Swansea-based artist and gallery educator Tom Goddard was commissioned to work with Gardner’s Lane Primary School, one of the four Love St Peter’s, Love St Paul’s projects. Tom worked with the Year 5 group over five days in July 2017. We discovered that Tom has family links to this area which we had not previously known about, and was interested to work with the children to explore their own relationship to the area and how it is represented more widely.
For the project I wanted to offer a class of 9 year olds (Year 5) living in St Peters and St Pauls the opportunity to consider how where they live is represented in a cultural context, how this can reflect what the community is really like for them and whether it can affect assumptions about the social life and the cultural history of the communities.
The aim of the project was to uncover some of the unseen and forgotten histories of St Peter’s and St Paul’s through looking and engaging with what has been collected about those areas at the Wilson Gallery. My hope was that the pupils would be able to bring their own style and language, a 21st century understanding of the area, presenting challenging and refreshing alternatives and interpretations of what they find in the collection.
However, in the Wilson collection the St Peter’s and St Paul’s communities were distinctly under-represented with only a handful of photographs of the community and the area, notably these were taken after it had been bombed during the war. With no reflection in the Wilson collection of the predominantly white working class pre and post war community of St Peter’s and St Paul’s, there was zero representation of how the community had changed over the past 70 years. The local history collection comes from a position of privilege, one that over this period seems to have not represented or embraced the people of St Peter’s and St Paul’s. With their shared local histories not represented and continually unacknowledged, the museum is vulnerable to criticism and can be seen as irrelevant to this area and its local community.
Though the process of the project we discussed what St Peter’s and St Paul’s ‘is’ and posed further questions to the young people such as, how can you, as young people, be ambassadors for a positive vision of this place?; what are your ideals?; what are your hopes for the area?; what changes would you make?; what does the community of St Peter’s and St Paul’s need from their local gallery and museum? Or ultimately does it need it at all?
To introduce the project to the Year 5 class I designed a series of questions about their family histories and the collected history of the area. The questions were under the headings of ‘memory’, ‘play’, ‘stories’, ‘objects’, ‘place’ and ‘traditions’ and were a tool for them to ask, find and gather information from their relatives about people, communities and important events.
This set of questions were answered in general very well and were helpful for Mr Tyler, Yr 5 teacher, who learned a lot about the children in his class from the process. The questions helped us discover a Grandma that lived in a Madagascan jungle and legends, customs and histories from the heritage of Poland, Romania and many others. The questions acted as a piece of action research which enabled the young people to learn about and discuss their families, community and national history with those close to them.
On Monday 3rd July I presented the project at the whole school assembly. I explained the motivation behind the project and how each member of the school could be involved by passing on to their teacher any stories they knew about the local area or if they were feeling particularly brave by stopping me when they see me and telling me for themselves.
Kids will take a chance, if they don’t know they will have a go. They’re not frightened of being wrong and what we know is if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. Children are born creative, they are educated out of it – Ken Robinson
In the morning, we discussed the questions answered by the children and how this information could be used to form the basis for a collection. We talked about how and put emphasis on the fact that their lives, their individual and collected histories hold interesting stories and are part of a bigger story of the social history of Cheltenham.
The class were then introduced to 6 photographs of the selected objects from the Wilson Collection. The group were not told anything about the objects instead were invited to talk about the artworks without being tutored. The children were asked to describe the object, discuss what they think it means, what its purpose was, what it is made of, what the story might be behind it and how it could relate or be relevant to Cheltenham.
This was an opportunity for the class to follow their own path instead of keeping to the rules and customs which can be common and imposing when discussing new subjects. They were able to ‘chat’ and were encouraged to say what they thought and to not have to feel that they were wrong but instead ‘to have a go’. This was based around Brian Jackson’s idea that ‘creativity relies on the flow of ideas. This happens best in an atmosphere where risk is encouraged, playfulness with ideas is accepted and where failure is not punished but seen as part of the process of success.’
Some children were assigned rotating, behind the camera roles and were responsible for sound, lighting, directing, interviewing etc. They also turned the classroom into a space for filming and encouraged those on camera.
In the initial response there were some very telling comments – that all of the objects were built by ‘men’ and were often built in far away countries like China, a long time ago. The objects were referred to as statues or sculptures and were seen as things made to go in a museum or on a gallery wall rather than having a function of their own or part of some larger narrative.
There was a lot of focus on the expressions of the characters and ideas behind why they looked that way. The children’s personal narratives were also woven into what they saw and then unpacked as descriptions of the objects. The class tried to look for things the objects had in common as well as domesticating some of the objects.
The class arrived to school very excited about the trip to the museum despite at least 1/3 of them visiting before. We walked in pairs from school to the museum, a good two and a half mile round trip, arriving at the museum just before 10am. 15 minutes early! The group received the standard health and safety introduction and got some squash down them as they were very thirsty after the journey.
