Rob performs his story

Home: The Way I See It

They are powerful things, stories. Sometimes when I speak about my work, it feels a bit contrived. Do stories really deserve so much reverence? This storytelling project and performance by Extant Theatre at Theatr Clwyd in Mold went right back to basics – and has given me a renewed appreciation of how vital it is to share our memories and ideas with one another.

The set up was simple. Support a group of Blind Veterans to share their childhood memories. Develop their skills and confidence. Share their stories through performance.

Sylvia has shared memories of growing up in the Welsh Valleys.
Sylvia has shared memories of growing up in the Welsh Valleys.

However, Extant always bring a bit of magic to projects, particularly when Theatre Director Elizabeth Wainwright is involved. The telling and retelling of stories, supported by someone who is so passionate, dynamic and responsive has created something really special.

A group of storytellers, made up of Blind Veterans and friends have worked together for 10 weeks. They have learnt to tell as story from their childhood; to move you, make you laugh and prompt you to think about your own life and if it were you, what you might tell others. It’s an intimate portrait of how we can gather, despite differences, to share a piece of our history. And you’re invited.

text From the film ‘Home: The WAY I SEE IT’

Judge for yourselves – the film is now available to view on Vimeo. Thanks as always to Project Manager Jodie Stus for inviting me to get involved in another Extant project!

Represent

I’ve been having so much fun with the Represent project for The People’s Heritage Co-operative, I’ve not had opportunity to share what I’ve been up to! Represent is a National Lottery Heritage Fund and The Active Wellbeing Society supported project, exploring the impact of gaining the vote on the lives of Birmingham’s people.

Represent is a project with a real focus on reflective practice and co-learning. As well as delving into some really fascinating areas of history, we are curious as to how we can work together with participants to develop a high quality community heritage project which has relevance to us as actors in the world today. As such we have been keeping a Journal to share our thinking and track the development of our project. Here are a selection of entries which explore some of the different aspects of our work and our learning….


We have been exploring the early years of women gaining the vote with Saheli Hub‘s Handsworth group. Screening the wonderful Fight for the Right film, produced by Sima Gonsai really helped set the scene and fuelled some great discussions about voting today:

Archival research has been a really important part of our project – we’re passionate about opening up the space to new audiences. We’ve had great fun taking groups to Birmingham Archives – nothing really beats seeing these materials up close:

We’re firm believers that connecting with heritage is good for us. So we’ve been working with The Active Wellbeing Society putting it to the test using #5StepstoWellbeing as a framework for our sessions: 

Do take a look at the Represent website to discover more about the history of the period, the archives we have uncovered and our plans for the next part of the project. You can also keep up to date with the work of the People’s Heritage Co-operative through subscribing to our occasional Mailing List.

Creating (and defending) Civic Space

As Secretary of the People’s Heritage Co-operative I’m really keen to look at how we can develop the ‘community heritage’ sector to move beyond what are often short term, siloed projects into something which is more collaborative, sustainable and ambitious. We recently held a ‘Heritage Meet’ with members and other heritage professionals to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities as we see them. Here is the text of a blogpost I recently wrote for the People’s Heritage Co-operative – I would really welcome any thoughts you have after reading!


We’re a slightly obsessive bunch, those of us with an interest in heritage. Excited by old photos, eager to decipher old maps, poring over minutes from long forgotten meetings, probing people for their memories – audio recorder in hand… what motivates us to keep digging?

Last month, members of PHC gathered together with friends and colleagues for a ‘Heritage Meet’. It was an opportunity to explore the challenges and opportunities of working in community heritage. To find common ground and to find ways to collaborate and support one another.

We had a wide ranging and fruitful discussion thanks to everyone’s generous contributions. We discussed ‘lost projects’ – bodies of work from past projects disappearing; bringing work to parts of Birmingham which are overlooked in heritage work; how to explore challenging or contentious histories as well as some of the finer details of applying for funding and managing community heritage projects.

What pulled everything together was our driving ambition to explore the relevance of heritage to understanding and acting in our world today.

