The Museum of Song Postal Project
The Museum of Song is a song collecting project, co-created by artists Tess Leak and Sharon Whooley, that is delivered via the postal service. Part of the Arts for Health Partnership Programme, West Cork, it was adapted in response to the isolation of older residents in community hospitals during the Covid-19 lockdown in April 2020.
Arts for Health is a managed partnership programme led by West Cork Arts Centre. The programme infrastructure and the longstanding relationships between the artists, staff and participants were key in enabling the speedy re-imagining and implementation of the project, as the pandemic restrictions hit.
52 older residents in Castletownbere, Dunmanway, Schull and Skibbereen Community Hospitals; St. Joseph’s Unit, Bantry General Hospital; and in the community of Drimoleague. The project has recently expanded to include 10 older participants from the four valleys in Bantry and 28 on the off-shore islands of Sherkin, Bere, Heir and Oileán Chléire.
- To connect with older residents in community hospitals in West Cork, inclusive of those with cognitive differences, who were at risk of being isolated during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020.
- To deliver a song collecting project via the postal service which could be co-facilitated by healthcare staff without giving them extra work.
- To spark conversations about songs and singing as a way of making connections across healthcare settings in West Cork and provide opportunities for reflection, creativity and solace during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Every two weeks, beginning in April 2020, the artists sent out a themed package that included an introductory letter, song lyrics, a poem and a postcard to each participant in the community hospitals and to community members in Drimoleague. The themes were 'Songs of Our Mothers and Fathers', 'Songs of Leaving and Returning', 'Songs of Spring', 'Flower Songs', 'The Most Beautiful Voice' and 'Songs of the Land'. A stamped addressed envelope was also included, along with a response sheet encouraging people to share with the artists their favourite songs relating to the theme. Some participants sent back lists of songs and others shared stories relating to one of the songs.
There were online follow-up sessions in the healthcare settings, the most successful of which were 'one-to-one' conversations between artist and participant. Listening on large headphones seemed to help the residents feel more connected to the voice of the artist and an invaluable piece of advice from staff member Sarah Cairns (Activities Director) was to aim to 'create the atmosphere of sitting opposite someone at the kitchen table'.
In June, opera singer Camilla Griehsel performed songs from the growing collection for residents during concerts from outside of the healthcare settings.
The outcome is a growing and live conversation across Cork county along with a treasured body of songs and lyrics for sharing and archiving.
The central challenge for The Museum of Song, with implications for other remotely delivered arts and health projects, is still in the process of being understood: Aspects of the role of facilitator have shifted from artist to healthcare staff, with the relationship between the two being more important than ever.
The artists are planning to host online conversations with the participating healthcare staff in order to tease out the challenges. A piece of feedback near the beginning from staff was that an introductory meeting / short film would have helped them understand more clearly the aims of the project. This advice was key when the artists presented the project to community workers on the islands: they made it a priority to meet up in person, socially distanced, to talk through the idea of The Museum of Song.
Reflecting on the project’s vast potential for learning is a work in progress and only just beginning.
Inspired by the Italian opera singers performing for their neighbours across balconies at the start of the pandemic, Tess Leak teamed up with West Cork based singer Camilla Griehsel to weave an aspect of outdoor live music into the project. They delivered a series of performances of songs from the evolving collection for the staff and residents from outside of the community hospitals.
The Museum of Song Songbook designed by artist Sharon Whooley includes thematic lists of the 160 songs collected from the community hospitals along with reproductions of the visuals sent out during the project. A digital version of the Songbook can be accessed here.
Steps are being taken to develop a physical manifestation of The Museum of Song in 2021, with the participants as co-creators, which would be toured to the participating healthcare settings and islands.
- At the beginning and end of the project: short, informal phone conversations with available healthcare staff working onsite.
- Activities Co-ordinator Sarah Cairns provided ongoing practical feedback that the artists would incorporate before sending out the next lot of packages.
- Regular telephone and zoom meetings between the Arts for Health Manager and artists provided space to reflect and consider the practical application of the project as it progressed.
- Evaluation is ongoing with reflective online conversations with staff who co-facilitated the project planned for December 2020.
'The Museum of Song Postal Project lent itself so well to these unprecedented times. It was meaningful because it helped us keep connected and gave us a routine. Because of the nature of the project it could include anyone who chose to partake, at any level of involvement, without putting pressure on me/the staff to take over the art session. Residents had nothing for four months, no family, friends, priests, outings or community, and for each day that the news brought fear and dread this project brought us connection and into our own community.' - Sarah Cairns, Activities Co-ordinator, St. Joseph’s Unit, Bantry General Hospital.
'I was nervous when the first packages came in, because I am no singer myself and I don’t know many songs. But in the end it was the residents themselves, with all their songs and memories of singing, who led me in the project, rather than the other way round.' - Catherine Santry, Activities Co-ordinator, Dunmanway Community Hospital.
'Personally, after so many months in isolation and no singing in public or with anyone else, it profoundly altered my experience of the lockdown. The much-needed human connection between us all, as the music flowed, was palpable and a few tears were shed. I feel privileged to have been part of this project.' - Camilla Griehsel, Opera Singer, who performed songs from the collection for residents from outside the healthcare settings.
'The residents were thrilled with the occasion. They emerged into the sunlight uncertain and so quiet you could hear a pin drop. When the music started and Camilla sang that first beautiful haunting song I looked at their faces and they were so focused on her there was a sense of a new beginning almost.' - Roisin Walsh, A/Director of Nursing at Schull Community Hospital
Documentation & Dissemination
- Weekly posts on artforhealthwestcork.com as a way of sharing the responses.
- Lyrics of the 160 collected songs are being gathered together into a catalogue to be given to each healthcare setting.
- The Museum of Song Songbook: a copy will be given to the 52 participants in the community hospitals and to the community in Drimoleague.
- The project was presented as part of the artsandhealth.ie Checking In event (April 2020) and the Bealtine Gathering online event (October 2020) hosted by Age and Opportunity.
- The artists are currently working with community workers on the islands to record participants reading their responses and singing songs from the collection as part of a feature on Bere Island Community Radio Station and Oileain FM radio station.
Date of Publication
April 2020 - ongoing
Arts for Health Partnership Programme, West Cork
Lead partner is Arts for Health Partnership managed by Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre with HSE, Cork Education & Training Board and Cork County Council. Local project partners are HSE Cork Kerry Community Healthcare Community Work Department, Four Valleys Social Group and West Cork Island Development.
Arts for Health Partnership managed by Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre in partnership with HSE, Cork Education & Training Board, Cork County Council and the Arts Council. The Museum of Song Islands Project is funded through a special purpose award from National Lottery in 2021 and by Cork County Council through the Creative Ireland Programme.
Sharon Whooley, Tess Leak
Nature of Project