Lockdown interviews – Rebecca Odell, Museum Manager, Hackney Museum, London.
1 – What is the current situation for Hackney Museum – How worried are you about the future of the museum?
We are a small local authority run museum in north east London right next door to the Hackney Town Hall. It is a very interesting borough because we are rapidly changing, but our diverse and multicultural roots form a strong part of our identity. We have approximately 88 languages spoken in the borough and many of our residents have moved here within their lifetime.
Hackney Museum is often cited as an example of best practice in socially engaged and participatory work in museums. Particularly for the way we co-curate and co-create a lot of our programming from exhibitions to the events programme.
Our aims are to be a museum that puts our community at the heart of everything we do and focus on under-represented voices. We use our collections to create a trusted space where Hackney’s community feels engaged and empowered to tell their stories and understand how their experiences fit alongside others.
We get over 30,000 visitors a year and last year we had over 6,000 children come for school visits. We are a small team of 4 full-time equivalent staff, who oversee our collections, exhibitions, schools and community programme.
We are fortunate to have some front of house staff through our Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contractor who runs our building. There is a third party contractor that runs the facilities management of the building, there is the museum, library, and council offices as well as a number of commercial properties based in the building.
The difference with being a local authority museum means the decision to close didn’t come from the museum or heritage team management. Because we have council tax funding we are a public service so any changes to our service level needs to be approved by elected members. I got confirmation that the museum was closing on 10pm on a Friday, which resulted in some quick calls on the Saturday morning to make sure staff knew not to come to work.
Obviously we knew what was coming so we had done some work to make sure the communications strategy was ready and we had all the things we needed to work from home. We officially closed our doors as of Saturday 21st March. Prior to that, guidance had gone out that those who could work from home should We were fortunate because as a team we could all work from home already, so we were set up with relevant IT access. We were quite well prepared on that front.
Being part of a local authority meant we could be seconded or redeployed into other roles to help with the council’s wider response to the pandemic. I have been seconded to the borough’s Emergency Control Centre to help coordinate the Council’s tactical response to emergencies. I had already received training as a volunteer, thinking it might be a response to floods or fires. The training was really interesting but I hoped I would never have to use it! They said at the time if there was ever a situation where an emergency went on for weeks we might have to go to your line manager and request you for a longer term. But nobody envisioned just how long it would go on.
I was called in for one day as volunteer reserve staff, then the decision was made very quickly that they needed full time trained staff. The day I was notified of the secondment it was to go into effect immediately the next day. As the Museum Manager, it was quite big news to deliver to your colleagues. I had to get over the idea that I was abandoning my team as I was going to do something that was responding to the wider need within the council.
Originally I was full time, I had a rota of 4 days on and 4 days off, they were quite long days from 8.30am-7pm. I have only just come back to museum responsibilities. Initially they released me to do 2 days back at the museum and 2 days for the Control Centre. Now I am 3 days at the museum, 2 days at the Control Centre. The good thing is that things are calming down.
2 – How many staff do you have and how many are furloughed? How have your volunteers been impacted?
As public sector employees we cannot be furloughed, instead we have all been part-time redeployed into the Council’s Covid response. Our Learning Manager has been helping staff at a hotel where the Council is housing our rough sleepers. She has been helping deliver meals and supporting them filling out applications for Universal Credit or helping them get access to clean laundry. Our Museum Officer is doing a couple of days a week packing food parcels that are going out to our vulnerable or shielding residents who might otherwise struggle to access food. That is a physically demanding piece of work. Our Schools Officer is helping our public health team with administrative duties to help take the pressure off them. Our colleagues in Hackney Archives, our sister service, have also been doing work in other areas of the council. So we have all gone part-time in terms of museum work.
We are a 4 person museum team, we were very busy and we all have work that we could be getting on with and delivering. Psychologically, redeployment has been incredibly beneficial for the staff because people want to be involved in the response. During lockdown, having a reason to leave the house to work felt like a privilege and broke up the working week. Some felt it made them more productive on the days they were scheduled to do museum work.
Some of the roles are quite physically or emotionally demanding. It has had a clear impact because we have lost staff capacity in a very small team to 50% and on some days even more than that and you don’t always have staff around to talk to, or bounce ideas off, both from working from home and having colleagues re-deployed.
Coming back I had to be very honest with my team and say I don’t know what a 2 day a week manager looks like. I still feel we are all in the process of working that out for our roles.
In some areas there is less immediate demand have had to put our exhibition programme on hold, and obviously we can’t deliver schools sessions. In some ways it is quite helpful, but it is tough, we are all quite ambitious, driven people and you get into the heritage sector because you are very passionate about it. You need to be very honest with yourself and as a team about what you can achieve if you go from full time to part time.
In one way it is good as it relieves the pressure of feeling that you need to deliver these amazing engagement projects while working under incredibly challenging circumstances. Maybe it does give you a bit of space to think about what can be achievable. Ultimately we recognise the civic duty we have as council officers to go where the need is.
There are benefits. Being quite a small team, a lot of knowledge and skillsets can often be with one team member and if that person goes completely, then people have to move into areas like social media or interpretation work that they weren’t comfortable doing before. I feel that it has encouraged the team to take on additional responsibilities and develop new skills. I think they would have preferred to do that under different circumstances, but it is going to have a positive change on the service.
We are all meeting different people across the council who work in different services, for example with the rough sleeping team. Or getting a different perspective on sections of the community that we don’t usually reach with our work at the museum.
We do have volunteers, our main volunteer programme is related to our schools programme. That is on hold. Because it was on an ad hoc basis and not a weekly commitment they have been very understanding.