The children were split into two groups and armed with clipboards, pencils and a palpable sense of excitement! Every single child was full of enquiring questions, which I like to think of as good gallery noise: the noise of young people hungry for knowledge and wanting to look at all the things around them and ask questions of where they came from and what they were doing here. They were all truly enthused and energised by the museum environment and the wonders it offered. All children drew and wrote about the objects they saw, I gave them the suggestion that they draw and write about some they like and some they don’t like then could puzzle over what makes one more appealing to them than another. The collection of drawings that the class made were characteristic of drawings made by this age group of children with an exaggeration of size counterbalanced with an attention to detail for numbers of flowers or buttons etc…There is also close attention to the different materials used and a distinction between surfaces and textures and how they are described by different ways of employing the pencil.
The focussed tours on the objects were intended to give the pupils an understanding of the purpose of the objects, the story behind them and the connection to the area, something that until now they had been denied or at least had held back from them when they made their original comments.
The significance of working this way with children aged 9 is because they are often referred to as belonging to the ‘gang age’. It is the time they discover that they are members of a society and realise that they have similar interests and enjoy doing things together. This developmental stage is when they develop a greater awareness and sensitivity to their environment so it seemed to me an appropriate time for them to consider how their community should be represented, while gaining a greater understanding of how the museum works and how the museum is used as a way of archiving, displaying and interpreting narratives around objects and regions.
After returning back from the museum the class wrote and drew up their ideas around the objects they had seen. Describing them in words and pictures, considering their functions and their purpose. Independently logging the things they had learned and sharing them with the rest of the class in an open presentation. Before the class left each of them was reminded to share the experience of where they went today and what they learned about the objects they saw with somebody at home.
In the morning, the children resumed filming, they continued discussing the objects in pairs like yesterday but now with, what should in theory be, a greater understanding of the objects reason for being. The discussions touch on how the facts have changed their assumptions and expectations of the object from the previous day. However, on a number of occasions the children reverted back to their original stories.
After wrapping up the filming, Mr Tyler set the class the challenge of creating their own object to reflect their community and environment. This object will then be catalogued and ascended into the museum of St Peter’s and St Paul’s. The class are handed back their pre-project work which they completed about their community and family history and we discuss how we could use this information. We talk about the design process and the stages involved. Asking what it is and what it does, brainstorming, imagining and coming up with a defined idea, planning, creating and getting feedback from friends. The class work hard up until lunch on their ideas, ready to share when they come back.
The ideas produced were pleasingly diverse, there was very little cross over and borrowing from one another which Mr Tyler was particularly pleased with as the class had a slight tendency for this on some tasks previously. The ideas ranged from the very personal, looking at the significance of pets, friends or loved ones who had passed as well as imaging new worlds and special places.
The class are raring to go with making their objects so a few of the members of the class help organise the room. There are stations for drawing, painting, using mod roc, needle and thread, collage and a sort of miscellaneous table. All the children were making and thinking about what they were making with smiles on their faces.
There was an innovative use of materials, many opted to work with building and using mod-roc, more than likely because of the opportunity to get their hands dirty! Others interestingly worked in dry materials – collage, cardboard structures, tissue paper and sellotape working with a sensitivity far above their years. Noticeably the children who worked in dry materials were those with the clearest designs who then followed their drawn design to the letter with what they made. There was a very clear sense that to make the drawing come to life, the materials they used had to be manageable for it to resemble their drawing.
The two days of creating, which probably equated to about 3 hours in total of working with wet and dry materials, were full of children supporting and encouraging the work of other children. For me this was the most impressive part of the whole project. When things didn’t work there was always a child on hand with a suggestion about how it could be fixed or demonstrating how they’d done it and made it work. This help wasn’t just practical, although three children helping one particularly ambitious child make a series of mod roc figures was an impressive conveyor belt of instruction, material manipulation and creativity ingenuity to behold! There were times when suggestions and ideas were offered to solve design problems that had been overlooked. This again signalled the sense of the whole class being in this project together and a real sense of teamwork. They were all a credit to Mr Tyler’s teaching methods throughout.
Once the collective tidying, hoovering, clearing and washing had been taken care of, we had a final task for the class. They were asked to write up their objects with their own information. A creative writing task if they wanted or if they preferred a factual response. Answering where, who, how big, what, was their object. Describing it and selecting keywords so it could be found easily in the collection’s database.
Museums have for a long time enjoyed a privileged place in the public’s confidence, but societal and economic changes, as well as the public’s expectation of museums, have significantly augmented the landscape of public value. New questions about what constitutes public value and who sees the benefits of that value need to be considered seriously by those museums that want to see real impact from their effort.
If we are actually serious about a participatory culture then it is clear that museums have an inherent mission to deliver public value driven by a universal right to cultural access and this must mean the representation of all parts of the community and an understanding and celebration of them which can only be achieved by welcoming new opinions about the museum.