A Healthy Ecology of Culture?

‘How do leaders in the Arts achieve wider and deeper engagement with the Arts and Heritage?’

This was the question posed by Robert Hewison, author of the excellent book Cultural Capital, the Rise and Fall of Creative Britain’ at an Arts Connect WM seminar for Arts and Cultural sector leaders on 1st November.  It’s also a question that I’ve been grappling with on a personal level over the past few months, and something I alluded to in a blogpost back in June.

Hewison has superb insight and clarity into the shifts in cultural policy, in the increasing commodification of culture and need to justify its value in market terms.  His book charts the rise of the ‘Creative Industries’ and the notion that an army of freelancers and small scale creative businesses can drive innovation, tackle unemployment and regenerate whole swathes of post-industrial Britain.  As one such freelancer who is frequently told how much my colleagues and I contribute to the economy, I’m acutely aware how much guff is spouted in this regard.

Thankfully there seems to be plenty of work being done to redefine how we measure value in arts, heritage and culture.  I completed the University of Sunderland’s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Art and Media’ course over the Summer and the range of excellent case studies with serious research evidencing their impact was wonderful.  However, unless this work is taken seriously at a strategic level with adequate funding and supporting structures, the hours spent meticulously evidencing outcomes will be just one more instance of the sector fruitlessly justifying ourselves on other people’s terms.

We were also provided with some seemingly damning statistics, highlighting how increased Arts Council and National Lottery funding for the Arts has led to minimal impact on engagement amongst the wider public (admittedly using flawed methodology).  It was highlighted in the ensuing discussion on our table that it is important to bear in mind the wider context of ‘homegrown’ and commercial culture to get a truer picture.  My mind instantly turned to a key text from the Leadership course, John Holden’s ‘The Ecology of Culture’ which sees culture in a wider context than Arts Council policy, where different cultural sectors organically intersect and support each other.  Like a natural ecological system, it requires interdependence and sustenance of the many different elements.

The lecture highlighted three key threats to the sector, which really set the challenge for everyone in the room:

  • National Lottery funding decreasing
  • Educational policy narrowing
  • the wider Economy shrinking, with particular challenges at Local Authority Level.

So, how do we begin the answer the question posed to us?  In all honesty I fear for my future in the sector as a Freelancer.  Whilst welcoming additional funding coming into new and existing National Portfolio Organisations locally, I feel that freelance artists are frequently on the outside of the conversation, working precariously in a tough environment.  If we don’t ‘get the gig’ or have the time to invest in attending arts events it is hard to operate.  This is exacerbated for people with dependents, people with additional needs or people living in more isolated areas.  The idea of an ‘Ecology of Culture’ is something which makes sense to me – the need for stronger networks at all levels, with more people looking ‘sideways and below’ for support, instead of merely responding to challenges and opportunities coming from a policy level.

I’m not entirely sure what my ask is, I’m still making my first forays into thinking about this in more depth.  I’m probably being quite unfair in my analysis based on my current bugbears.  I could probably be more proactive, be more focused, take more risks myself.  However, here are some thoughts, which I appreciate are very focused on my own development:

  • In the Heritage sector there is so much dependence on Heritage Lottery Funding for individual projects.  It seems that there is little in the way of learning and development, particularly as so many projects are one-off, small scale activities by community groups who do not deliver heritage projects as a core activity.  As part of my work as Secretary of The People’s Heritage Co-operative I am interested in exploring how we can develop networks to increase our resilience.  Sharing experiences and skills, as well as making connections with other heritage practitioners will surely mean that we are spending less time competing for limited funds and more time pooling our skills as the funding pot decreases.  I’m particularly passionate about making the case for high quality and strategic heritage education with young people and I hope that Heritage Practitioners can feed into the development of the ‘Cultural Education Partnership’ locally.  Watch this space as plans develop.
  • National Portfolio Organisations could create ‘learning communities’ – spaces where artists can collaborate, play and respond to each other, without the pressure of responding to a commission.  Friction Arts’ ‘Artists on the Edge’ is a superb example of this.  It has created a family of artists from different disciplines who are now forging new paths, but who are also able to bring their skill and energies to supporting Friction Arts’ work.  It’s a reciprocal and sustainable model, which is of particular value to ‘post-emerging’ artists.
  • Arts organisations also need to find ways to welcome Artists through their doors – not just as consumers of culture, but as people with something to offer and share.  How can we initiate these conversations?
  • I really welcome the Arts Leadership course (Arts Connect WM are recruiting the next cohort now!) and I’ve taken plenty away which I’m not yet sure what to do with.  Perhaps my next step should be seeking a mentor?  But who and where?

Am I thinking along the right lines here?  Am I just using this as a sounding board to vent some frustrations?  I think that most artists CAN and WANT to achieve wider and deeper engagement.  Too often our engagement is fleeting, ‘hit and run’, working to another agenda.  I crave depth, collaboration and longer term relationships where I can use my artistic practice to work in a genuinely participatory and collaborative way.  Several projects are in the pipeline where I hope to address that.  In the meantime, let’s keep Hewison’s question in mind and try and develop a healthy cultural ‘ecology’…

Happy Birthday Moseley Road Baths!

