Outdoors, active and well

Improving the grounds of Leeds Industrial Museum

Soon after starting in post in 2016, the Assistant Community Curator (ACC) at Leeds Industrial Museum contacted local outdoors charity Hyde Park Source (HPS) to kick-start a volunteer gardening project. There had previously been a successful group run by HPS at the museum to maintain a small garden area within the vast grounds of what was once the world’s largest woollen mill, but due to changes in staff and funding this had ceased around a year before.

Fortunately Hyde Park Source had just secured Big Lottery funding along with partners Leeds Mind and The Conservation Volunteers Hollybush for a fantastic three year project under the banner of ‘Outdoors, Active and Well’, working with members of the community to improve mental health through working in the great outdoors.

Image courtesy of Leeds Industrial Museum.

It was decided very quickly that a weekly group of motivated volunteers could benefit from having some ownership over the garden at the museum, and that the outdoor spaces at the site would be massively improved too. Behla Hutchinson, Volunteer Coordinator at HPS, took up the task of leading and organising the group on a weekly basis, with some minimal Arts Council England (ACE) funds for materials being provided through the ACC who would also co-pilot the group. Sessions are 2pm-4pm every Thursday, come rain or shine. Indoor rainy day activities have included willow weaving, mosaic tiling, bird box making, lino-cutting, tours of the museum and of course garden planning.

Image courtesy of Leeds Industrial Museum.

Participants are recruited through HPS, but also through the Leeds City Council Volunteering Opportunities website, by word of mouth, and by positive advocacy from all involved. Corporate volunteers from organisations such as nPower and HSBC have also attended special day-long sessions to achieve some heavy landscaping work with the ACC. Outdoor work has also taken place with a class of 15 students with learning disabilities from a local college, and via a continuing programme of providing reparation activities with the Youth Offending Service each school holiday.

Regular Thursday participants are from a diverse demographic and background, attending for a variety of reasons: from living well with mental health problems to looking to improve English language skills to just socialising in the fresh air. The size of the group varies, from half a dozen (in winter) up to 20+ in good weather!

Image courtesy of Leeds Industrial Museum.

As well as improving people’s wellbeing by being outdoors and active, skills are also imparted across the group, with regular ‘plant of the week’ facts, tips on gardening, and even build projects where planters are constructed. No one has learnt more than the ACC himself!

As the heritage of the site is in textile production (Armley Mills was re-built by Benjamin Gott in c.1805 to bring all elements of wool production into one factory) plants are often selected for their use as natural dye-stuffs. This builds on fantastic earlier work done by the previous ACC Hannah Kemp, researching and exhibiting on the subject. Items disposed from the collection including V-skip coal wagons have been used as large planters, and even facsimiles of animal hide baskets in the museum made as props for a BBC production have been utilised. By improving new areas of the site, the conservation of large objects and vehicles stored outside benefit from undergrowth clearing and improving their aesthetic in the landscape.

Another important aspect of the Thursday sessions are the occasional peer support sessions run by Leeds Mind. These have been positive for the development of trust and comfort for individuals within the group. It is wonderful to see people’s wellbeing and happiness improve week on week, simply by coming together in a safe environment and working on an outdoor project.

Image courtesy of Leeds Industrial Museum.

The effectiveness of the sessions is assessed externally by the funders, and comes under scrutiny from all partners. Volunteers decide the direction the garden takes, planning sessions and even the landscape itself.

One aim was always to have a place and activity for people to come to when they wanted, and not feel any pressure. This ‘open door’ policy has benefitted the development of the group by providing such a safe place and welcoming environment, but does mean numbers of attendees on a Thursday can vary widely. This flexible approach, extended always to people only taking part if they want and are able (some people come for the cuppa tea I’m sure!) has been essential when working with potentially vulnerable individuals.

Other outdoor activities happen elsewhere in Leeds, such as at sister site Kirkstall Abbey, with the Leeds Mind organised ‘Mind Body and Stroll’ meditative guided walks around their beautiful grounds. These activities are also facilitated by a committed ACC embedded at that site.

The gardening at Armley Mills goes from strength to strength, with new parts of the site identified for development. One major new development is a sculpture being built in collaboration between the ACC and another local arts organisation, Pyramid of Arts, who support artists with and without learning disabilities. This will be another interesting addition to the museum and the story of the mill. The ACC loves these outdoor, hands-on aspects of his job (alongside more serious curatorial duties!), and hopes for a renewal of funding for HPS’s involvement in 2019 and beyond.

About the Assistant Community Curator

An Arts Council England (ACE) funded role within Leeds Museums and Galleries, which is a local authority (Leeds City Council) run organisation with nine sites across the city. As the Assistant Community Curator (ACC) at Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills and Thwaites Mill Watermill (Stourton), I may have the longest job title in the organisation.

I started in May 2016 after two years as a Visitor Assistant at another site. My basic job description could be: Working to make sure the museum stays relevant to the community, and actively engaging people who may not otherwise engage with the museum and its collections. This includes curating exhibitions, contemporary collecting, creative workshops, outreach, gardening, talks, events, research; anything that benefits people and the museums!