From aviation pioneers searching for ways to fly faster, further and higher, to Battle of Britain Pilots scrambling to defend enemy attacks, the need for resilience in the Royal Air Force is nothing new. Throughout its distinguished history the RAF, and its people, have faced many challenges and weathered many storms; be these huge world events or personal struggles. As a Museum we collect and tell these stories of resilience, but over the past 18 months we ourselves have had to adapt and be resilient in order to continue to keep sharing the RAF story. This blog will explore the Museum, and our community’s, successes and challenges as we navigated through the turbulent past eighteen months.

Visitors with masks

Along with the rest of the country the Museum had to close in March 2020. Staff all speedily downloaded Microsoft Teams and Zoom, packed up paperwork to get on with at home and cleared food out of office fridges that would go out of date over, what we thought would be, the six weeks we were away from the Museum. The next few months had us draw on all of our resilience; pushing to continue projects that we could and making difficult decisions about what had to be cancelled or postponed. The Access and Learning and Public Events teams run some of the Museum’s most public-facing programmes. For both teams, sharing the story of the RAF is nearly entirely dependent on interacting with large groups and they have tackled having to completely rethink the way they engage with our audience.

The key to the Museum’s learning programme has always been amazing face to face interaction with schools. Being immersed in history by talking to an Air Raid Warden, and getting hands on with launching rockets makes a trip to the Museum a unique experience for students who get to see and take part in activities that cannot be replicated within their own classrooms. When the pandemic hit our team went from over 23,000 children taking part in onsite sessions and more than 35,000 formal learners the previous year to no school visits. We had to be resilient and change our offer quickly!

Learning @ home

Access and Learning Officer Toni Donston explains the changes that the Access and Learning team made to ensure we were able to continue to engage with schools during the pandemic.
‘Over the last year or so the Access and Learning team has had to adapt several times to meet the needs of the time. Initially we focused on creating resources for families which could be accessed online. We then developed an online programme which schools could engage with from the safety of the classroom. Next, our onsite workshops programme had to be streamlined to ensure it was Covid safe.
We have had to regularly adapt and revise how we work so that we have been able to continue to engage with schools during these difficult times. It seems to have worked as we are now getting more and more bookings for onsite workshops!’

The team effectively moved from creating online resources and developing online sessions for classes to enjoy to modifying onsite sessions now that schools are more comfortable coming out of the classroom for a trip. ‘Streamed to your school’ online sessions allowed face to face engagement with a member of the team and adapted some of our most popular sessions to be enjoyed virtually in a classroom setting. Our main mission is to make sure that masks, distancing and smaller groups (and a whole lot of extra cleaning!) don’t get in the way of learning, and even more importantly, making learning fun.

Learning room 4

The Museum’s Events team has faced similar challenges due to the pandemic. They had to contend with huge events cancelled, planning shelved, and trying to figure out a whole new way of engaging with our audience in a world where we could no longer gather together. Ella Hewitt, Public Events Manager explains how her team bounced back from the initial disappointment of cancelled events and shifted focus to not what they couldn’t do but what they could achieve in new and innovative ways.

‘In March 2020 we just had to cancel everything that we had spent months planning at both our sites, but the despair only lasted a few weeks. We quickly realised that there was plenty of opportunities to entertain our audiences online. Partnerships were forged in the chaos of the first few weeks that have had a brilliant – and continued – legacy. Our virtual VE Day 75 Festival and VJ75 events with the National Museum of the Royal Navy, National Army Museum and Commonwealth War Graves Commission are perhaps some of my favourite events of all time. They shared meaningful stories of our Armed Forces in a meaningful and emotive way – putting them in the context of all three services and the way we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.’

VE Day Virtual Festival

Ella goes on to talk about how the events programme has helped the Museum be resilient during this difficult financial time through their fundraising efforts – something which was made possible through digital interaction with our audience.

‘We have had to learn to adapt to new ways of working and new ways of running events. Our programmes will never look like they did before 2020, but that isn’t a bad thing. The virtual events attract thousands of new people to our audiences and interact with our supporters in a really meaningful way. The Hurricane 80K, Spitfire 10K and Lancaster Challenge have raised over £200,000 combined through entries and donations. That is a really tangible and lasting legacy from a really challenging year. I think the success highlights the resilience of our teams and the ability for us to forge new ways of producing and delivering events.’

Hurricane 80K Challenge poster

Our Museum has needed to channel all our resilience in order to survive and thrive during the pandemic and so have the Colindale community that our London site is a part of. Some areas in Colindale are within the 10% most deprived nationally for employment and income. We know that the effects of the pandemic have hit our most deprived communities hardest, so local organisations have played a huge role in keeping the community resilient. One organisation at the heart of our local community is the Colindale Communities Trust (CCT), a charity committed to developing sustainable services and projects that improve the economic and social wellbeing of people who live in and around Colindale. Their Community Development Manager Jan Brennan explains some of the challenges they faced during the pandemic as well as the importance of local partnerships.

‘Ours is very much a face to face industry. Moving into lockdown was a difficult time for our residents, we also had to cope with a move to a new building. We have used social media to support local people, with information and details of services available for help. In between periods of lockdown we engaged local people offering them a safe space to gain new skills to help them to navigate the new world of online services. Local providers working together has enabled the local community to cope in these very difficult times.’

The Museum contributed to helping our local community during these unprecedented times, often by partnering with groups like CCT. Over Christmas we teamed up with CCT, Home Start Barnet and FUSE Youth Club to produce and deliver one hundred parcels of games and activities to local children, doing our small bit to spread some festive cheer. A local foodbank used space at the Museum for packing food parcels and as a base from where they could distribute these parcels to local people in need of support. Through these initiatives we aimed to not only help local residents remain resilient but to support local organisations so they could continue their brilliant work during, and post, pandemic.

Tiegan preparing Christmas parcels

The RAF, our Museum and our community have proven their resilience – never more so than over the last 18 months. As we move into Summer 2021 it’s worthwhile reflecting on where we were last year. Summer 2020 saw staff who usually work back of house – development, collections, HR and finance to name a few, donning our staff t-shirts and visors to support our front of house team to keep things safe and running smoothly for our visitors. This gave a lot of staff a new understanding of how the Museum runs on a day to day basis and presented us with the invaluable opportunity to interact with our visitors at a time when social interactions were at an all-time low for most of us! The skills learnt during this time, along with becoming whizzes at virtual meetings (you’re on mute!) and being able to drown out the noise of family and housemates whilst trying to work, have bettered us as a Museum team. Our Museum and local community have not only showed our resilience but built upon it, making us faster, stronger and able to reach audiences from further than ever before.

About the Author

Rhiannon Watkinson: Community Engagement Manager

As Community Engagement Manager I have the amazing job of sharing the RAF Museum’s collection with our local community. I love using everything the Museum has to offer in new and innovative ways in order to engage new audiences and ensure that everyone can have a connection to the RAF Museum.