Like many people, I have spent months considering and adapting the way I work in response to the pandemic. In the Outreach team at The National Archives, our audiences often include many people at heightened risk from this virus including older people, individuals from multi-racial communities and disabled groups. At this time, access to heritage seems a luxury when core services, personal finance and work or contact with loved ones obviously must take priority.

The National Archives has been providing material and services online for many years. One of our strategic aims as an organisation is to make our collections and services accessible and relevant for everyone. Worked online certainly helps to provide access to far wider audiences.

As an organisation we’ve tried different things to distract, educate and entertain our audiences. In Outreach, we have developed online workshops for people interested in diverse histories or for those with learning disabilities, audio plays based upon our records and created new downloadable resources to serve a variety of audiences. Please check out our Outreach webpage as some of these exciting initiatives will be live shortly.

The Outreach team sets great store by the personal touch so 2020 was a challenge. Meeting face to face, offering a warm handshake, listening actively are all important ingredients to working successfully with people who are unsure about the relevance or accessibility of our collections. But we had to adapt like many others.

Outreach has always enjoyed working in partnership. Unsurprisingly, it was our wonderful partners who helped us to keep calm and carry on. Charities, theatre companies, artists with like-minded aims and objectives have helped us to grow, adapt and find alternative ways to engage new audiences. We couldn’t be more grateful.

Last Autumn, we took part in the National Day of Arts in Care Homes initiative, which supports care homes nationally by providing access to resources and initiatives that encourage artistic, morale-boosting activities for care home residents. This last year brought unprecedented challenges for this sector but it has gave rise to some wonderful stories of courage and creativity.

About a year ago, Arts in Care homes launched a Pen pal initiative and I started writing on behalf of The National Archives to a care home in the Midlands. The newsletters are printed off for the residents to read or read aloud. My letters are a chatty mix of images and information unashamedly lifted from colleagues’ blogs, snippets from online exhibitions or talks and they usually follow some theme, as diverse as Egyptology or Irish pirates! I responded to residents’ questions and included anecdotes and photographs taken when out walking to bring a little of the outside world in. Although they are time consuming, I’ve loved writing them and people seem to have enjoyed them. A year on, I am still writing and hope to build upon this.

Encouraged, last Autumn, we launched Five Photos, a photograph-based online resource written for care home residents or people shielding. As we couldn’t work with people face to face, I used images with associated oral histories ‘ready to go’ at the time of lockdown and provided tasks and prompts to encourage discussions about the photographs and an imaginative exploration of their history or personal significance. Content is available in audio format for visually impaired or those tired of screens and a guide for helpers suggests ways to make activities multi-sensory and spark conversations. I was keen to ensure that the resource reflected a multi-cultural Britain so the images range from Ayrshire to Botswana! Eclectic indeed.

This resource was my first effort in mindfulness and I am sure it has its limitations. If this last year has taught me anything, though, it is to be bolder, to try things that might fall short of your own expectations and allow yourself the opportunity to learn and evolve.

With increasing concerns over the nation’s mental health, why shouldn’t archives create activities that blend heritage learning, creativity and mindfulness? A recent partnership project involving both Education and Outreach teams and new partner, Innovations in Dementia affirms the importance of using creative tasks as a bridge between people and heritage collections. Connecting through Collections was a women-only online project which we ran during Easter, uniting women, young and older nationwide to create art inspired by the archives, while talking about dementia with those experiencing it first-hand. Even with its challenges, it felt liberating and natural. We learned a great deal but we also had FUN! Dementia brings many challenges and we should not assume that clear signage alone is going to bring people living with this condition into our buildings. We are very keen to extend this work.

Writing this blog, I am trying also to be mindful. Developing different approaches to engaging new audiences online is a necessary part of an ongoing challenge and commitment as an organisation. We need to be brave and flexible but we have access to amazing collections and talented colleagues. A year has passed and I feel strangely excited and, even, cautiously optimistic.