It’s been two years since I first started talking about the Well-City Project, a partnership of cultural and creative organisations who would work together to support adults and young adults with mental health needs. There are four of us, Wessex Archaeology, The Salisbury Museum, Artcare and Wiltshire Creative. Between us we cover a lot of bases, those things that can help to feed your well-being and good mental health; heritage, culture, archaeology, theatre, art, music, dance, gardening, outside space, socialising and being with others.
Being with others – that’s usually the most important aspect of any of the well-being courses I’ve been involved in, an opportunity to be together in a safe and welcoming space where we can gently forge friendships whilst we are creative in whatever form that might be.
But in the past three months the ability to do this has changed and like so many other organisations across the world right now, I was looking for a way in which I could facilitate a positive creative experience whilst starting down the screen of my laptop.
Working with Sarah Gregson, the Community Curator from Salisbury Museum and local artist and engagement specialist, Sue Martin, we devised a digital pilot to test the waters and to understand some of what’s possible when engaging with a group of people digitally, creatively and safely.
We had five participants; these were people that we had worked with in the past and members of the Well-City steering group – they knew us and knew each other; trust had already been established and this had a considerable impact on how the course panned out.
The format of the course was simple – I would share an object(s) from Wessex Archaeology’s collection and Sarah would do the same for the Museum. There would be a discussions and questions, Sue would set thoughtful and engaging optional home ‘tasks’ so if they wanted to, participants could respond to each session and then share their response with the group at the next one.
Before we did anything live on screen, I sent the participants a set of guidelines about how we were going to keep them safe whilst online and what they could do to keep themselves safe and things to consider prior to the session. Important aspects like eye contact (almost impossible), reading each other’s body language (good luck with that!), cup of coffee and a biscuit before we start (only if you bring your own) – the general ‘touching-base’ moments to check in on a person’s well-being suddenly seemed so much harder to do.
So how did we do? Well, the first session was just the introduction and we had anticipated teething problems, so this session was a get-together. We had a chat and talked about what we would be doing in the sessions to come and how great it was to see everyone.
Sessions two and three were led by Wessex Archaeology. The object I used was the ‘workbox’ from our Sketchfab site. This object is interesting in more ways than I’ve got time to write about here and there were some great discussions and theories about what it was as a result of looking at it, but what stood out the most was that this digital tool was a superb resource for access. As one participant said, Sketchfab allowed the individual to control the workbox, to look at it at their own pace in their own way, giving them more time to explore and understand it.
Two participants produced drawings of the workbox; one individual with a vision impairment produced a very detailed drawing of it as Sketchfab allowed her to enlarge the image as much as she needed to.
This control of the objects on the Wessex Archaeology Sketchfab site was empowering for the participants and something that I don’t think would have crossed my mind were I not experimenting with new ways to work.
The fourth and fifth sessions were led by Sarah and we discussed a multitude of topics, from ‘why do we keep the things we do?’ to ‘how would you curate your own collection of objects?’. During these sessions Sue led a discussion about Joseph Conrnell and I spoke about Marc Dion, both collectors of ordinary objects who made something extraordinary with them
The standout moment from these sessions was an optional home task, where we asked people to think about things that they have kept, but that aren’t on display. It’s interesting or possibly just coincidental that both men in the group shared photographs of objects from when they were working. A set of chef’s knives dug out from the back of a garage; “I’ve not opened those boxes in 5 years. I had lost all interest in what I used to do… It was like a discovery… I still have the memories of the good times”. The other man shared a photograph of a box full of oddities that had sat on his desk in the office where he used to work.
Someone else showed a series of photographs she’d taken of old toys hidden in a box and used them to depict the story of her journey around body issues, and there was a collection of broken watches: “They were thrown away just because they were broken, I like them because to me they are beautiful.”
The digital pilot was a success. You can have meaningful exchanges and creative moments with people through a screen, they’re just different, but coming together in this capacity is better than not coming together at all.
As Sue said, “Working online with the group pushed us all to new levels of creative thinking. It’s not necessarily about the end result, it’s about being part of a collective experience, the anticipation and enjoyment of each session and the excitement of new learning.”
My learning from the pilot has been fruitful and has already helped to inform a new programme of work that Wessex Archaeology is looking to develop. We are embracing this point of change as we seek to reach deeper into our local communities and work with people who may have not previously engaged with heritage and archaeology. We’ll create meaningful partnerships and work alongside other cultural and third sector organisations; conversations I’m starting to have with such groups in the sector tells me that there is a huge appetite for this work.
Back in 2018, our conversations about being accessible and actively supportive for people with mental health needs seemed important – today it feels vital. This week sees us in both Mental Health Awareness Week and Creativity & Wellbeing Week. This is where I should urge you to do something creative to improve your well-being and mental health – rather, I’m going to gently suggest that you might like to consider it, and please do, because it really does help, but times are strange and at the moment being kind to ourselves and to others is absolutely good enough, anything else you can do is a bonus.