Northern Lights: Being a part of a community helps people to feel wanted and valued

Pitsmoor Adventure Playground
Pitsmoor Adventure Playground

Over the past few months it’s felt like the world has been turned upside down.

The bombing in Manchester, the attacks on London Bridge and at the Finsbury Park Mosque, the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire, and even the snap election and its aftermath, have affected us all, and in so many different ways.

I’d like our museums to create experiences that build on the strengths of Sheffield’s communities and we try to answer the most difficult questions

From tears of disbelief, empathy, anger and frustration for the people and families directly affected, to the realisation that our vote has the power to test the system and that people can change the way things are, for a few hot weeks this summer our world tilted.

Amidst the sadness and anger people have stepped up to help, to support each other and to look towards a better future. We feel it deeply because of what we have in common, because of what we fear, because we are part of families and communities, and because we feel we’re lucky to have what we have and it’s something worth working for.

Closer to home, and on an altogether different scale, last month’s gang violence on Spital Hill left the people who live and work there feeling anxious. When violence like this erupts it’s important to see it for what it is. There are many causes; it’s a product of poor life choices, of inequality and lack of opportunity, and this is unacceptable anywhere in our city.

In the days that followed it was good to see increased community policing and I’m proud of the way life goes on here. The vibrancy of the streets, the parks, the cafes and shops is down to the people who make it home – the dog walkers, cooks, hairdressers, grocers, dentists, teachers, taxi drivers.

I’ve lived in Pitsmoor for over 30 years and when I moved here in 1986 there were just a handful of shops and a bookie’s, and Spital Hill was dying on its feet.

New arrivals have brought ambition and enterprise and it’s become a hub of small businesses and restaurants.

Over the years periods of violence come and go, they blow over and we pick ourselves up. But it affects how you feel, challenges where you choose to go, how you greet a stranger, what you consider to be normal.

Community is a complex and sometimes dubious construct, yet there is something about place, experience and identity that binds us. It’s clear that free and open spaces like libraries, playgrounds, parks and museums have a role to play in creating welcoming, respectful places for all people.

I recently spoke with Patrick Meleady, manager of Pitsmoor Adventure Playground and a Museums Sheffield trustee, about why coming together to play is important in children’s lives.

He said: ‘We’ve got children here from Britain, Slovakia, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, lots of children who were born here and many who have migrated here from far and wide. 

‘We provide a welcoming safe haven to all of them. When young people have the chance to come together positively, as they do at the playground, they love it and they raise their aspirations.’

By making room for the stories and experiences of children from all walks of life, the playground reminds us of the things we have in common. We all need a safe place where we feel welcome.

I’d like our museums and galleries to do something similar in creating experiences that build on the strengths of Sheffield’s communities as we ask and try to answer the most difficult questions.

Do our museums do that already? In part - they’re a resource for making and shaping ideas of history, cultural identity and sense of place, and they’re open to all. But things don’t stand still, the challenge is changing and there is so much more to do.

Over the next year Museums Sheffield will invite people from all walks of life to be part of a series of discussions exploring fairness, equality and identity through the lens of the city’s collections. Sheffield’s collections span disciplines from social history to geology.

They speak volumes about our lives, how we live them and the world we live in. We have a responsibility to use those collections to explore those aspects of our lives that both unite and divide us, to make sure they remain vital and relevant, and that they represent the diversity of our collective experiences.

As Patrick said: ‘The first step is make people feel welcome, then you can start to have conversations about how communities can live and work together. It’s important for people to get the chance to meet those from different walks of life if they’re all going to respect each other.’

If the events of recent months demonstrate anything it’s that people are resilient but they’re dependent on community support.