Exploring Collections: School Without Walls
I began working with St Saviours Infant School in Larkhall, Bath in January of this year. I’ve worked at the same school several times over the years through 5x5x5=creativity and feel quite at home there by now.
This time I am working with two classes of Year 1 children, within which there are several focus children who we are paying particularly attention to, in terms of their experience of the project and its evaluation. We are working in partnership with The Museum of Bath at Work, and the children chose to call our project Exploring Collections.
This project is one of several happening through School Without Walls in and around the Bath area, and the SWW projects are part of a National initiative funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Teacher Development Fund. This National project is exploring how art can become embedded across the primary curriculum, and more specifically focusing on teacher cpd.
I began my work at St Saviours by introducing the children to collecting as a way of making art, and of sharing your interests with others. We looked at the work of artists such as Mark Dion, Peter Blake and myself, who gather together different elements and curate or construct with them, to make artwork. The teachers and I then led the children in an exploration of the school grounds, collecting objects and materials that each child was interested in, before creating some kind of container to house them.
The children made use of a range of recycled containers, adapting them and adding labels/text as they thought necessary.
A week later we all visited the Museum together. For those of you who haven’t been before, the Museum is rich in sensory experiences. It houses redundant local businesses such as a drinks factory and metal workshop, rehoused within the Museum. Objects are present in large quantities, complete with the smell of oil and dust. There are huge stacks of bottles, sets of tools, and an old office that looks as if the person that works there has just popped out.
I first visited the Museum with Ed, our Headteacher, and Catherine, our project Mentor last Autumn, and we had discussed what we felt the children might most be interested in or inspired by. We felt that collections can give us a connection to people’s life stories, their cultures of origin, and can connect your own home patch (in this case Bath/Larkhall) with other places that you have lived or visited. As well as exploring where we felt the project could go, we wanted to give the children the freedom to show us what they were most excited by, this time through the photos, drawings and conversations that came out of our visit.
Back at school, children were asked what they’d like to use to reflect on their experiences of the Museum, and ended up constructing with lego, making large scale drawings or continuing with constructing from recycled materials.
Some children were taken by the quality of light shining through coloured bottles, others by the shapes of the bottles or the mining/quarrying machinery.
Throughout the project we have discussed with the children what they have most enjoyed, and asked them for any ideas as to what we could do next. We have also met after each session as a team (myself, the teachers and where possible, Catherine our mentor), to explore what we feel has been significant and how best to respond to the children’s ideas.
At The Museum of Bath at Work there is a machinery workshop that can be activated by pressing a button. a whole room of large, metal machinery gradually comes to life, one section at a time, with accompanying rhythmic clanking and banging. Many of the children found this exciting, and in response I shared with them examples of artwork that moves and makes sounds, including Flying Books Under Black Rain by Rebecca Horn, Marble Machine by Wintergarten and the Strandbeast sculpures made by Theo Jansen. This led to the children working in groups to design and make their own machine or vehicle inspired artwork (other museum favourites were an old car, a velosopeed and a penny farthing) .
We then further built on this, by taking our work outside on the next session, and giving the children a chance to build interconnecting sculptures with the PlayPod large-scale recycled resources. Construction in groups meant that the children had to work together, which some found easier than others. Ideas connected and co-existed and role-play followed.
The children had said that they wanted to make work individually or in small groups, and then see how they could join them together to make one big machine, building or city, and we gave them opportunities in this session to do just that. Smaller groups joined and negotiated ways of connecting their sculptures. One of the classes also used drawing to record what they had made together.
Throughout the project (we have two more sessions with each class left), there has been this dual thread of personal collections, and larger structures that connect, move or make noises. Children have brought their own collections in from home, and local older people (staff who worked at the school previously or the children’s grandparents) have joined us to share the story of their own collections, including Shakespeare related items, holey stones and glass paperweights.
The teachers have chosen books and stories that explore the relationship between children and older people, collecting and journeys to different places. The children have also made portraits of what they think they will look like when they are 70, and the collections they may have gathered during their lifetime.
The aim is that in between my visits the themes of the project continue to inform the nature and content of the teaching, and that the teachers involved keep me in the loop so that we can plan later sessions together, based on how things have evolved. In practice its not always that easy, often lessons have been planned in advance and staff absences have impacted on the teacher’s workloads, but the children are always at the heart of our work together, and have certainly been inspired by the project and made it their own.
And what next? It depends on where the children and teachers take the work before my final sessions with them in June, but we hope to enable the children to explore the links between their personal collections and the wider community more directly. We have talked about going out into Larkhall and recording buildings of significance to them, exploring the roles that they play in their lives as well as how they connect geographically with school, as we explored the geographical relationship between the school and the Museum on our walk there and in later map-making sessions.
The children are still interested in working in a way that sees them each making separate parts of a wider whole, so it may be that each child will choose to create a building that reflects their place in the local community. Whether it’s their home, their Dad’s shop or where they go to ballet, it could also act as a physical container for their stories and collections, which when brought as a group would create their own multi-layered representation of where they live and learn.