Reflections on 2020
This time last year, we were only just starting to realise that something strange and worrying was on the horizon, and none of us could have foreseen what was in store for 2020 and how hard it would prove to be.
At Suffolk Archives we have certainly found it challenging to adapt to so many new ways of working, and in particular we have really missed being in our branches. Being hands on with our wonderful collections and helping our fantastic visitors is what we love!
However, despite what we have missed we are also proud of what we have managed to achieve during 2020.
We began the year with a programme of redecoration and refurbishment at both our Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft branches. The Bury St Edmunds branch temporarily closed in January 2020 to allow for much needed redecoration to be carried out in the building. Meanwhile, over in Lowestoft the Searchroom was refurbished and remodelled, with new display capabilities and, in particular, a brand new audio/visual space where visitors could view digital images of records and online exhibitions, as well as hear oral history sound recordings. These refreshed spaces opened early in 2020 but unfortunately it wasn’t long before the doors had to be closed as a result of the pandemic.
Back in Bury St Edmunds, although the lengthy periods of shutdown have been frustrating, we were at least able to use the time to carry out further building improvement works, including replacing electricity circuit boards, asbestos removal, and improvements to the heating system, avoiding the requirement for further closures at other times.
We were also pleased to carry out successful trials at Bury of a new appointments system and COVID-19 safety procedures, which enabled us to reopen both this and the Lowestoft branch to the public at the end of October and in early December 2020. Unfortunately, the introduction of further periods of national lockdown and Tier 4 restrictions has since meant that both have had to be largely closed to the public.
On a positive note, the home-based situation we found ourselves in pushed us to create many more online displays, exploring topical subjects such as the ‘Suffolk staycation’ and marking key national occasions such as the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when a collection of extraordinary letters we hold on behalf of the 1st Suffolk Regiment caught the attention of the world’s media! We plan to continue this work and to produce online displays complementing our physical ones, as a way of embracing the new ‘hybrid’ way of working and socialising that seems likely to become the ‘norm’.
The upside-down world in which we all found ourselves living also created new opportunities and encouraged us to think about the importance of contemporary collecting for archives and record offices. In March 2020 we set out to build a brand new collection for our archive by asking people to provide snapshots of life in Suffolk during the Covid-19 outbreak. Little did we know that we would still be asking people to do the same thing, eleven months on. The responses we received were varied, fascinating and moving, and happily we were able to incorporate a selection in the inaugural exhibition that opened at The Hold in early October 2020 – Global Events: Suffolk Stories.
In times of ‘staying in’, our digital schools resources have also taken on a new significance with many turning to online learning and digital classrooms and we have been pleased to be able to offer online activities and competitions for younger age groups, working with partners such as The Big Draw Festival, Ness Fest and The Source. We were also very happy to learn in November that as part of a partnership with the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath and others, we were to receive an award for a project set up to explore young people’s experiences of arriving and living in Suffolk.
Of course, since the summer, when restrictions relaxed a little, behind the scenes staff have been working hard to restart the packing and preparations for our move from Gatacre Road, working within challenging restrictions, and with significantly reduced numbers of people available to assist but making good progress, nonetheless. Inevitably having so many periods of shutdown has had an impact on the preparation work needed for the move and as a result, plans have had to be adjusted and the physical move of both archives and office has been delayed. However, we now hope this will be able to take place in spring 2021.
Although we have of course been disappointed that our plans haven’t gone as expected in 2020, we are thrilled that we still managed to open the doors of The Hold to the public, even if only at this stage to some of the public areas and just for a few weeks.
To have been able to continue with the build and move the project on as far as we have has been a great achievement for all involved and we are very grateful to R G Carters, Concertus, Pringle Richards Sharratt, the University of Suffolk, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, and all our partners who have pulled together to make this happen.
We have also been grateful for the continued contributions of our volunteers in such unusual and challenging times. They were instrumental in enabling us to open the public areas of The Hold in September, and many have also continued to volunteer while at home, creating content which has added significantly to our online exhibitions and learning resources.
As for 2021, we are now looking forward to completing our move to The Hold and reopening at all our branches – hopefully later this year. It will be wonderful to be able to welcome our visitors, friends, volunteers and supporters back to our buildings and our activities again.
We are very much looking forward to a time when we can celebrate properly and safely together, whenever that may be, and would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to you all for your continued support throughout this challenging time.