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The Tiger Who Couldn’t Come to Tea

User AvatarPosted by Penelope Lovesy at 28/05/2020 16:08:31

Rebecca Rossiter, Public Programming and Learning Manager at Poole Museums, reflects on how family occasions are being celebrated during lockdown and wonders whether the ‘new normal’ will ever feel normal again.

One of the most popular open displays in Poole Museum is the recreated 1950’s kitchen on Floor 2. Regulars and holidaymakers alike enjoy the opportunity to explore the items on show from old fashioned pots and pans on the cooker to tea cups and saucers on the Formica topped table. For older visitors the set-up often evokes memories of childhood while families and younger visitors engage on a more tactile level, role-playing tea parties and posing for photographs.

During our temporary exhibition last summer, Henry Lamb: Out of the Shadows, we had further fun with the space. By masking the back of the 50’s display, we installed a temporary graphic backdrop from Lamb’s painting ‘The Tea Party’, commissioning a designer to airbrush out the painted figures. With the use of a real table, checked tablecloth, authentic chairs, dressing-up clothes and props we then invited visitors to create their own tea party scenes and selfies. My programming colleagues and I loved the idea that you would be able to ‘step inside’ a painting when coming to see the show and, despite the gruelling demands of the exhibition installation and some last-minute panic buying at local charity shops, we think we did a pretty good job of pulling it off.

That said, even though the temporary Lamb-inspired installation was popular with visitors, we still got regular enquiries from those who know the museum well, asking when the 50’s kitchen would be back. When you love something you don’t always want to see it change. For some staff and visitors it was a relief to see the display return to normal – confirmation that it would remain a key part of the museum experience once again.

‘Normality’ and hands-on visitor experiences have of course been two of the things that many of us have been missing since lockdown began. Even since the easing of some measures and the slow steps towards getting back to a sense of normality, I cringe every time I hear the phrase ‘the new normal’ (and yes, I fully admit I’ve been guilty of using it too) – as really, none of this weird state of affairs feels remotely normal to me.

Last week it was what has become known in my household as ‘epic week’ – the week in which my husband and I celebrate our wedding anniversary and then his birthday two days later. Three days after that it’s the anniversary of my mum passing away to cancer, not so much a celebration but a day that is set aside in our family calendar as one in which we meet up, drink a toast to her remarkable life and think of her together. Epic week is always a strange one. A strange, concentrated fusion of major life events, some joyous and some frankly awful. But ones that we have always marked with our loved ones in person. Until now.

The anniversary wasn’t a big one – not too much pressure to pull out the stops. We got our three-year-old son involved and made a homemade cheesecake together, being sure not to count the calories. In the evening we ordered in Chinese. The toddler dressed up in his party shirt and a sparkly red bow tie, my husband put on a shirt and I located a dress from the back of the wardrobe, a welcome change from the customary jeans and t-shirt that I’ve been living in recently. We decked the living room with bunting from our wedding, raised our tumblers of Prosecco (and apple juice for Ted) and enjoyed the exclusivity of our self-styled home restaurant.

The birthday party was a slightly more stressful affair, at least in the build-up to it. Planning a partner’s 40th at the best of times is a lot of pressure. I spent months prior to lockdown thinking of wonderful ideas to impress him – a speedboat trip down the Thames, a romantic weekend away, a surprise party, a flash mob of family and friends dancing to his favourite 80’s song. So many cool thoughts, but sadly not meant to be. My husband was actually quite relieved when he realised we would be celebrating at home with cupcakes, beer and a family Zoom chat instead.

And then we come to my mum’s day. It was ok. It’s never an easy day. It’s only three years since we lost her so it’s one of those days that can creep up on you. It’s the build-up and the guilt that are the worst, as in some ways you feel a bit numb. But what’s important is that we always make an effort to be together. This year my brother organised an online family chat not just for myself and my dad but also for my mum’s brother and several of our cousins. We all logged on and raised a glass to my mum and it was great just to see their faces and hear about how they’d been surviving. We reflected too on what my mum would have made of these strange times, her tendency to worry but also her unending positivity and resilience. I don’t know if we quite nailed it in the way that a group trip to her favourite beach or an honorary fish and chip supper might have done, but we tried our best. I so rarely see my mum’s family that the restrictions of lockdown were actually worth it just for the ease with which we could all reunite online.

The downside though, as with all virtual meetings, is that you can never quite capture the nuances of real, social interaction. A group video call through the barrier of a screen lacks the natural interruptions, the after-dinner splinter groups and candid conversations in corners from one too many glasses of bubbly, the option to be a social butterfly or a laid-back grazer observing from the sofa. And it doesn’t allow for the hugs. When someone can virtually recreate a hug I would pay good money to hug my dad again, particularly during epic week. No one can tell me that not being able to hug is normal.

If you’ve read this and can relate to it in any way I’d like you to join me in a pledge. Make a promise to yourself that, once this is all over, you will have tea and cake with the people you love again. That you’ll visit them and hug them and have the best party you can afford without a laptop or an iPad in sight. I can’t wait for the day when I can take my son back to Poole Museum and we can play ‘The Tiger who Came to Tea’ in the 1950’s kitchen without me ushering him away from another person who has come along. It might not be for a while. It might not be until he doesn’t even like ‘The Tiger who Came to Tea’ any more. But I really do hope it will happen eventually because in my kind of normal, human connection has to win out. And being present and with one another is what the very best celebrations have to offer.

How have you had to adapt your lockdown celebrations? Get in touch to share your stories at museums@bcpcouncil.gov.uk

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