If you didn’t think BALTIC was a place for babies, think again. David Whetstone meets some of those involved in its lockdown-inspired 20 Babies project
A row of neatly parked baby buggies is perhaps not what you would expect to see at a gallery renowned for contemporary art.
Originally published May 2022
But BALTIC defies expectations in many ways – and it’s a Wednesday morning so 20 Babies are in.
There they are with mums and guardians – and a dad, too – beyond a white picket fence at one end of the Level 2 Learning Lounge.
Musical artist Ceitidh Mac is playing a cello softly and beautifully and there’s a bold attempt to engage the company in a little choreographed movement.
The grown-ups are dutifully going through the motions while the toddlers seem more inclined to do their own thing.
On this side of the little fence other children are playing because the creative activities in the Learning Lounge, along with the touchy-feely attractions in the adjacent Sensory Room, are free for all to enjoy.
But the 20 Babies project, while clearly fun for those concerned, has a serious side, as Florence Darling, BALTIC’s producer specialising in children and young people, can explain.
Florence gave birth to her fourth child on March 11, 2020, just days before the first coronavirus lockdown came into effect.
“Suddenly I was at home with a new baby and having to educate and occupy my older children (now aged 12, nine and seven) at home.
“My husband was at home, too, but it was hard and something unprecedented.
“I had to take each day at a time, thinking it would be only for a couple of weeks. I don’t know how I’d have coped if I’d known how long it was going to last.”
It got Florence thinking about other new mums and their experiences of lockdown.
“I wondered what it was like if you were in the middle of a city or had a child with additional needs. I couldn’t even imagine but I thought it would be an interesting thing to explore.”
Aware that life rushes on, Florence thought BALTIC, as a creative space, would be the perfect place for people to pause and think about what they had been through – and to do so in the company of others.
The idea for 20 Babies – 20 babies born in 2020 involved in a project timed to end in BALTIC’s 20th anniversary year – took shape and it was put into action when Florence returned to work after maternity leave.
A call, initially through parent support organisations in Gateshead, went out for volunteers prepared to commit, along with their babies, for a year-long programme of weekly sessions at BALTIC.
Coming, as she says, from a research background, Florence attained funding from Newcastle University to engage PhD student Jessie Kelly to attend the sessions and produce an academic paper.
That Jessie had given birth to daughter Ivy in November 2019, a few months before the first lockdown, made her perfect for the job.
Jessie, from Seaham, recalls: “They were interested in exploring the unique experience of having a baby in a pandemic, learning what it was like for everyone, and also finding out what works best with early years children in encouraging self-expression and creativity.”
A programme combining discussion and play was put together and artists were commissioned to devise creative activities.
And to make it possible, the Mayborn Group, founders of the Tommee Tippee brand of parenting products, agreed to sponsor the project, its first collaboration with an art gallery.
The Wednesday morning sessions began in September.
Since then, judging by the atmosphere in the convivial BALTIC Front Room after this morning’s music and movement session, friendships have been formed.
Kate Etherington gave birth to Isaac, a brother for Oliver and Oscar, in May 2020, during the first lockdown.
“It was hard, to be honest, because you couldn’t bring your partner to your appointments. Because I can’t give birth naturally, I had to go for a caesarean, and I was doing that without the support of dad.
“He was allowed an hour or two with us and then had to leave. We weren’t allowed to see anybody for three days.
“You were in a room on your own whereas with my other children I was on a ward with other mams so you could talk.
“The nurses would put on masks, gowns and gloves before they came in. It was weird, to be honest.”
Nina Brent, from North Tyneside, who will be Mrs Houlison when she gets married later this year, heard about 20 Babies from a friend and was welcomed into the group.
She gave birth to Elliot, her first child, in June 2020.
“We had quite a good experience, to be honest, judging by what I’ve heard from others.
“At the hospital in Cramlington my partner was allowed to be there the whole time because it was individual rooms. We were home within a day.
“You could meet up to six people in a garden at that time, so we had visitors but only outside. It wasn’t too bad. My partner was working from home so was there more than he would have been.”
But what about the all-important bonding during those lockdown days?
“The issues Florence mentioned to me about the lack of social time and connections was something I felt strongly about with my daughter,” says researcher Jessie.
“I had family and friends around when I gave birth but then it was suddenly cut off, so my experience is a bit different. I don’t know how or if it will affect these children developmentally.”
Kate Etherington admits to having been concerned about “the social aspects of building bonds”.
“It’s so important for them, like getting that skin contact with dad. I think it was hard for siblings too. Oliver and Oscar didn’t meet Isaac for three days.”
With many baby groups suspended during the pandemic, it seems some 20 Babies parents approached the project with a little trepidation, exacerbated by not being wholly familiar with BALTIC.
“I’d been here a few years ago but I never thought it was somewhere to bring your children for fun activities. I thought it was all contemporary art,” admits Gateshead resident Kate.
Smiling, Nina says: “I knew there was a restaurant and that was it, although I may have come years ago to see an exhibition.
“I didn’t know they had a sensory room or children’s books. I didn’t know how well set up it was with the play areas.
“We’ve really enjoyed it. Everyone has been so welcoming and friendly, and the kids have got to know each other which is lovely.
“It was difficult for the kids in lockdown. They’ve not had as many opportunities to meet other children.”
Kate admits to having been nervous at first, venturing to BALTIC after a period in which “a trip to Asda was the most exciting thing of the week”.
“Literally, I thought BALTIC was pictures on a wall; and children… well, they’re noisy, aren’t they?
“But it’s been brilliant. We love it. I was saying to someone on the bus, ‘It’s all free. You can give a donation for a hot drink but it’s a really good place to go’.
“You can bring your own packed lunch which is so good. Some places don’t let you do that.
“Isaac loves it. He’s good friends with Elliot, Nina’s son.
“We go to church in Gateshead and we had to raise some money so I got all the children to do a sponsored walk to BALTIC. They put some snacks for them behind the counter.”
So far, so good. Friendships have been formed that should outlive the project, the 2020 babies appear to have become little social animals and, no small point, BALTIC’s audience has swelled.
Florence Darling laughs when she says the 20 Babies babies – toddlers now – have acquired seven baby brothers and sisters since the project began, while lots of relations have come to witness the Wednesday sessions.
“Grandparents, aunties, uncles… it has grown into quite a community,” she says happily.
Also happy is Tina Gray, head of regional marketing at Mayborn, who has been watching the project with interest.
“Every child and parent is different but the conversations we’ve had here have enforced the idea that having a baby during a pandemic really was a unique experience for everyone.
“It’s absolutely amazing, the things that have been thrown at them. They have coped and they should be proud.”
Jessie Kelly is due to submit her findings at the end of May while the 20 Babies project runs on until September.