Collective Power: Museums Northumberland bait and The Bridge partnership

| Anna Eaton

This year we have been part of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance’s Collective Power Award which recognises a project or programme in which partnership working has improved the health and wellbeing of individuals or communities using the arts and culture. 

We are big believers in collaborative working and the power of doing things together. We are running a blog series up until Christmas celebrating each of the brilliant projects nominated for the Collective Power Award. People from the heart of each project tell us in their own words what they’ve learnt along the way, what surprised them and what have been their favourite parts.

The final instalment in our series is about Museums Northumberland bait and The Bridge partnership.

Museums Northumberland bait is the Creative People and Places programme in South East Northumberland. In spring 2018 they partnered with The Bridge, an employability programme involving people who face the biggest barriers to connecting with education, training, volunteering and paid work.

The project started with a series of taster workshops exploring different art forms, including creative writing and visual arts. 12 people took part and inspired by the experience, decided to continue their creative journeys together. In early autumn 2018 the group developed a brief, then shortlisted, interviewed and selected four artists they wanted to work with. 

Over six months, the group made new artworks and in June 2019 co-curated and presented an exhibition in the Hirst Park Pavilion in Ashington.  Called ‘A Picture of the Mind’ the exhibition explored the theme of mental health and wellbeing. It was open to the public for two days, including drop-in workshops for park visitors.

The Bridge Project is itself a partnership, led by Northumberland County Council alongside seven voluntary sector organisations. The combined project with Museums Northumberland bait brought together a rich mix of expertise, community links and funding. 

In summer 2019, having completed The Bridge programme, members of the group were keen to continue developing their creative skills. Renamed as ‘Blast’ the group have met regularly, with support from Museums Northumberland bait’s Arts for Wellbeing Manager, Lisa Blaney.

Lisa and Blast members Dawn Jaeckle-Colbourne, Roy Appleton and Peter Charlton answered three questions for us in order to tell us more about their experience of the project. As did Martin Conway, former Engagement and Participant worker for the Bridge Project and Rachel Adam, Project Director, Museums Northumberland bait. Here are their reflections :

What has been your favourite thing about the project?

Lisa: Watching this diverse group of people come together, develop new friendships, as well as new artistic and curation skills. 

I have enjoyed seeing their confidence grow and watching them move into the Blast group and taking control of their group’s future. 

Working in partnership with the Bridge project was a pleasure as we shared similar values and beliefs and had a genuine approach to encouraging independence and listening to the group member’s needs.  

Dawn: Without doubt my favourite part of the project was being able to ‘dabble’ in a number of different art forms/projects that I would never have done without Museums Northumberland bait and Bridge. And to see those projects form an art presentation and a published end result was simply awesome. I still have my poem up on the wall at home. 

Being able to learn from really great artists has inspired me to play around with different mediums and enjoy art – not with a goal but just to enjoy art – even if the end result leaves a lot to be desired! 

If anyone had told me a few years ago I would be spraying graffiti with the fantastic Jamie Evans I don’t think I would have believed them, and moreover enjoying playing with ‘Tags’ was a surprise. 

Rachel: One of my favourite moments was when four members of the group, with writer Bob Beagrie, co-delivered a creative workshop with 40 members of staff from Northumberland County Council Public Health and Northumberland Sport. People who are usually in the role of ‘experts’ became ‘learners,’ and there was brilliant energy in the room as everyone tried out new things together.

Peter: I would say meeting other likeminded creative people was my favourite thing.

Roy: My favourite thing has always been the writing after Bob Beagrie’s initial sessions.

Martin: My favourite thing has been working with a group of individuals, who were strangers when they started, but developed their own friendships and peer support. Coming together they were suspicious, wary, nervous, resistant and unimpressed. But over the course of the project they embraced new challenges and new ideas.

I found it inspiring that different artists were able to unlock the creativity within the group and encourage them to articulate their opinions and experiences. There were some very personal stories shared, often in a large group, and I felt honoured that people were able to do this and embraced me as a ‘member’ of their group.

Partnership working with a programme like Museums Northumberland bait, who share the same values and ethos. It was a pleasure to work together; no baggage… no egos… no differences of opinion!

Working with North East artists who made everything accessible and grounded for the group. They brought creativity to the table without any elitism or airs and graces. They created a platform for the group to express themselves and it was wonderful!

Have you made and learnt from any mistakes along the way?

Dawn: I think the biggest mistake I made was to allow the words ‘mental ill health’ to be used as a negative. If you have a cut, you can put a plaster on it and the world can see the effects. If you have trouble leaving your house and sitting on a chair unable to move – wanting to but sitting there for hours on end unable to change – no one sees it. Bait/Bridge project gave me a plaster and said “we’ll help put you back together again”. No ulterior motive, no agenda just a great big plaster! 

Martin: Having to balance progress and change with the group format but recognising that many still have fears and worries that didn’t just go away. When looking to expand the group size I probably should have had more discussions and dialogue with the original members to help address any concerns. That’s the pressure of having to work to timescales that often are at odds with the needs of individuals. I’ve learnt to be more patient, have less input, less control; just let the group and the sessions flow and find their own way. To just be there as a support as and when needed.

Rachel: The exhibition (A Picture of the Mind) was presented at a very busy point for our overall programme.  While everyone was pleased with the numbers of people who visited the exhibition over two days, it would have been great to involve more people from other Museums Northumberland bait projects, as visitors to the exhibition. This mixing of people between projects takes time and is important for legacy. It was a reminder that this ‘linking up’ work needs to be resourced and built into the process, especially at a busy period.

Peter: I started a story in the creative writing course that I had no chance of completing in time for the exhibition. Though I am very happy with the way it is progressing, it still has a long way to go. 

Has anything surprised you during the project?

Peter: Just how much I’m enjoying the writing process. 

Lisa: The continued showing and sharing of artistic and craft skills between members has been amazing to experience. The commitment and love for the arts from all members.  

Roy: My biggest surprise was the way the group bonded. A bunch of total strangers with complex backgrounds all got on and supported each other.

Martin: Observing the work of the artists has helped me reflect on my own practice as a community worker and how I can engage with people. Everyone has creativity within them, they just need the opportunity or find the creative style that works for them best.

Rachel: It was inspiring to see the speed at which members of the group who were new to commissioning artists, moved into roles as interviewers.  This process is part of all our projects but often takes a lot longer to achieve.  It was the partnership working and combination of expertise and support from Lisa (Arts for Wellbeing Manager) and the Bridge team which unlocked this new level of confidence within the group.

Dawn: I think the commitment and help from all of the staff of Bait and Bridge was the biggest surprise. They put in 1,000% effort to help people they don’t know. Helping them move forward and enjoy life and give them back what has been lost along the way.

And I mixed in a social environment with people with far worse mental health problems than mine and I enjoyed it. I never thought I would, but it puts your life into some sort of perspective and shows you that actually you are quite fortunate. It was lovely helping others in the group with their art that were struggling although I only did a little of that. I met a lot of people I still consider as friends and hope to meet up with again through the Blast initiative. 

To find out more about Museums Northumberland bait and The Bridge partnership visit their websites: The Bridge, Bait Time.

Photo provided by Museums Northumberland bait and The Bridge partnership.

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