By Virginia Arrowsmith, Audience Development Officer
Over the last eighteen months, I’ve been working with staff at the County Record Office on an exciting project to open up the archive collections to new audiences. The archives tell the fascinating stories of North Yorkshire’s people and places over the last 800 years, but until now, they’ve mainly been used by independent researchers and family historians. With funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we’ve had the opportunity to explore new and innovative methods of widening participation with the collections, reaching out to groups who haven’t traditionally connected with us including young people, older people, people with dementia, people with low mental health and those at risk of isolation, and BAME groups.
From the start of the project, we consulted widely with communities, working closely with charity and voluntary sector partners to better understand some of the barriers people face in engaging with archives and cultural heritage. These barriers can, of course, be social, financial, intellectual, physical or geographical, as is often the case here in North Yorkshire. Perceptions of archives as ‘dry’, ‘boring’ or ‘irrelevant’ were also highlighted as psychological barriers to engagement. Taking this feedback on-board, we created an exciting programme of pilot activities, inspired by the collections, and tailored to the needs and interests of our different audiences.
In January 2020, we began delivery of the activity programme working with our target audiences in their own communities, however, just two months later, the pandemic caused us to shift to digital methods of delivery. Finding ways to build interactivity into virtual sessions presented a challenge, but using both ‘real world’ activity and digital tools, we maximised opportunities for participation.
Exploring themes such as work and play, family, food and drink, sports and leisure, we used letters, diaries, maps and photographs to engage people of different ages and backgrounds with the archives stories, stimulating conversation, inspiring memory and reflection, and uniting people through shared connections and experiences.
We developed new ways of interpreting the collections and the stories they tell, using interactive and creative approaches to inspire participants, fostering new skills and confidence. Hands-on activities such as clay modelling, textile art and historic cooking really helped to bring the past to life for participants, even inspiring new hobbies and interests for some!
Reaching communities geographically distant from the Record Office meanwhile enabled us raise the profile of the service county-wide. Sharing sources such as historic maps, photographs and parish records, we inspired people to learn more about the places they live, encouraging them to explore the built heritage and natural environment around them. This really helped participants to feel a greater sense of pride and connection with their local area, and also had a positive impact on their health and wellbeing.
For people at risk of loneliness or social isolation including carers, older people and those with dementia, our interactive sessions inspired by the stories of people, place and community in times gone by, provided valuable opportunities for people to connect socially, building friendships and boosting morale. During the pandemic, these kinds of opportunities really were a vital lifeline for people confined at home and feedback from participants emphasised the positive benefit they had.
The project has highlighted the enormous potential archives have to engage people with heritage, and the impact this can have for people and communities, enriching learning, promoting connectivity and enhancing wellbeing. To have done this in the most challenging of circumstances is, I think, a real achievement. So where now? Well, over the next 5 years, we’ll be working with colleagues and community partners across the county to deliver an ambitious and exciting engagement programme, which builds on the learning from this project and explores new opportunities to share, inspire, collaborate and co-create. Watch this space!
This is what partners and participants said about the project:
‘Our sessions with NYCRO had a really positive impact on the well-being of our clients and carers. Images from the archives inspired relaxed and engaging conversation and interactive challenge activities have helped the group to keep active and stay connected with those around them.’Karen Thomas, Dementia Forward
‘All of the young people have been engaged, enthusiastic and had really good fun! It’s no mean feat to achieve a smile from some young people when you are talking history!!’Sally Clifford, North Yorkshire Youth
‘Participants loved sharing knowledge and stories, and it was great to learn about how our community connected to the rest of the world too.’Carine Brosse, Pioneer Projects, Bentham
‘We are so excited about this partnership! The groups love the sessions and it has helped build their confidence in English and make friendships.’Sepideh Mojabi, Refugee Council
‘The sessions have all been really interesting, engaging and informative. You have made the archives come to life for us.’Dawn Brookes, Scarborough & Ryedale Carers Resource
‘The workshop activities were brilliant: We loved dressing up writing with quills and on slates. The tour offered the children an unusual and unique opportunity to see real history and really opened our eyes to the amazing resources available at the Record Office.’Staff at Applegarth Primary School, Northallerton
We are always pleased to hear from colleagues who work with communities across the county and welcome opportunities to explore potential collaboration. Please contact us to find out more.