Shannen Johnson of the Peace Museum reflects on the challenges of curating a digital exhibition devoted to documenting the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on peace and protest in the UK.
The Peace Museum is the only museum of its kind in the UK. Located in Bradford city centre, it has three small galleries open to the public. The museum holds a collection of over 9,000 objects that tell the often untold stories of peacemakers locally, nationally and internationally.
March 2020 brought the world into lockdown and the museum closed to the public with staff working from home. As time passed and it became increasingly clear that the pandemic was to be with us for a long time, our team had to adapt to a new way of working from home and focusing on digital delivery to engage with our visitors.
As the pandemic intensified, we also felt a responsibility as a museum to begin to collect stories and objects that would show the impact of the virus on communities and how it changed our lives. We could also see that individuals and groups were still continuing to campaign on a range of issues, such as the climate crisis and nuclear weapons, despite the lockdown, so it was important to explore this. Therefore, the Peace and Pandemic project was created.
Peace and Pandemic is a project that collects stories that document people’s experiences of the lockdown and the ongoing pandemic, and its ongoing effect on peaceful campaigning. The main aim of the project was to launch a co-created digital exhibition on the museum’s new website, which launched in August 2020. The exhibition is ongoing and responsive as we continue to collect content to add.
To collect the new content and ensure it was co-created with our local communities, we began to reach out to people using social media to seek permission to use their stories or work to add to the exhibition and spread the net. We were soon inundated with responses with people willing and wanting to share. It was also important to support artists who were using their artforms to respond to the crisis, so we worked with a local artist to create some engagement videos, and showcased the work of others.
Protest amid pandemic
Based on the submissions, we split the exhibition into three sections. The biggest section is dedicated to peaceful protest in lockdown. As the pandemic began, groups such as CND and Stop the War continued their campaigning but changed their messaging to tie in with the pandemic, through campaigns such as #CutWarNotWelfare and #HealthcareNotWarfare, arguing that public funds should be spent on improving NHS and welfare services, not on nuclear weapons.
The lockdown brought a reminder of the human impact on the environment; so campaign groups such as Extinction Rebellion highlighted how nature was able to flourish whilst everyone was at home. It was also interesting to examine how peaceful protest had changed because of the lockdown, with groups focusing on digital engagement and people showing solidarity from home.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a major part of this section. Following the murder of George Floyd and the global protests that followed, we felt it important to document this within the exhibition as the continued struggle for equality and human rights is vital for peace. It also showed that despite the ongoing pandemic, people felt the urgency to go out and peacefully protest and act, which was an intriguing comparison to the earlier experiences of campaigning in lockdown. We worked with a local teacher who spoke to us about her experiences as a black woman, why the BLM movement is so important and why she chose to attend a peaceful, socially distanced protest.
The second section explores the global effort required to deal with a pandemic and made connections to our collection. The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that some of the biggest threats to human life on Earth require a global coordinated response, and this reminded us of the efforts during the later stages of the Cold War to bring an end to the nuclear threat.
Whilst the nuclear threat certainly remains today, efforts were successful in limiting nuclear proliferation during the 1980s that were only achieved through international cooperation, and as a result of dedicated campaigners highlighting the issue, such as the women of the Greenham Common peace camp. This section therefore explores our anti-nuclear collection as a way to examine the current crisis. It includes a blog based on an article written by former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who argued that the pandemic is another reminder that arms are not going to solve the problems faced by the world.
These acute problems include the increased and ongoing hostilities in Iraq, Syria and Iran and the ongoing threat of climate change. This was a thought-provoking section to bring together and these issues will certainly have an impact on how groups continue to campaign in the future and time will tell whether the crisis leads to any lasting change on reviewing global security and how it is achieved.
Community spirit and fractures
The third and final section of the exhibition explores the community spirit felt during the lockdown, collecting stories of how communities came together to support the vulnerable and to thank key workers. It also includes work by local artists who used their practice to create responses to the crisis, which can also be a source of inspiration for others to use art as a tool to improve mental health and wellbeing.
When creating this section we were mindful that some communities such as BAME people were being disproportionately affected by the crisis, because of societal factors such as structural racism that can limit access to healthcare, and the fact that many members of these communities work in front-line jobs, so it was important to reflect this. Despite the community spirit felt by some, the pandemic has deepened fractures between communities and led to an increase in racism. It is important that such experiences are collected in a museum for future generations to understand the wide-ranging impact of Covid-19 on communities.
Creating a digital exhibition was a new endeavour for the team, and it hasn’t been without its challenges. As a collaborative small team, it has been difficult not being able to meet physically to discuss the exhibition. As the exhibition is responsive, we were getting content each day, so it was a tricky process to bring it all together into a coherent exhibition.
However, the process has definitely been a rewarding one allowing us to try a new way of working, which we will continue in the future to allow us to engage with new people who might not be able to physically visit the museum. It has also allowed us to be even more responsive and reactive to ongoing events, which, as a small independent museum, is something we pride ourselves on being able to do.
Going forward, we hope that Peace and Pandemic will become a physical exhibition in the museum galleries in 2021 as a reflection examining the impact Covid-19 had on communities, but also about how people adapted, came together, and explore the lasting legacy. It will certainly be interesting to see if the pandemic leads to long-term change in relation to militarism, conflict and climate crisis.
For more information about the museum and to view the Peace and Pandemic exhibition, visit www.peacemuseum.org.uk.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: The Peace Museum.