Ruthie Boycott-Garnett, Abigail Hackett, Katy McCall, Naomi Kendrick
This blog emerges from conversations about how participatory research should respond to the seismic shifts in communities and everyday lives that are unfolding as a result of Covid19. Our thinking emerges from a working group we have belonged to for the last 18 months, in which staff from Manchester Art Gallery (Katy, Naomi), MMU (Abi, Ruthie) and local Children’s Centres and nurseries explored ways in which we could work more closely with local families with babies. The pandemic has offered huge and unique challenges for new parents, babies, and those who work with them. At the same time, by challenging traditional ways of doing research, lockdown and physical distancing measures might create new spaces to question established orders of power, such as academic knowledge (Roy, 2020, Skeggs, 2020). Therefore, as a group we were interested in asking; could this challenge to settled ways of doing co-production also provoke us to imagine new ways of researching together?
Tacit knowledge, partially articulated things and the importance of what goes unsaid
Many methods of data collection have had to be adapted because of Covid19, and in the early months of lock down, there was an outpouring of knowledgeable, creative and innovative responses to the question of how to do participatory research alongside physical distancing. However, one of the things that started to nag in our minds was the extent to which many of these methods relied on knowledge that was fairly definite, explicit and easily conveyed in words. Classic participatory methods for working at a physical distance might include things such as interviews conducted over a video call, asking participants to keep a visual or written diary of their experiences, or shared spaces where participants can upload responses to prompts and questions. Whilst these methods can be incredibly powerful in some research contexts, they run up against many of the ways we are used to supporting, researching with and building relationships with communities, families and babies. These ways have tended to centre on time spent physically together, creating beautiful and immersive spaces that invite different kinds of interactions and conversations, tracing small moments (Stewart, 2007), bodily experiences and sensations, things that can be known through the body and partially articulated in writing. These aspects of lived experience with babies and toddlers are rarely articulated and often hard to explain. So what might we need to consider then, in terms of working in communities and with families with young children, during the time of physical distancing? Working with families often involves engaging with sensitive and complex family relationships and it is important to be able to account for things that go unsaid or are not fully explicated in words.
Our work together at Manchester Art Gallery
Since September 2019, a team of arts and early years practitioners and researchers have been meeting at Manchester Art Gallery to think about how babies and young children use the space. Until March 2020 we met regularly in the gallery to share research and experiences that helped us think about the space. We looked at artworks that might be exhibited, we followed routes around the gallery that children had taken before us and we shared examples of nursery visits. Our focus was to support Katy McCall, MAG’s Family Learning Manager, to create a new space for families in the gallery, due to open in May. When the gallery shut during the initial Covid-19 lockdown in March, building work had already begun to open up the space. Heavy shutters that had stopped the light from pouring in were pulled back, changing the quelled, quiet, low light gallery into a sunlit, open space.
When lockdown temporarily closed the gallery doors, we all held enough enthusiasm to continue meeting. We turned to Zoom, like so many other people around the world, but our conversations changed. We tried to continue our original track discussing how the new space could be used in response to what families would need ‘after lockdown’. We considered how to document family’s experiences, perhaps exhibiting a collection of ‘lockdown art’: NHS rainbows, window trails or home craft activities.
As the pandemic continued this thinking trailed off into the fog. Perhaps this was because we knew that these dominant narratives of children crafting away, joining Joe Wicks and zooming with friends were not everybody’s stories. We knew there were families without scissors and glue or wifi. Perhaps also because we felt too much was unknown. We felt the frustrations of the increasingly complex restrictions and plans for ‘once this is all over’ became faded and far away. Perhaps we changed direction because focusing on the space, whilst it was empty, was not urgent enough. Haraway suggests that ‘urgencies’ rather than emergencies ‘have other temporalities, these times are ours. These are the times that we must think; these are the times of urgencies that need stories.’ (Haraway, 2016:37).
The need for urgency was balanced with the need to build something meaningful, useful and delightful. The nature of our meetings changed to something more immediate. We met more regularly, our talk changed from thinking about the space to thinking about the current experiences of the families that would usually be in it. Step by step we made 100 boxes of sensory gifts and art making materials for babies and toddlers living within the city centre.
Though it was unintended, each box has become greater than the sum of its parts and, as the pandemic continues, has become significant in building relationships across the city. Delivering the boxes has become an opportunity for human contact. For some, this was a catch up on the doorstep, a chance to ask that niggling question or a moment to meet a new face. These moments on the doorstep between parents, possibly babies, practitioners, the boxes and the gallery tune into Kathleen Stewart’s (2007) work on tracing the flows of energy and intensity between people, things and places. These moments will continue as the boxes become the focus of social distanced play sessions for families to play with their own boxes in a shared space. As restrictions fluctuate, more boxes are being made and will likely be used in ways that we cannot yet imagine, moulded by the alive, immanent and unpredictable forces that will occur between the boxes, gallery and babies.
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press.
Roy, A. (2020). The pandemic is a portal, Financial Times, April 3rd. Available online: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
Skeggs, B. (2020) Introducing Solidarity and Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic, The Sociological Review, Available online: https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/introducing-solidarity-and-care-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/
Stewart, K. (2007). Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press.