By Dr Amanda Phipps, Public Engagement Officer at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

Find out top tips and lessons learned from ‘The Memory Box’ project which was a public engagement activity based around postal packs that were delivered straight to people’s homes. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your activity? 

‘The Memory Box’ was a series of three postal packs that explored participants’ past, present and futures. Each pack included prompts on capturing elements of participants’ everyday lives and their wishes for the future, along with activities and materials to add to their own memory box. The process helped us think about how we fit within wider historical narratives and how everyday objects can become important artefacts.  

As well as being part of the Being Human festival, the project was to mark the Institute of Historical Research’s centenary. To this end, we wanted to make sure ‘The Memory Box’ celebrated the history that is all around us and empowered individuals to become collectors themselves.

How did you make postal packs feel like an activity? 

Due to Covid-19 we had to take a new approach to doing creative activities, and postal packs offered a great way for us to do public engagement by bringing it into people’s homes. While obviously being very different from in-person activities, we tried to ask ourselves many of the same questions, for example how can we make it interactive and meaningful? As a result, we decided to create a series of postal packs, in which each package had an activity that built on the last so that the engagement was over a sustained period of time. The goal was to allow participants to go on a journey of discovery when putting together their memory boxes and to have time to think, consider and collect.  

We also wanted people to look forward to the packages arriving and so put time and effort into making them look visually appealing and branded. Just as you would consider dressing an in-person space for a physical activity, we tried to think about the tone we were setting with each package.

How did you foster two-way engagement via postal packs? 

Without sharing a physical space, we wanted to create a sense of connection with those taking part in the project from their homes. Consequently, we asked participants to stay in touch with us via email and it was lovely to receive photos and discuss their thoughts on building the boxes. We also had hashtags for people to get involved via social media. We wanted to hear from people the process of creating their packs, while being respectful that building a memory box with personal items might feel like a private activity for some.

If we were to repeat the project, creating other avenues for people to communicate and connect would be great. A concluding event bringing everyone together could have been nice or providing stamped envelopes for people to write to us could have worked well too.

Did you face any challenges in organising your activity? How did you overcome these? 

One of the biggest challenges we faced was actually deciding what to put in the packs! It was tricky to keep the packs compact so that they would be easy to post and nothing inside would get damaged. Luckily, we worked in partnership with Senate House Library(Opens in new window) which created a fantastic ‘example’ memory box from their collections. It included everything from doodles by famous writers, old event posters and even books damaged in the Blitz. The library’s involvement really helped to focus the project, sparking ideas for activities to include and showing how everyday items could become interesting artefacts. It assisted in separating good ideas from those that wouldn’t work (or wouldn’t fit) and meant the final packages were well curated.  

Do you have any practical tips or lessons learned for future organisers making postal packs? 

  • Don’t assume participants will have equipment at home to supplement a pack (e.g., additional craft materials). No one should feel under pressure to buy things to take part, so make the packs as self-contained as possible.
  • Expect some packs to go missing in the post! Make a few spares so that you can send replacements out to anyone who doesn’t receive them first time round.
  • Even once you have all the materials, just parcelling everything up can be time-consuming. Factor this into your planning so you don’t miss your postal deadline.

View a gallery of participant's Memory Boxes over on the Being Human website.

This activity was funded as part of the Institute of Historical Research's national centenary celebrations, 'Our Century', and took place as part of SHL150 - Senate House Library's 150th anniversary. The project was also part of Being Human festival 2021.