Curator Joanna explores historic and today's examples of keeping in touch while keeping a distance.

As coronavirus lockdown measures enforce social distancing, lots of ways to distantly socialise have sprung up. Ways to feel connected while separated. Technology has played a huge part in making this possible. People are meeting online for concerts, quizzes and comedy nights to share experiences in their separate households. While places of worship remain closed, faith leaders from across the religious spectrum livestream prayer.

Rainbows and messages displayed in windows of residents and communities, London 2020

People are connecting to their local communities and neighbours, often for the very first time; showing appreciation by giving a thumbs up to postmen and women on delivery, and clapping for key workers every Thursday. There are rainbows in windows and thank you notes taped to wheelie bins. Local community forums on social media are connecting and supporting people, linked together by shared experiences, shared fears and shared hopes.

Here are five historic examples of keeping in touch while keeping a distance.

1. Time capsules

The International Time Capsule Society estimates that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 time capsules worldwide. To commemorate the millennium, a time capsule was sealed in Guildford, Surrey, not to be opened until the year 3000. Alongside a life-size photograph of Dame Vera Lynn and a Mini car, people of the future will be able to open and read letters from hundreds of members of the public, former Prime Minister Tony Blair and actor David Suchet.

Children at a primary school in Bradford have created a coronavirus lockdown time capsule, writing notes to children of the future about how lockdown has changed their lives.

Bradford school time capsule ©

2. Message in a boule, 1870-1871

The Franco-Prussian War culminated in the siege of Paris from 1870 until 1871, cutting the city off from postal communications with the rest of the country. Turning to the River Seine as a novel communication network, letters were crammed into small zinc balls and floated just below the river’s surface. The intention was that a net stretched downriver would retrieve the balls, but most never arrived. A ball was found in 1982 containing over 300 undelivered letters.

Boule de Moulins – Siège de Paris © Musée de La Poste

3. Beacons

Beacons are lights or fires in conspicuous places, like the top of a hill. Classically lit in a relay to warn of invasion, beacons have also signalled national celebration, marking Royal jubilees, weddings, coronations and special birthdays.

Beacons were lit across the UK and overseas in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, in April 2016. The Queen lit the first beacon in Windsor before over 900 more were set aflame. From Ben Nevis to Mount Snowdon, people gathered in shared celebration, though they were hundreds of miles apart.

4. Mail Art

Mail Art is commonly described as originating in the 1950s with artist Ray Johnson, who posted artworks to his friends and colleagues and went on to establish the New York Correspondence School. The Covid-19 lockdown has sparked a ‘mini-renaissance’ in Mail Art, with people finding comfort in artful correspondence.

This tobacco advertisement has been transformed into a unique piece of mail art. Sent repeatedly back and forth between Doncaster and Brazil, between 1910 and 1917, and delivered on one occasion to the British Expeditionary Force in France (probably in 1916). The messages, stamps and postmarks have layered up over the years, creating a unique piece of postal art.

A postcard with layered stamps and addresses (E15067/36)

Reverse of a postcard with layered stamps and addresses (E15067/36)

You can read about The Postal Museum’s collection of 1970s mail art here.

5. Bedtime Story from Space

Tim Peake was the first British astronaut from the European Space Agency to visit the International Space Station. Launching on 15 December 2015, he spent six months in space and performed over 250 experiments. Although he was very busy with scientific studies, Tim made time to read a bedtime story, Goodnight Spaceman, to his two young sons and children across the United Kingdom. The story was read on CBeebies in May 2016, possibly the most long-distance telling of a bedtime story, ever.

How are you keeping in touch with your loved ones during lockdown? We’re gathering the inspiring ways you’re connecting with each other and providing some entertainment inspired by the postal service in our Make a Connection hub.

– Joanna Espin, Curator

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