Delving into digital – using collections to maintain a public presence during lockdown. Co-operative Heritage Trust

The Co-operative Heritage Trust was formed in 2008 to bring the heritage assets and material collections of the UK Co-operative Movement together. We are different from a traditional ‘business archive’ because unlike most commercial entities our charity does not represent one business. There is not a single ‘Co-op’. Many people think of the largest co-operative society in the UK: The Co-operative Group which began as a federation of co-ops and later absorbed other independents. Alongside this well-known company, there are thousands of co-ops, from the small and local village owned shop or pub, to the larger regional co-ops which operate shops and supermarkets in a district, such as Heart of England Co-op operating from Coventry to Northampton or Scot-Mid Co-op serving Scotland, Northern Ireland and Cumbria. 

“The image of ‘Coop Ideas and Problems’ was taken on the day before lockdown as we were trying to think of ways to do engagement just using our website.” (C) Co-Operative Heritage Trust 2020.

The way cooperatives are run by and for members, was founded on a set of established rules designed to help working class communities. Today, the majority of the world’s cooperatives are in developing countries and more than a billion people are members of a co-operative society; 12% of the earth’s population.

The records and objects the charity cares for today came from many societies in the UK. They chart the way the movement began in Rochdale in 1844 and grew to dominate the retail sector by the mid-20th century. Because co-operatives also provided education, union membership and a political voice for their members, they reflect social reform as well as the social and cultural experience of the working class in Britain in the last two hundred years.

School Visit Scrubbing 2019 (C) Co-Operative Heritage Trust 2019.

Until the Covid-19 pandemic; the traditional model of operating had been to encourage people to visit our museum and archive to do their own research, learn in a group or participate in community outreach. The mission of the Trust is to use collections to inspire audiences through the values and principles of co-operation. We needed to find new ways to continue to do this when it became clear that the museum and archive buildings would have to close at short notice.

Secondary School Workshop 2019. (C) Co-Operative Heritage Trust 2019.

In recent years, investment in local partnerships and community outreach had increased visitor figures at our Rochdale museum and suggested that targets would be surpassed in 2020; particularly in attracting school groups. The lockdown happening in mid-March meant that future bookings evaporated overnight and although this would have financial implications – the real issue would be in maintaining a public profile with audiences. The Trust was also aware that as children could no longer go to school, parents and carers would be increasingly looking for resources they could use to help with unfamiliar ‘home schooling’ and in the wake of closure this might be something the staff could produce from home. The trust had modernised its website in the winter of 2019 and this would become a more important tool than ever before to allow us, not only to continue to communicate with users and answer research enquiries remotely, from home, but to work together as a team to devise and design resource packs based on the stories we tell and the heritage we exist to protect. Being mobile optimised would allow anyone with access to a smartphone to connect with us, as it quickly became apparent that the inequalities in society would only be widened by the impact of the pandemic.

Our resources were mainly aimed at younger children (Key stages 1 and 2) who would normally have visited us in their primary school classes. We tried to incorporate as many topics which related directly to the story of the Rochdale Pioneers to support literacy and numeracy key skills as well as explore history and citizenship topics. Aware of the financial impact on many households, we also tried to make sure our resources didn’t have to be printed out and didn’t require special equipment or materials.

Most of the Trust’s staff were placed on furlough leave in April to conserve the finances of the Trust and the question began to arise as to how to develop sustainable digital engagement for the coming Autumn term in ways which would help to support the Trust as well as the learner. Many museums and archives had rushed to provide free resources, downloads and webinars as well as ‘virtual tours’ in the early days of the pandemic when audiences were confined to their homes and the thorny question began to arise about if and when charging for some of these activities might be appropriate, especially as users began to get used to interacting digitally for free.

from ‘Sunshine Magazine’ produced in the 1930’s and 40’s by CWS which included children’s activities, songs, colouring in and games to help children learn at home. Reproduced by kind permission of the Co-Operative Heritage Trust.

In order to return staff to work and reshape the way we work; the Trust will continue to offer free downloadable resources and entrance to the museum will continue to be free, but some digital services will be subject to a charge. Access to archives remains remote with small charges to be applied to digitising material on demand for researchers in order to offset the increased costs of staff time and to ensure that jobs in the charity are safe.

The Trust is now offering digital interactions to school groups for the Autumn term. ‘Live from Toad Lane’ is a combination of live link up to a member of staff, sharing of resources and digital access to collections for a reduced charge to be offered alongside the traditional ‘in school’ visit as well as museum workshops. This offer will enable schools outside the Greater Manchester locality to engage and drastically reduce the costs and complexities of making a traditional visit or having a presenter come into school even after normal visiting has resumed. We see this as a way we can continue to have a presence and further the mission of the charity by sharing our heritage to help others.

Liz McIvor – Trust Manager


One comment

  1. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do some research about this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such wonderful info being shared freely out there.


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