What working for Gloucestershire Archives Has Taught Me, by Sally Middleton

On the eve of my retirement, it’s a chance to look back at the last (almost) 6 years, and see what I’ve learned.

I was new to heritage, when I arrived, and new to archives. I’d always worked with communities, or individuals, but around social justice or in a therapeutic context. I hadn’t seen, or understood, quite what an impact heritage can have on people and communities.

I’d always had an interest in history, especially social and political history, but had never before been immersed in it as part of my day to day work. So there was going to be a lot of new challenges ahead!

Very quickly, I began to see my role – as a community heritage manager – in terms of creating opportunities for people. But opportunities for what exactly? To engage, to learn, to participate, to be included, to be curious, to volunteer, to give, to explore – and a lot more besides!

One of the first learning and outreach events I was involved in, back in 2017, had quite an impact on me. It was a drop-in at a local community café, looking at the history of Kingsholm through the use of the community layer, and maps, on Know Your Place West of England (http://www.kypwest.org.uk/). This digital resource allows people to see what their local neighbourhood or street was like in years gone by, by overlapping maps of today with OS maps from 1880 onwards. A woman brought her elderly father to the drop in. He had early stage dementia but was fascinated to see, on the old digitised maps, the former vinegar factory on Kingsholm Road (now demolished, but very near the site of Gloucester Rugby Football Club). His eyes lit up as he talked about the factory workers’ annual trip to the seaside, on a hired bus, and how he had accompanied his grandmother on one of them, and saw the sea for the first time (he was, he thought, aged about 6 years – he was now approaching 90). I learned that people can still engage with history and their heritage in meaningful ways, even if their short-term memory is impaired.

One of my tasks has been recruiting and managing volunteers. In 2019 and 2020, I did some work with the National Archives on exploring the links between volunteering and wellbeing. This was fascinating. The TNA wrote a toolkit, on how archives settings can begin to look at wellbeing in relation to volunteering, based on the NHS’s “5 Ways to Wellbeing” – give, learn, connect with others, be active, take notice. This was all new to me, but did somehow underpin a gut feeling that, in so many ways, volunteering is “good” for us! It has encouraged me to find opportunities for myself, for volunteering, post-retirement.

In 2005, after a long career as a social worker, latterly with older people, I was asked to deliver a workshop on ageing at New York University, as part of a conference on ageing well, especially on what we would call “ageing in place”. I talked about, as I saw it then, a “warehouse” approach to care versus a “greenhouse” approach. I realise as I age, and am now approaching retirement, that these concepts of care are becoming much more important to me on a personal level! In my time at Gloucestershire Archives, I’ve tried (and failed) to persuade the local Clinical Commissioning Group that we, as a service, have much to offer older people. I have learned that we all of us have a story to tell, and that this personal narrative is especially accessible to us (and important to us) as we age. Heritage events – with older people – can help unlock this personal narrative in very meaningful ways.

At the other end of the age range, I’ve also worked with children in my time at Gloucestershire Archives, and have learned much from this. In particular, we have provided activities for primary school children aged 9–11 years, making history and heritage come alive. Children are naturally curious, and can always find something engaging and appealing when they visit the Heritage Hub, whether it’s writing with quills or exploring our strong-rooms. I’ve learned that – if you make archives accessible to children – they will learn, and they will respond positively. If not for the pandemic we would, by now, have had our first series of visits by a small group of pre-school age toddlers. They would have had short activity sessions to do with arts and crafts, bug hunting in the community garden and playing with creating maps – using their imagination in creative ways, all with a heritage focus (broadly speaking!). So, I have learned that – whether we’re young or old – archives really do have something for everyone.  

I have a personal mantra (the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given), which is to “treat each day as an adventure”. It certainly has been an adventure. As I begin a new chapter in my own life, it has prompted me to really think hard about this phrase. What does it mean, to treat each day as an adventure? I think it’s all about being open minded, to embrace new experiences, to be curious about people and ourselves, resilient, tolerant and accepting.

Sally Middleton, Community Heritage Development Manager

Sally with Heather Forbes, Head of Archives, representatives of the Archives and Records Association and Gloucestershire Heritage Hub volunteers and staff at the ARA Volunteering Awards 2019, held at Llanthony Priory

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