This year we have been hosting supported work placements through an initiative with the council called ‘Project Search’; an internship programme for those with special education needs or disabilities to provide quality and meaningful work experience. We had two placements, they came in and did a few hours 5 days a week and they were helping us with our collections work, location audits, and updating our records. This was an absolutely fantastic programme, not just because the museum benefitted so much from their work but also the transformation we saw in them.
That was based across the academic year Sept-July so we were part way through our second placement when the museum closed. That was hard because you have a young person and this is an important part of their career and professional development, and having that suddenly go has been difficult. We couldn’t say goodbye in the way we did with the previous placement, we did send a card and messages, but it was hard not to finish their placement. We were also due to take a third placement at Easter and we couldn’t do that. The programme has done well to keep it going under difficult circumstances and we will attend their virtual graduation.
3 – Do you think the guidance is clear on when and how to re-open? When are you thinking of re-opening?
The Government guidance is very clear in that we cannot currently open (interview recorded 2nd June). Being part of the wider local authority means we can benefit from of an internal corporate health and safety team and facilities management team that can support us with how we open up our public spaces. Rather than trying to open everything in one go, there can be a gradual process where we can open one public space and apply learning from that to other spaces.
Any decision to change service provision will come from senior management. Being a local authority museum, even though we do partly rely on hires and shop income for our budget, the decision to reopen is not driven by finances in the same way.
4 – How do you see the museum operating with social distancing?
We are in a purpose-built space and the galleries have wide spaces that accommodate for social distancing. Being on the ground floor we don’t have pressure points like staircases and lifts, although there is only one way in and out. We are lucky that we have a front of house provision, so when you enter the museum you are greeted by a person who can advise on social distancing. We have good sight lines around the space to observe and make sure precautions are observed.
We are in a shared building with a single entrance and the council may open services in the building based on site-specific risk assessments. We have to look at the roles of interactives in the museum, we know the public like multi-sensory, tactile immersive experiences so trying to get people to refrain from touching surfaces will be a challenge.
Our first activity upon opening will be a photography exhibition which lends itself to being spaced out. An oral history was to feature prominently where you press a button or handle headphones. Our permanent galleries also have a number of sound points where you pick up a phone and we usually have toys out for children. We are now re-evaluating how to responsibly deliver our new and regular features our visitors love.
We appreciate we won’t be able to host events in the same way. In the past, our museum launches have attracted nearly 300 people in a small space. We are looking at virtual events while taking into consideration those who may not have access to technology but will be a new way of working for us as the way we like to engage with the community is usually face to face.
We have always been a meeting place for communities – we have a SEND arts group that use the museum and a Migrant Woman ESOL befriending service. We have to work out when it will be safe for those groups to meet. That is a part of what Hackney Museum is – a meeting space.
There is also staff health and safety. Social distancing will need to be applied when installing exhibitions which will also a whole new way of working, with new procedures etc. needing to be developed.
5 – How have you been connecting to audiences while closed?
We have been using social media. Our online learning resources were always targeted to teachers and schools, so we have had to do a lot of re-thinking around home schooling. Our learning resources have proved popular with teachers and we have had positive responses from them which has been really encouraging for staff who have been working in isolation.
It has made us appreciate the museum as a physical space, that is part of what is best about Hackney Museum, having a physical space. We have to be honest with ourselves about what we can achieve in this time.
We have been clearing some of our documentation backlog. Collections documentation is very important, that is where all the meaningful content of your items are and if you don’t make that readily accessible to people that is a barrier, particularly if you do a lot of co-curation work. Improving our online catalogue is a valid way of connecting with our audiences.
6 – How do you think the funding landscape will change in future?
In Spring this year we submitted a sizeable stage one National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) application that has been the product of about 3 years work. We had got a lot of support from the council in terms of resourcing to submit that application and achieve match funding. It is unclear what the next steps are as the NLHF focus on emergency funding which has a large impact on the team. It is unclear what future funding streams will look like. When they do return, we have submitted an application based on the criteria pre-Covid. How much of that will be applicable? There will be a few organisations like us who have just been caught out having put in a sizeable amount of work. Psychologically it is a blow to have it closed without any process to review and not have any guidance. That project was going to redevelop the museum service and really innovate the way we work with communities. It would have embedded community practice across all strands of the museum.
7 – How can Hackney Museum support the health and wellbeing of the local community when it does open?
We have often helped people navigate the present by using the past as a resource. We will have an important role to play in future to help people navigate and reflect on this experience of Covid and lockdown.
However, it is important for museums to be patient and take the time needed to do this right. Not only do people need psychological space from the situation before we can have some of these conversations, but we need to ensure we have plans in place around supporting both the well-being of participants and staff.
We’ll be opening with ‘Hackney In The 1980s: Photographs From The Tape/slide Project’ a exhibition of rediscovered images of the borough from the 1980s which reveal a lot of joy and reminiscence. Everyone’s life has been difficult with Covid and we hope it provides positivity. We get the sense that is what our community needs from us right now, a little light.
8 – This is the first local authority museum I have interviewed, what do you think are the particular challenges that local authority museums face?
I am so, so, proud to be a local council officer. Seeing what the London Borough of Hackney has done over the 11 weeks in terms of humanitarian support for its residents and businesses is nothing short of miraculous – to make some major things happen in a very short amount of time.
The Museum Association raised concerns over funding for local authority museums pre-pandemic and it will be just as relevant post-pandemic.
The challenge will be for local authority museums to evidence the value they give. It can be hard in stretched teams to champion and share that. We have a particular supporting role with public health and well-being after a traumatic event and the public museum sector will be really well placed to take a lead on that.
This interview was collected on 2nd June 2020
You can read more Lockdown Interviews here – https://tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com/category/the-lockdown-interviews/
You can find out more about Hackney Museum here – https://hackney-museum.hackney.gov.uk/
You can also follow Hackney Museum on Twitter – here – https://twitter.com/HackneyMuseum