Matt Hinks and Richard Holmes from Big Brum Theatre spoke about their National Lottery Heritage Fund supported project, ‘The Threshold of Home: 1918’. It delves deep into the realities of working class life in Birmingham from 1914-19 and asks children to reflect on the impact of living through periods of social and political change – both for those on the frontline of change, and its resonance through the generations. It’s a child led project, using historical fiction as a stimulus for enquiry about what it means to be a citizen and a human. People’s Heritage Co-operative will be supporting the project through contributing research and co-delivering workshops.

Using maps, historical artefacts and imagined stories, ‘Worlds Apart Together’ draws on a range of sources to help children make sense of their world.

Joe Peacock from CASBA has been working with adults and children with a learning disability to explore the history of Special Education in Birmingham – and goodness don’t we need to hear those voices when SEND provision is being cut to the bone as a result of school funding cuts? Education is Special brings together current and former pupils at the schools to record their experiences of what it’s like to go to a special school, interviewing teachers and parents and highlighting changes in legislation.

Up until the end of the 1960s, if a child was assessed to have an IQ of under 50, their family could receive a devastating letter from the Local Education Authority. This would state that they were officially classified as ‘ineducable’, and had no entitlement to a state education.

Irene de Boos is working on the James Watt 2019 Bicentennial programme, ‘Watt in the World’. As well as highlighting his many achievements in the fields of Science and Engineering, the project also explores the legacy of his work and his thinking. You can head along to the project’s exhibition at the Library of Birmingham from now until 2nd November this year.

Irene is also co-ordinating activities during Birmingham Heritage Week which runs from 12th-22nd September. With the tagline ‘Your Stories. Your Heritage. Your City.’ it is less about being a spectator to History as giving people opportunities to connect with their own Heritage. Keep your eyes peeled for some events that we will be hosting ourselves!

Our colleague Moya Lloyd shared some of her experience on a variety of Arts and Heritage projects. She has been supporting our ‘Represent‘ project through observing sessions and helping us to evaluate our work.

We also heard from Josh Allen, a freelance Heritage practitioner, researcher and journalist, Rachel MacGregor, Chair of the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage and Paul Long from the Birmingham Centre for Cultural and Media Research, all of whom are involved in devising, developing and promoting community heritage projects.

What pulls all of this together is what Richard referred to as our desire to ‘create civic space’. Through exploring history we can create the space for important conversations which are informed by the past. It is a learning and reflective process and increasingly important given the extent to which public space and public discourse has become dominated by private and corporate interests. Sometimes it involves physically occupying and reclaiming a space for civic purposes, even if it is for a small period. Often it is about interrupting and challenging other discourse.

The fact that we hosted the event in The Warehouse was particularly apt. Last year PHC members were involved in helping to tell the story of the building through the ‘Birmingham Friends of the Earth, Then and Now: 40 Years at the Warehouse’ project. Developed by Friends of the Earth and other like-minded groups over the past 40 years as a space where people can come to debate, learn and act on important issues relating to environmental and social justice, it is in itself an important space for promoting civic space and discourse as we navigate the many challenges of our age.

We are eager to take these discussions forward – to look at creating opportunities for us to engage people meaningfully with the past and present, to find ways to collaborate and learn from one another and to negotiate the many challenges of making high quality projects happen.

So here is an invitation...

As we develop ideas for our next ‘Heritage Meet’, we want to know what would be useful in taking our networking forward. You may want more opportunities to learn about other projects locally; it could be practical support with applying for funding, managing or evaluating a project; a skillshare session or a chance to hear from someone whose work you are interested in. Or perhaps you have skills, approaches and ideas that you would like to share with others? How do we develop and nurture a community of practitioners and what support should be out there?

Please send through your ideas and reflections to rachel@peoplesheritagecoop.uk. We will be taking forward your ideas to create an itinerary for the next ‘Heritage Meet’ this coming Autumn.

To keep up to date with our plans and current projects, don’t forget to sign up to our occasional mailing list: http://peoplesheritagecoop.uk/join-our-mailing-list/.

Marching forward

The Winter Solstice has become a point in the year for me to reflect on my work and learning journey on this little blog. Before I switch off my laptop until January, here are a few musings. Grab a cuppa and enjoy!

