Interview: Katherine Brown, Local History Cafes

| Anna Eaton

We recently featured a case study about Local History Cafes which are community based heritage and wellbeing ‘get-togethers’ for local residents aged 50 and over. We followed up this week by interviewing Katherine Brown, Director of Beauty and Utility Arts who founded the project, to learn more about the cafes and her journey.

Tell us about how you started the Local History Cafés project.

I’ve worked across the Arts, Heritage and Health sectors for nearly 20 years now and nothing makes me happier than seeing how the three can work together. Especially on projects with social good at their heart.

Between 2014 and 2017 I spent some time as Project Director at Cotesbach Educational Trust, a heritage education charity near Lutterworth, Leicestershire, which was centred around over 5,000 documents relating to the Marriott family of Cotesbach Hall. I wanted us to give something back to the community and incorporate a wellbeing approach in to our work. So I applied for some funding to set up the first Local History Café. Local History Cafes are heritage and wellbeing get togethers for over 50s at risk of or experiencing social isolation and loneliness.

We were successful with our funding and again when we opened the project up to bookings  – all 16 spaces were taken within two weeks. We had over 30 people pass through the project over 15 months and we ran a waiting list throughout.

After Cotesbach I’d agreed with the board this was I piece of work I wanted to continue with and expand through my own social enterprise. They agreed and actually, the original project group have continued meeting as Local History Café, Lutterworth, just a couple of miles down the road at an extra care scheme. That’s great news because residents can join in now too, just by walking down the corridor.

Museum Development East Midlands have supported the roll out of six new cafes across our region between now and 2020. The Charnwood Museum, Erewash Museum and the Sir John Moore Foundation in Appleby Magna all have cafes starting in November.

Has anything surprised you during your work on the Local History Cafes?

The wellbeing aspect is new ground for some heritage sites, but that’s why Beauty and Utility Arts is doing this – because we know how valuable community based heritage venues are, and we’re here to support them all the way.

The other thing I’m not surprised by, but am so proud about, is the response from volunteers who completely understand how important this project is and are doing what all great volunteers do, offering their time and skills to make it all work.

The best thing about what I’ve done so far is…

Spent time with the staff and volunteers at each of our new cafes. Relationship building is so important  to us and we’ve already pushed well beyond the basics of running a project in to a place where everybody’s contribution is valued and encouraged.

We’re very keen to change the culture around failure and encourage openness about, and learning from, our mistakes. What has been the “best mistake” you have made along the way?

Underestimating the amount of time I need to put in to these projects….every time! I see it as worthwhile though, and you get out what you put in!

Who or what has been your greatest inspiration or influence?

At Cotesbach I was lucky to work with two people who have helped me get better at what I do and who I now consider to be my friends. John Turner, then Chair of Trustees and Jackie Strong, original Chair of Trustees and Local History Café volunteer have always been extremely active members of their communities alongside significant work commitments. Accolades aren’t important to them, but doing things properly and for the right reasons are. We can all take note of that a bit more often.

What’s next?

Well, De Monfort University’s new Centre for Ageing are evaluating the project and the University of  Leicester are supporting us with some online studying. Four cafes will be up and running this year and we can’t wait to meet community participants and see what we can learn together and what difference we can make together too.

Where can we find out more about the Local History Cafes?

You can find out more on our website, on Twitter @LocalHistoryCaf and we have a Facebook group. Just search for Local History Café and ask to join.

Photo by Val Vesa

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