elmbridge museum nothing without us featured - Elmbridge Museum launches ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ exhibition

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During the Covid pandemic, some people became extremely isolated. The media often spoke about ‘shielding’ people yet very few were given the opportunity to voice their experiences.

During the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, ‘It’s Not Your Birthday But’ – a local organisation bringing people together through letters, words and visual arts - worked with Claygate Centre for the Community and a group of creative volunteers to reach out to a group of people who lived on their own.

As well as receiving their usual ‘Meals on Wheels’ delivery, isolated people started receiving a selection of cards, letters, arts and crafts to help them find a creative outlet for their thoughts and feelings during that difficult period.

Recipients loved the idea and started getting creative with the materials they received. Through their artworks and written word, it transpired that many of them had very little or no contact with others. It was from there that the idea of the ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ project was born.

It gave isolated people the chance to be recorded speaking about who they were, what mattered to them, and how the lockdown had been for them – and to get a professional portrait done in the process.

Funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and the Community Foundation for Surrey enabled ‘It’s Not Your Birthday But’ to work with 20 residents.

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Elmbridge Museum’s involvement was to record the volunteers’ chats with the 20 participants while they were sitting with Erika Flowers, the artist commissioned to paint their portrait.

However, the museum’s ‘oral history project’ – whose aim was to record the extraordinary times participants lived in during the pandemic - was derailed by the introduction of new lockdown rules. Instead, each participant had a doorstep photo taken and interviews were conducted online or by phone at a later stage.

Over the last year, Elmbridge Museum collated interviews and portraits in an online exhibition and the 20 portraits painted by Erika Flowers are currently on display at the Civic Centre in Esher.

Councillor Janet Turner, Portfolio Holder for Culture, Leisure and Environment, said, “There is no doubt about the benefits the project had for participants. Many have said the community’s interest in what they had to say was very encouraging.

Their words and portraits will be kept in the Elmbridge Museum’s archives and website as a permanent legacy for our local area’s future. I would encourage everyone to listen to the recorded interviews and visit the exhibition.

The testimonials are humbling, uplifting and terribly moving in some instances. Those residents could be your friends or relatives. Their accounts are slices of lives that will stay with us for many generations as witness to extraordinary times”.

Elmbridge Museum is grateful for the support of the following partners on this project: Claygate Centre for the Community, Kingston Liberal Synagogue, Milaap Centre, PA Housing, the RC Sherriff Trust, and our team of dedicated volunteers.

Please visit the exhibition online at elmbridgemuseum.org.uk and view the display at the Civic Centre, Esher High Street, until September 2022.