My work this year has had an almost exclusive focus on local heritage. 2018 marked the Centenary of the Armistice and the passing of the Representation of the People Act, so there has been plenty happening to mark both.

In February I was part of organising a commemorative event with the People’s Heritage Co-operative, The Active Wellbeing Society and Birmingham City Council. The 1918 legislation extended the franchise to thousands of working class men – and for the first time a significant proportion of women. I was invited to ask a question (effectively making a statement) to a full meeting of Birmingham City Council. The significance of standing in the Council Chamber only a stone’s throw away from where my Great Grandmother lived in 1918 wasn’t lost on me.

Speaking from the Gallery of the Council Chamber on 6th February 2018, 100 years since the passing of the Representation of the People Act.

My Great Grandmother wasn’t able to vote in 1928. Like so many other working class women she wasn’t recognised as a citizen until 1928. She spent a significant part of her married life raising eight children in poor housing in Hockley. I’m adamant that we shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory as a society when it comes to social progress and so I’ve spent much of this year pulling together a project to ask what happened beyond 1918.

‘Represent’ has been granted £36,100 by the Heritage Lottery Fund and I’m very pleased to share that I will be working as the Project Manager over the next 18 months. We will be working to explore Birmingham’s politics in the period following WW1 and the passing of the Representation of the People Act. We’re focusing on activism in relation to women as activists and housing campaigns. I’m really privileged to be working alongside a fantastic team of researchers and historians and we’ll be recruiting new members of the team in the new year – if you are a designer, evaluator or artist then keep a lookout! You can read more over on the People’s Heritage Co-operative website where you can also sign up to our mailing list for occasional updates. We really don’t know what we will uncover in the archives at this stage, so it’s all very exciting!

Other heritage projects this year have included some Project Co-ordination and delivery of creative workshops with people experiencing dementia for Living Memory; creating a film for Birmingham Friends of the Earth to mark their 40th Anniversary using archive images and oral histories; an ongoing memories project with elders for The Lichfield Festival and work with pupils at Paganel Primary School for Fields of Remembrance to examine how WW1 impacted on their neighbourhood.

Exploring important journeys for The Lichfield Festival

I’ve been continuing my learning journey this year through attending a variety of ArtsConnectWM events and courses, including ‘Preparing for Work in Formal Education’ and the always inspiring Digital Pick and Mix event. I’ve also been exploring Podcasting with an online MOOC, considering curation with Friction Arts, learning about the ‘StoryLab’ work happening at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and getting involved in a new heritage focused Research Cluster at Birmingham City University.

A real highlight has been working with the absolutely wonderful team at Geese Theatre to bring creative film making into two different secure mental health hospitals. Geese marked their 30th Anniversary this year and the years of experience are really evident in their practice. I’ve learnt so much from Geese and from participants who have thrown themselves into projects. We’ve created some fantastic work which is now being enjoyed by participants and being used as a resource by staff throughout Elysium Healthcare.

A screenshot from ‘Let the Light Show’, produced with Geese Theatre.

In 2019 things will continue to take a dramatic turn with another film planned with Geese Theatre and some work with Big Brum Theatre.

Over the past month I have been working in role as a ‘Community Knowledge Officer’ for Balsall Heath, helping Balsall Heath Forum to create an online directory and events listing site to be used as a community resource by local organisations and residents. I’ve been getting lost in WordPress plugins, themes and widgets (quite a nice place to be!), but eventually it’s taking shape. I will be employed until April, liaising with local partners to develop the resource further. Do add any news, events or organisation details to the site if you have details to add – you can view the site at www.neighbourhoodnewsonline.com.

The Neighbourhood News Online site for Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook

I’ve ended the year on a real high. Last night I came together with my wonderful coworkers from The Transfer co-working space for a few pre-Christmas drinks. It’s a lovely community of people who support one another through the trials and tribulations of freelance work and remote working. The board of Trustees from the Old Print Works work so hard to make the space cosy and welcoming and I’m so grateful for the shared lunches and camaraderie.

