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Letters of Constraint: How the National Justice Museum are Documenting Life in the Coronavirus Era

9 June 20 words: George White

With the aim of encouraging people to reflect on their lockdown experiences to create a written legacy of the COVID crisis, the National Justice Museum’s new Letters of Constraint virtual exhibition is looking for your participation. We talked to Dr Martin Glynn, the museum’s writer in residence, about how you can put pen to paper and be part of Nottingham’s lockdown story... 

The National Justice Museum is inviting Nottingham residents to share their experiences of lockdown as part of their new Letters of Constraint virtual exhibition, with your contributions helping to provide a lasting snapshot of life during the pandemic.  The exhibition aims to bring together a broad range of experiences from people of different backgrounds, perspectives and viewpoints to show later generations what life was like during this difficult, but historically significant, time. 

Leading the project is Dr Martin Glynn, a criminology expert and the museum’s new writer in residence, who believes that Letters of Constraint can help people to process the utter madness of this whole situation. “The objective is to create a platform for people in the wider community to creatively engage through letter writing, so that they can express their thoughts on Covid-19,” he says. “The project provides a space for people to embrace their emotions and come to terms with life in lockdown.

Writing letters has provided a source of escapism for countless people throughout history, Martin says, “Whether it was the Black Death or the Fire of London, people have always written letters as a way of overcoming difficulties in the world… Hopefully people will find it therapeutic to get involved.” 

As an avid letter writer himself, Martin is vocal about the benefits of putting pen to paper: “I’ve been writing letters for over five decades. I have written to prisoners and people on Death Row, I even write to people who are no longer here, like Oscar Wilde, to imagine what I would say to them if they were still around,” he muses. “I find it relaxing to get things off my chest. Letters are really impactful, but with the growth of online activity we seem to have forgotten about the joys of writing.” 

The Letters of Constraint campaign encourages people from across the city, and the country, to take a moment to reflect on current circumstances and note down their thoughts and feelings. Whether hand-written or typed, anonymous or signed, the National Justice Museum is keen to get as many letters as possible for their virtual exhibition, to guide subsequent research and build an insightful time capsule for the future. 

So far, plenty of people have been getting involved, sharing their thoughts on coronavirus and explaining how their life has changed since the outbreak of the pandemic. “We’ve had a fair few letters come in,” Martin says. “They’re mostly autobiographical, with people talking about who they are and how they’re feeling during this period. Some letters are uplifting and some are quite sobering, but they’re all important artefacts showing how people thought during this time. I was concerned that this moment would come and go without an analysis of how people actually feel; politics has threatened to obscure the human experience of the crisis, but this exhibition will make sure there is a legacy piece showing how people coped, grieved and got through.” 

As well as contributing to the virtual exhibition, people’s letters will be used to create an audio artwork that encapsulates the key themes and feelings of the nation. Martin’s main job is to create a “letter writing mashup”, which involves deconstructing each letter, looking at their key messages and presenting these as a “letter to coronavirus” that summarises how the country has been feeling throughout this period. Extracts from some of the letters will be shared anonymously on the National Justice Museum Twitter account with the hashtag #LettersOfConstraint, to help share people’s experiences and create a sense of solidarity and community while we remain separated. 

The museum is still hoping for more contributions though, having found that a lot of people are unwilling to share their experiences. “What’s interesting is how many people have tweeted that they won’t write a letter because they don’t want to be vulnerable,” Martin says. “I worry that we’ve become so insular that we no longer open up. I’m hoping this project can bring some sensitivity back to people.” Folks in Nottingham have until Friday 12 June to send in their letters, and can do so by email, Twitter, the NJM website or a good, old-fashioned Royal Mail delivery. 

Getting people from the area more actively involved in the museum is something that Andrea Hadley-Johnson, the National Justice Museum’s Artistic Programme Manager, has been trying to promote since she came into the job eighteen months ago. “It’s vital that exhibitions involve the people of the city and the UK in each stage of conception, production and delivery. It’s important that museums include and represent people and their experiences with empathy and respect, in order for us to better connect with one another,” she says. “These projects are crafted to create the right conditions for connectivity, shared opinions and the discovery of new perspectives.” 

This is echoed by Martin, who hopes that the Letters of Constraint exhibition will provide a springboard for a more interactive, community-led experience at the museum. “In the early stages, I felt that some people came and looked at stuff but didn’t really experience the exhibitions. I was a bit concerned that they had a slightly voyeuristic approach to justice,” he admits. “I wanted to help provide a more immersive, holistic experience. Hopefully this project encourages wider engagement within the museum - and museums more generally. We’re looking to combine nostalgia and memories with something more shiny and new, so it can become a destination for people to come back to because they have a connection to the place.” 

One thing that certainly isn’t constrained is the museum’s ambition, with the museum team hoping to provide unique, enjoyable experiences once the world starts to open up again. In the meantime, virtual exhibitions such as Letters of Constraint provide an interesting outlet for contemplative minds – and a chance for the people of Nottingham to become part of history. 

National Justice Museum website 

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