FIRSTSITE director Sally Shaw admits she thought she was being tricked when she first got the email saying she was being made an MBE.

“I’ve been getting so many weird emails during the pandemic I thought ‘Well, this is probably a joke’,” she said.

“It comes as an email now as they are not sending out letters. “I had absolutely no idea. It was a shock but a nice one.”

The Member of the British Empire award was part of the delayed Queen’s Birthday Honours.

They had been due to be announced in June but were put on hold due to the pandemic.

It has meant hundreds of people have been recognised for their role during the last six months.

They are people who are, as the Cabinet Office states, “exemplars of the wide range and exceptional community and front-line service given across the country in recent months.”

Sally was honoured for her services to the arts.

During her tenure at Firstsite, which began in 2016, she has worked to make the gallery more inclusive and art more accessible.

During the first few weeks of lockdown the Firstsite team created a free download aimed at keeping children and young people entertained.

Art is Where the home Is, which featured ideas from Grayson Perry and Sir Antony Gormley, proved incredibly popular with more than 70,000 households using it.

A French version of the pack was also launched in partnership with Paris-based Théâtre du Châtelet.

People from across the world including in New Zealand and Australia even took part.

Sally said: “I just phoned up anyone I had ever met and I asked if they’d take part.

“Everybody said yes and we have now done four and seen it downloaded 56,000 times.

“We had a school in Australia where the whole class had done the Cornelia Parker activity.

“It was amazing. People just got really stuck in.”

While closed, the gallery, in Lewis Gardens, Colchester, also became home to Community 360.

The charity set up a base where they could prepare and hand out welfare packs to those in need.

“It became like a supermarket,” Sally said.

After reopening during the summer the gallery decided it would once again run its holiday programme.

The programme, which has been running for three years, gives children an opportunity to be creative, eat a healthy meal and enjoy physical activity, all for free.

The next one will run in October.

“We have given out 6,000 meals in the last few years,” she said.

“Families are all in different circumstances after Covid.

“Pre-Covid we were doing thousands of meals and the need is still there.”

Firstsite reopened in July, becoming one of the first to do so in the UK.

Attendance is around 40 per cent but growing day on day.

“The people coming through the door have been so encouraging,” Sally said.

“People are spending much more time here.

“We have also moved the cafe to the back of the building.

“It has been a massive draw and people are spending much more money and more time in the building.

“Before people would spend 30 minutes but they now spend an hour and half or two or three hours.” And Sally says lockdown and the pandemic has given her and the team a different outlook.

She said: “We are listening to what people want from us and translating that into really good ideas.

“To be able to give back at this time is really special.”

To find out more about Firstsite visit