I wanted to end this post with an image from the ‘March of the Women’ event that I documented a few weeks ago. Balsall Heath and Moseley Women’s Institute wanted to mark the Centenary of the first women casting their votes in a General Election. They came together to sing a song written by a Suffragette alongside a series of songs written by the group and by women migrants.

It was such an uplifting event and a reminder of the dynamism and optimism in my neighbourhood. When we lift one another up then fantastic things can happen. More of that in 2019 please – the world can’t get enough of it.

Enjoying the obstacle course

I’ve just read yet another article describing the hand-wringing over school leavers not being equipped with the skills or proficiencies needed to succeed in ‘the workplace’.  Meanwhile, as a parent and creative practitioner I’m surrounded by people who see play, experimentation and creative thinking as fundamental to creating rounded, happy children.  We point to the huge evidence base that play and creativity aid problem solving, encourage the brain to make links between different areas of learning and give important space for children to learn through making mistakes.  Kids become more resilient, discover new interests and take an interest in their own learning journeys.  Why are we making kids jump through hoops when they could enjoy the whole damn obstacle course?

Students from Swanshurst School documented their learning journey into treatment of war casualties using film.

It’s unfortunately unsurprising that the joys of arts, creativity and culture are slipping off the curriculum.  Just weeks into entering office in 2010, the Conservative / LibDem Coalition decided to trash the ‘Creative Partnerships’ programme which involved strategic, high quality arts and culture provision in schools.  Subsequent educational reforms have squeezed music, drama and art out of the curriculum at the same time as funding cuts have hammered schools’ ability to provide extra curricular activities.  With OFSTED inspections deciding the fate of schools and widespread pressure for local authority schools to transfer to academy status, staff can be forgiven for focusing on getting the ‘basics’ right at the expense of a more holistic school experience.  The result is a two tier system where only children from families with the resources and capacity to support creative activities outside of school come into contact with experiences which were commonplace a generation ago.

With this in mind, I’ve been considering how my own practice can develop to meet this challenge.  Work in schools has always formed a strong strand of my work – film lends itself so well to exploring narrative, unpicking topics in the curriculum, developing literacy and presentation skills and sharing ideas with others.  It also involves technical skills and teamwork which create new and often surprising new dynamics in the classroom.  ‘Help for Hedgehogs’, ‘Monoxide Mole’ and ‘Untold Stories: Birmingham’s Wounded Soldiers from WW1’ all involved pupils in using film to share ideas and information with a wider audience.  Moreover, we had a lot of fun in making them!

Key Stage 2 pupils learning technical film making skills in preparation for making their film ‘Help for Hedgehogs’

Last week I started the first step on ArtsConnectWM’s ‘Planning for Work with Formal Education’ course.  It aims to bridge the maddening divide between schools who want to develop a broader, more creative curriculum and the talented, passionate individuals and organisations who are champing at the bit to bring their work to children and young people.

We heard from Sarah Worth of Highly Sprung who have been doing some really interesting and innovative work to co-deliver key learning in schools through the medium of physical theatre.  I documented a similar project five years ago when DanceXchange and Dance 4 piloted ‘Discover Dance’ to explore how dance and movement could help enrich and embed learning.

Discover Dance from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.

Sarah discussed was how this type of work can continue in today’s climate.  Excitingly, Highly Sprung have been collaborating with academics to bring their research into schools.  So what a microbiologist in a university laboratory is viewing under a microscope can be enacted physically in a school hall.  They are also clear about the benefits of long term, strategic partnerships with schools.  It’s inspiring stuff.

My particular passion is for finding ways to bring local history into the classroom to develop pupils’ interest in their own heritage.  For me, knowing my own family’s story and understanding the development of the area where I live has helped me to feel grounded and settled in who I am and where I have made my home.  It also reminds me that people like me can have agency in shaping the world around me and make a difference.  It’s about citizenship, it’s about making connections with elders in our communities, it’s about standing on the shoulders of giants as we forge our paths.

I’ll be using this blog to share some of my ideas and reflections as I develop my strategy for working in schools.  I am keen to explore more collaborations with artists and arts organisations as I go.  There are a few things on the horizon which I hope to get my teeth stuck into, so come back to check in if you are interested!

