NMNI’s Live & Learn seminar

This week I was lucky enough to be invited to NMNI’s Live & Learn seminar at Cultra Manor. I’ve been a volunteer on the Live & Learn project for just over 2 years and have loved every minute, even the slightly less glamorous jobs of washing up paint pots and ironing fabric! The seminar was to share all the experience that the team have gained over the last four years, and celebrate the amazing achievements of the project. Live & Learn is funded by the Big Lottery, and works with groups of adults over 50 on an outreach basis, going to visit the groups in their own environments. Taking inspiration from the NMNI collections each group will then choose a creative response to the collection. It’s not a one size fits all programme, each project typically lasts for around 6 sessions, and is tailored to the group’s interests and abilities.

First up George Sproule spoke about how he used his favourite part of the collections, the photographic collections, to interact with people and build a rapport. Because the photographic collections span such a wide range of subjects and places it’s easy to find photographs that spark people’s interests. George commented that this type of collection also works well in an outreach setting, because prints of photographs are easily portable and appeal to the majority of people. NMNI has a great collection of photographs, which show the industrial working life of Belfast, including the building and launch of Titanic, sparking conversations about working lives and lifestyles at the beginning of the last century. This well-known photograph of Harland & Wolff workers was taken by R J Welch, the firm’s official photographer.


 Photograph courtesy of NMNI

I was particularly interested in the Hogg collection, as he photographed a lot of rural scenes, showing agricultural workers and the change of the seasons. George uses these photographs to get people talking about routines in the home and seasonal traditions.


Photograph courtesy of NMNI

 I thought the photographs were intriguing , especially the photographs that provided a documentary on the social issues of early twentieth century, homeless men sleeping in a brick-kiln, children playing in the street.


Photograph courtesy of NMNI

Next Ruth Osborne spoke about her experiences connecting older adults with visual art. She explained that many older adults felt concerned about visiting the art galleries in the Ulster Museum. I think a lot of people, myself included, sometimes feel that art galleries can be a bit intimidating if you don’t have a background in art history. In a group setting people can feel self-conscious about putting their interpretation of art into words, nervous of misreading artworks. For some people the mere mention of art makes them nervous because they don’t feel they have any art abilities. This is the reason I like the Live & Learn project so much, in the majority of sessions participants will express doubt about their ability to create artistic work, then after encouragement they produce something they’re proud of and gain confidence. People can also have strong feelings towards certain art forms, modern abstract artworks seem to provoke a range of strong opinions! But the Live & Learn team encourage participants to feel comfortable expressing all kinds of emotions, including dislike, because everyone’s thoughts are equally important.   Ruth feels that groups have really benefited from the recent acquisition of iPads because obviously she can’t take large, heavy, high value artworks out to groups but with iPads the technology is there to explore paintings in great detail, zooming in to see brushstrokes and for visually impaired older adults the ability to tailor the images so that they can experience them. With a wi-fi connection the participants can see other works by the same artist, and explore collections and themes more easily, as well as discovering stories about the pieces and the artist. The Live & Learn team have developed the handling collection to fit with artworks too, so that groups get to link different sections of the museum’s collections together. I experienced this on a recent project with adults with mid stage dementia responding to the artwork of William Scott. Ruth brought along kitchen objects to the sessions to provoke memories and to give the group a visual reminder of what they had seen on their visit to the exhibition. The frying pans and fish slices were familiar to the participants and handling the objects took the pressure off them trying to remember the exhibition, because they could see clearly that the objects in front of them were reflected in the shapes they had created for their artworks.


Photograph courtesy of Ruth Osborne

 Ruth has worked hard at developing relationships with care staff and carers, and encourages continuity of staff at sessions so that participants benefit more from them as well as building stronger relationships between care staff and patients. With dementia sufferers the focus is on finding a quiet location and creating the right relaxed, safe atmosphere, and getting to know the group and their needs.

Sue Cathcart then told us about her experiences working as a Live & Learn outreach officer. Sue worked on the project until last summer, when she started working on the Treasure House project, also with older adults. Treasure House is slightly different because instead of going out to see groups, who all live in sheltered accommodation they come to the museum sites on a monthly basis over a 5 year period. I also volunteer with Sue and find it equally rewarding, although it has a different set of challenges to Live & Learn. Sue emphasised the need for partnership working in outreach, that everyone has to work as a team and for projects to work successfully there’s a lot of work going on in the background to remind people to turn up where and when they’re supposed to. For Sue it’s not enough for people to look at objects from the collection, outreach is about the person, their response and the stories that they have.   Sue used positive humour while she was speaking when the slides didn’t quite run smoothly, and it made everyone laugh and relax. This relaxed atmosphere is something a lot of participants at her sessions have commented on, how they feel comfortable enough to open up and speak in a group situation. I think this is a great skill to have working with older adults who can sometimes be reticent of speaking up in a group, Sue is so positive and encouraging it’s almost infectious!


Sue in action!

Then a fellow volunteer, also called Linda spoke about her experiences volunteering with the Live & Learn team. I can honestly say I agreed with every word she said, Linda spoke so eloquently of what she gives to the project and what it brings to her life. I was almost in tears while she spoke of how rewarding she finds volunteering on such a worthwhile project and how much she enjoys the people and activities. When she said that ‘as a volunteer you vote everyday for the kind of community you live in’ it really resonated with me. All the things I would have wanted to say about Live & Learn and the fantastic opportunities Ruth and Sue have given me over the last couple of years were expressed in such lovely words.


I haven’t been able to mention everything that was discussed here because Live & Learn is such an inspirational project and over the past few years the team have worked with so many people and tried out such a diverse range of projects and methods. The most important message that came out of the seminar was that older adults are not a homogeneous group with the same needs and interests and aren’t only interested in reminiscence. The importance of working in partnership with participants and building a strong rapport was demonstrated in the outcomes the project has produced.

In the afternoon attendees got the opportunity to visit the Folk Museum area and see some of traditional crafts that Live & Learn groups get to try out, and the beautiful historical houses.


 Photograph courtesy of Karin Patry, englishcookies on Instagram