'The Isolated Baronet' Calke Abbey and RCMG address contemporary isolation and loneliness

Isolation and loneliness – opening up new stories and interpretive experiences is a research project led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) in collaboration with Calke Abbey, a National Trust property in Derbyshire. Running from October 2017 to March 2018, the project emerged as part of Calke’s planning processes and the Calke team’s desire to develop interpretation and programmes around the contemporary issue of social isolation and loneliness. This is planned to take place in 2019 in order to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Henry Harpur Crewe, 7th Baronet of Calke Abbey who was dubbed ‘The Isolated Baronet’ in his own time.

Questions of isolation and loneliness have often been associated with Calke and the place itself embodies the histories of isolation which have shaped the lives of the people who lived here. As awareness grows of the complex challenge loneliness and social isolation pose to contemporary society, Calke is exploring its own history of isolation and using this work to drive new approaches to interpretation and community engagement. Recent research suggests that levels of loneliness across all ages are worryingly high, with over 9 million adults in the UK often or always lonely. Loneliness is a natural part of the human condition, with most of us feeling lonely at some point during our lives. However, where it becomes an issue is when it becomes acute; an ongoing, grinding and deeply painful felt experience. In these instances, loneliness can be harmful to both our physical and mental health; for example, being a comparable risk factor for early death to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. With an ambition to make a contribution to discussions and campaigns surrounding the contemporary epidemic of loneliness and potentially to the lives of ordinary people who might be struggling with loneliness, and aware of the need to enter this space from an educated and thoroughly researched perspective, Calke approached RCMG to ask them to ‘think with’ Calke about the potential opportunities and pitfalls of work in this area. RCMG were also asked to help Calke plan this work in such a way that it would: generate new and ongoing community relationships; achieve Calke’s ambition to deliver high quality and sector leading interpretive practice; result in an exceptional visitor experience and programming for 2019; and leave a legacy of increased expertise, creativity and confidence amongst staff and volunteers to develop this and other work in the future.

For the RCMG team, the project offered an opportunity to expand research it had undertaken at a range of sites exploring the visitor experience and the role of the physical museum (a building and curated collections or an historic site and its contents) in the various encounters and opportunities for experience, action and expression that visitors might encounter during a cultural visit. Interested in questions of the value of culture and its role in human wellbeing, the project offered an opportunity to ask how cultural organisations might take a conscious role in the fight against loneliness alongside government, public services, business and community groups.