In the meantime, do get in touch if you have experience of arts and cultural education in schools.  If you are a teacher then what are you currently engaged in?  What works well?  What isn’t working?  What is preventing you from doing what you would like to do?  For the creative practitioners amongst you, how have you ended up working in education?  What does high quality provision look like?  What are the factors influencing your ability to provide the kind of sessions you want to?  Who are you partnering with?  And how is work funded?  Are we dependent on NPOs with salaried employees and funded educational programmes to deliver school projects or are individual artists in a unique position to shape the agenda?

I’ll leave you with an inspiring short film which recently featured on the BBC.

Lucy’s Story

I was recently involved in delivering a film project with Geese Theatre at The Farndon Unit, a secure mental health unit for women.  It was fantastic to collaborate with Emma and Ruth, experienced practitioners with a real passion for and belief in transformative arts provision.  More to the point, they had a belief in the people they were working with and the experience and tools needed to help participants have a positive experience.  I’m incredibly proud of the finished film and the responses to it.

Over the four weeks of the project, the women took the lead in developing the story that they wanted to share, took on acting roles, got involved in audio recording and operating the camera and created an impressive film illustrating some of their own experiences on their journey towards recovery.  As a facilitator and film maker I learnt a lot, not only from working alongside Geese, but also the staff at Farndon and the women themselves. The group were so generous in sharing their stories, ideas and enthusiasm – even on days when they were finding it tough.

Their film and their experiences of the project were recently shared at Elysium Healthcare’s Service User conference.

I know that travelling to and standing up at a conference to discuss the project was a huge step for those members of the group who were able to travel to present the film.  I’m already looking forward to another project with Geese and another opportunity to learn from both practitioners and participants as I shape my own practice.

If you want to learn more about Geese Theatre’s work then I highly recommend the current exhibition at Mac Birmingham which documents and celebrates 30 years of their work.

Birmingham Heritage Week film screening

The ‘Birmingham Friends of the Earth at 40’ project culminates this weekend with events to coincide with the annual Birmingham Heritage Week.  As part of the celebrations, I will be screening my film ‘Birmingham Friends of the Earth: Then and Now – 40 Years at the Warehouse’.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth will be giving tours on 15th and 16th September of the newly refurbished Warehouse building, which they took lease of way back in 1977.  The building has seen many changes in that time, and it is apparent from our project that the walls hold many stories!

Some of the first activists to take up residence at The Warehouse.

You can delve into some of this history through coming along to view the film at 2:30pm on both days.  The film has been created using archive photos, old campaign literature and volunteer led oral history interviews.  It gives a fascinating insight into the evolution of the building – from paper recycling depot to a space for campaigns groups to meet, a home for a myriad of small businesses and now a modern and slick meeting space for thinkers, makers and doers involved in environmental issues.  As well as stories about BFoE’s work, there are also stories about the formation of Push Bikes cycling campaign and the Urban Wildlife Group, the forerunners of The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country.

Alongside the screening will be the launch of a beautiful booklet, designed by Shannon Lattin, which has been produced as part of the project.  It covers the story of the building from 1977 to the current day.  It is packed with interviews, photos and information about the many different elements of the work conducted in the building.  Do make sure that you grab a copy!

For more information go to the Birmingham Heritage Week website.

Planning, collaborating, telling stories

Planning, collaborating, telling stories.  All the stuff that I love.  Here’s a bit of an overview of what I’ve been up to so far this year.

I have spent part of this year working part time as a Project Co-ordinator on ‘Living Memory’, a two-year Heritage Lottery supported project that records and celebrates photography collections and life stories from across the Black Country.  It’s been an intense and rewarding role, delving into fascinating stories and stunning images from across the area, as well as making connections with community organisations and projects that I was completely unaware of before.  The project will hardly scrape the surface of the rich narratives there are to uncover, but you can get a flavour of what we have been doing on the project website (where you can also sign up to get occasional updates into your inbox) or by following us on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.  A personal favourite story of mine is John Shrimpton’s – whose efforts contributed to the formation of the Sandwell Valley as a nature reserve and protected it from development.

