect here on what they learned from the experience and how this will help shape their cultural and community events in the future.

They share reflection, ideas, top tips, and takeaways with Sarah Rogers, HeartEdge Culture:

Kath: I was listening to the radio and heard a primary school teacher saying telling her children at school, "remember this time because it's going to be a significant point in history.” I thought that we should be doing something as a church community and to involve the wider community as well.

And there was a lot of creativity at the time, people were rediscovering painting, posting pictures of different things they were doing with their children, making rainbows, yarn bombing, taking photographs of themselves clapping for carers.  So that kind of exhibition was our original idea in 2020.

Sarah: With the different lockdowns, all the challenges and the impact of the pandemic over two years, this original concept did not materialise and as a result you went back to the drawing board to think again?

Kath: Okay, yes, as you can imagine that didn't happen. As time went on, this needed to be handled a lot more sensitively, that we wanted to invite a wider Community response, and as wide a cross section of people and experiences as possible.

We brainstormed it and came up with this idea of using objects to tell stories about how people experienced lockdown.  And the story was the important thing we wanted to capture.

We also wanted to really consider the people coming to the exhibition - to put together an event with things that would resonate with everybody, that people could look at something and say oh gosh “me too.”

Kath: And finally, we wanted this to be a listening project that it wasn't just about the stories of the people who shared the objects, but anybody who came with a story to tell - and to give them the opportunity to do that. We had a book where visitors could leave comments and thoughts, and where our stewards could record ideas and conversations. We gave people post it notes to write things they were grateful for on a Gratitude Wall, and we also used the Chapel as a place where people could express their sorrow by putting grains of salt into a bowl of water to reflect tears.

Sarah: The two themes that were your focus then were Gratitude and Regret…. and everything in between. The response of your visitors was particularly important and integrated into the exhibition. It sounds as if you thought about visitor engagement from the very beginning.  So now, how did you take this vision and curate the experience?

Nick, you were responsible for the production and curation.

Nick: It was at that point that I referred to my notes I kept from Jonathan Evens HeartEdge webinar Seeing Salvation. My takeaway from this was to have a clear sense of what we were trying to achieve and who it's for. I drew up a draft concept and title and this became our focus. My takeaway from the webinar was to not to just ‘let it happen’. You take your contributors and your audience seriously because it is not just about the group dynamic of putting on an event or an exhibition, it's all about the people you are wanting to reach with it.

Nick:  We invited the contributors to be community stakeholders in the exhibition, people who can represent different groups and different sort of experiences.

But the whole time, we kept a tight focus on what we're trying to achieve through this concept, where every visitor can respond live, be democratic and open to this space we wanted to create.

Sarah: I think that is an important and subtle centre-point which is often overlooked or micro-managed. How do you provide a space that allows freedom to experience humour, sadness, loss without presenting a prescribed direction? Congratulations for achieving that and holding tight to your vision. It sounds as if you had a good team around you.

Kath: One thing we were clear about was that one person should be curating and any suggestions go to that person. One person must have the overview - you can't really do that by committee and we all supported this.

Sarah: An effective part of the exhibition for me was the active relationship between the contributors’ stories and the viewer. You had the object and then next to it the story behind the object. And then the book of response and Post-it wall for visitors to respond, reflect and engage.

Nick: Yes, each contributor had an interesting object and an interesting story to tell. I also sent out sample story formats of about 150 words to help keep the stories really succinct, so that they would really grab the attention of visitors. That really worked well!.

Bringing the objects together was quite an organic process. I got an initial 10 objects together quite quickly, but I didn't hurry it - I wanted to just let it mature, to see what things pop up and see what conversations lead to other ideas.

Sarah :  Once you started the exhibition, how did you record this beyond the listening project? You came up with such an interesting solution which again strongly links to your original vision about the community and contributors as collective stakeholders

Nick: I was bombarded with suggestions about legacy. But I kept to my mantra: what is it intended to achieve, who is it for… and went through various options. In the end I thought I'll contact the county archives who had created a special section about our community's response to Covid 19. We took professional photos of all the objects. Then I sent everything into the county archives, where people are not going to look for things short term but coming back to what Kath said at the outset, this leaves a legacy for future generations.

Sarah: Once again, your mantra kept you and team focused, but also links back to the start with Kath’s original inspiration. One more piece of the exhibition that I’d like you to share is that you felt it was important for your visitors to take something positive away. There were the themes of Gratitude and Regret - but also Hope.

Kath : We were thinking about how would people leave the exhibition, we just didn't know how people would react, because some of the stories were incredibly sad and moving.

We didn't know what it might trigger in people who'd had similar experiences of loss, so it was important for people to leave with hope and to take something away from the exhibition. We produced a postcard of a painting by Rev. Alan Stewart, with a quote from Maya Angelou: “Every Storm Runs out of Rain”.

Visitors could take hope home with them, pin up the postcard, and when you're having a bad day you can look at that rainbow of hope and think…we are going to get through this 250 visitors took one!

Sarah: You managed to work with a small budget which is good for people to read. You had about 500 guests visit the exhibition that ran over ten days during Harvest in October, a time for thankfulness. You also were clear about what you did not want to detract from this, such as background music or any other events bolted on.

Looking ahead, what’s next? Are you thinking about more projects like this?

Nick : We did get the sense that people are receptive to talking and sharing a creative space that provides an opportunity to talk. We’re now asking the question of what matters to you, where do you belong, how do you feel about that, and so we’re hoping to work with this creatively as a church.

Kath : We're going to have a model railway day, because we have various people in the congregation who are interested in trains -  this is not going to be a great model railway exhibition, for specialists, but something where kids who love Thomas the Tank come too.  We are hoping that this will build up more goodwill in the Community by having wide appeal.

Sarah: what are your three main tips and takeaways from Our Lockdown in 30 Objects?

Kath & Nick:

  • The mantra is key: Who is it for and what are you trying to achieve - and constantly refer back to that.
  • Believe in your exhibitors. To see people really take the concept or idea and run with it is fantastic.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the people who are coming and give them the personal space and means to respond.
  • To be sensitive and lead pastorally.

Thank you to Kath Oates and Nick Hoyle for sharing their reflections and exhibition tips, also to Rev. Alan Stewart and the rest of the team at St Andrews Hertford.

The images from the exhibition are available on this link complete with a carousel of photos of both inside and outside displays.