A group of young people are standing in an artefact store and wearing a mask

I used to think coordinating a co-curated display (tasks include buying around 50 tubes of Pringles, sending around 439 WhatsApp messages and approving of things by Gif) was hard, though rewarding, work. When we carried on our co-curated plans (minus the Pringles, but with more WhatsApp chats) during lockdown, I realised we’d had it easy before.

I’m Esther, Youth Engagement Officer at Leeds City Museum. I have been fortunate enough to work with brilliant volunteers aged 14-24 for over ten years. We empower them to curate displays and events and help to transform our museums. In 2019 a member of the Preservative Party (our regular group for young volunteers) suggested a display about mental health. We were tentatively excited. We thought it would be hard work: both emotionally for us, and to do the theme justice. However, we decided hard topics was what the group was made to do. We spent six months doing research, visiting archives, seeing items from now closed asylums, and speaking to asylum survivors and communities affected by mental health issues. We learnt so much. We started to pull all of our thoughts together into something resembling an exhibition plan, and then…. lockdown.

Our museum was shut. Our regular meetings were stopped. All our community partners were hugely affected by such an enormous change in daily life. Part of us wanted to curl up and ignore the world. We spent our weekly zooms comparing the length of our hair and the impact of cancelled exams. And then it occurred to us, if this topic was relevant in 2019, it was even more important now.

One of our group pulled together some great content for our social media accounts – shout out and thanks to Lauren – highlighting ways we look after our own mental health, from reading and cooking, to pets (my personal favourite). Seriously, look up #PetsofThePreservativeParty. Thank me later.

Next we returned to our plans. ‘We need to adapt!’ we thought. So, instead of the talking-head style film we’d planned, we started to compile content for some animations. The animation idea was suggested by local film company DigiFish, and it was perfect. We found we could be more honest with an animated avatar, and we had some very brave input from individuals who responded to our call outs. In summer 2020 we produced two animations. We recorded the voiceovers ourselves, using our trusty friend WhatsApp to send voice memo recordings. You can watch the animations on Youtube.

Zoom meetings were getting tedious, and completely impossible for some of the group, so in summer, when lockdown was eased, we started to meet in small groups: sipping coffee two metres from each other and carefully holding up a disinfected laptop to proofread exhibition panels. Still no Pringles though, shared food being a big no.

We met inside a museum for the first time in September 2020 when 7 of us visited Leeds Discovery Centre to see objects for our display. Face masks a must, Pringles a must not, but just seeing each other again felt so good. In the museum store I asked everyone to smile for a picture. I swear, under the masks you could feel the smile, even if you couldn’t see it.

A group of young people are standing in an artefact store and wearing a mask

The Preservative Party members in the artefact store at Leeds Discovery Centre

Part of our display Open Minds is now up at Leeds City Museum. It’s an ambitious timeline showing some key dates in mental health history, along with some personal stories. We know we’ll get the rest of our physical exhibition up soon, but in the meantime, you can explore some of our main display and the work we’ve been doing on our Open Minds web page.

Life has moved on: some of us have left the group, some have moved away, some are back at university, college, or school, and some are starting new jobs. But what remains is our determination and commitment to use objects and displays to start a really important conversation about mental health in Leeds. If we can do this during lockdown, the next display will seem easy!

 

By Esther Amis-Hughes, Youth Engagement Officer.

Find out more about how we work with young people  and read Esther’s blog about why youth engagement in museums is so important.