I’ve continued my longstanding relationship with the Lichfield Festival this year, developing their ‘Hear My Voice’ learning and participation programme, this time with elders across Walsall and Lichfield.  Textile Artist Liz Blades and I have been visiting Dementia Cafés, the weekly ‘Mind Matters’ session in Beechdale and drop ins for over 50s to develop our project on the theme of journeys.  I have been taken aback by how open people have been about discussing their memories – often they touch on personal traumas and tragedies and frequently these experiences have not been shared so candidly before.  Our task will now be to carry this work forward into the next phase.  The textile patchwork quilt which illustrates some of these memories will be on display at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre over the course of the Festival.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, work has continued on the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Heritage project.  A group of volunteers have been scouring through the archives housed at the Library of Birmingham and have unearthed some fascinating stuff about the 40 year history of The Warehouse, BFoE’s home since 1977.  A few weeks ago I trained up a team of volunteers in a morning to conduct oral history interviews with people who have a connection to the building and to BFoE’s work.  With 17 people to interview over the course of the afternoon it was a hectic day, but so many lovely anecdotes emerged and there was a really strong sense that these people were early pioneers and advocates of many of the actions that we see as positive and important today.  I’m in the process of knitting these stories together.  A short film and accompanying booklet will be ready for the Autumn.

Behind the scenes I’m still plotting and planning other projects, including ongoing collaborations as part of the People’s Heritage Co-operative.  Next week I’m embarking on a new project making a film in a setting for women with mental health needs.  I’m also going to be presenting Women’s History Birmingham‘s work to this year’s Community Archives and Heritage Group conference, which this year focuses on Conflict, Protest and Reconciliation.

Solstice reflections

Solstice Greetings! As this is my final day at work until January I wanted to mark the end of the year by thanking everyone I’ve worked with over the past year. I’ve fed off your enthusiasm, energy and expertise. You know who you are.
 
Projects have covered Hedgehog habitats, the Women’s Lib movement, environmental activism, testimonies of genocidal rape, pioneering dance performances, education for pre-schoolers, mapping stories of migration and performances by people with sensory impairments (what have I left off?). I’ve also been on a learning journey this year, exploring participatory arts and media practice, the creative heritage sector, workshop facilitation, Arts Leadership and exhibition curation.
 
Special mention must go to The Transfer and everyone who works here for providing me with a home for the past year (and plenty of very good lunches). Co-working rocks.
 
Looking forward to longer days, new growth and development as the sun sets on the shortest day, I’m currently planning some juicy (and alarmingly big) things for next year which I look forward to sharing. Let’s collaborate, learn together and make more exciting things happen in 2018.

Friends of the Earth – doing some digging

Intrigued by the pioneers of environmentalism in Brum? From the early days of environmental education, paper recycling, practical actions around sustainability and creative street actions, there is so much to explore and uncover through the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Heritage project that I’m currently involved with.

We are currently recruiting volunteers who want to be involved in exploring organisation’s history.

Volunteers are being given the opportunity to interview BFoE activists.  This Thursday I will be running a fun workshop to teach some of the basics of oral history interviews.  We will be using audio recorders and film to capture memories.  Again, no experience is needed – just a curiosity and enthusiasm for exploring the topic!  We are meeting on Thursday 23rd November, 2:00-4:40pm at Stirchley Baths.  E-mail Liz Palmer at heritage@birminghamfoe.org.uk if you would like to get involved.

Volunteers are also being invited to help us sift through the extensive BFoE archive.  The BFoE archive of photos, newsletters, leaflets and posters is kept at The Wolfson Centre in the Library of Birmingham.  It’s a real treasure trove and we’re eager to share it through this project!  There are sessions scheduled for:

  • Tuesday 21st Nov 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 28th Nov 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 5th Dec 4-6.30pm
  • Saturday 9th Dec 1-4.30pm
  • Tuesday 12th Dec 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 19th Dec 4-6.30pm

No previous experience of archival research is needed – just your enthusiasm!  Again, contact Liz Palmer if you would like to attend!