A building very close to my heart, Moseley Road Baths, is 110 years old today!  It stands as a testament to the late 19th Century municipal vision of public buildings which could create spaces for self improvement, healthy living and community.  It also stands as a testament to a campaign of community action, lobbying and creativity, which has prevented the doors closing and the building becoming derelict.

When I moved to Birmingham in 2003, I worked on Reception for a few years whilst setting up as a freelance Film Maker. As a result of that, I was able to enjoy the beautiful architecture, swim regularly (sometimes with the pool to myself!) and meet so many people, many of whom are now friends.

When the building was nearing its Centenary year and threatened with closure, a handful of us came together and formed the Friends of Moseley Road Baths. Back then it seemed unlikely we could convince Birmingham City Council to keep it open. Today I went for a lunchtime swim to celebrate all that we have achieved.

In 2010 the Friends of Moseley Road Baths received funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a three year ‘Pool of Memories’ project. I was so lucky to interview people with memories of swimming, bathing, working and socialising in the building. Even better, I ran workshops in local schools where pupils were given opportunity to make their own oral history films. The work from that project can be viewed on the ‘Heritage’ page of the Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ website.

However, there is still so much work to be done. A Community Interest Company is hoping to take on the running of the building from April next year when the Council pull out, but funds are needed to help make that happen. So here are two asks:

Vote for the building for Aviva’s Community Fund (it takes a few minutes) and contribute to the Crowdfunder.

Here are just a handful of comments from supporters explaining why they feel the building is worth saving. I cut this together from interviews with regular Sunday morning swimmers.

For regular updates on the campaign, details of how to get involved and for news on events and activities, subscribe to the Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ mailing list.

Women’s History Birmingham

So many times when I interview people I hear ‘I’m not sure if this is of any interest but….’.  A lot of people, it seems, undervalue their contributions, or take for granted how important their experiences are for other people.  These tend to be the most interesting interviews.  They also mainly tend to be women.

Just as well then, that local historians Nikki Thorpe, Nicola Gauld and Sian Roberts created ‘Women’s History Birmingham‘ to promote and raise awareness of women’s history in Birmingham, and in particular women’s contributions to shaping the social, cultural and political landscape of Birmingham.  Subjects covered include the Women’s Liberation movement, policing, mental health, Fascist Spain, perceptions of single mothers, reproductive health, prostitution, sit-ins, and DIY culture to name just a handful of themes we’ve touched on!

The HLF funded project was inspired by a small pamphlet, ‘Birmingham Women: Past and Present‘, produced by Professor Catherine Hall for the Feminist Review journal in the early 1980s.  The pamphlet was the basis of a sponsored walk to raise funds for the journal, and featured information about key points of interest along the walk pertinent to prominent women in the city’s history.

Over three decades later, this work is now being developed further through collecting testimonies of women who lived and worked in Birmingham during the 1970s and 1980s.  These recorded memories are being added to online maps, to encourage people to undertake their own history walks.  You can view the maps, discover a whole host of stories, design your own heritage walk and contribute information by viewing the map on the Women’s History Birmingham website.  The edited films are also available to view over on my Vimeo page.

I have facilitated workshops at Perry Beeches II and Waverley School focused on teaching pupils key film making skills and oral history interview techniques, before giving pupils free rein to interview women for the project.  I have been completely taken aback by the maturity that pupils have shown for interviewees, and as a result, the honesty and frankness of those being interviewed.  The films, which I have been editing together, create an important archive, filling a huge gap in our understanding of how the ideas, actions and attitudes of women in the past shape the world around us today.

However, perhaps the greatest legacy of this project is in the changing attitudes of the young people involved in the project.  This quote from a pupils at Perry Beeches II perhaps sums up the impact best.

Thank you for sharing your stories and for making us aware and maybe helping us to see what we can do in the future.

For interviewees too, it has been a valued opportunity to reflect on their journeys and what sharing their experiences can mean to others.  Jasmine was very generous in sharing her memories:

The youngsters were keen to listen to my journey, through my life in education and work especially my work with children experiencing mental health problems. Their curiosity and questioning gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own life achievements, as a black women working in the health service.

The interview left me reflecting on my own life experiences and how important it is to share stories with the younger generation about some of my conflicts and challenges.

It left me hoping that the conversations with us may give them a model of overcoming some of their own challenges that they may come across in their female lives.

A few weeks ago we shared the project at the Women’s History Network Annual Conference and it was clear that there is a real appetite and enthusiasm for the project to develop further.  We will be developing ideas in the near future, but do get in touch with your thoughts and ideas if this has got you interested!

 

 

Why Oral Histories?

I recently tentatively wrote a little bit about some of my explorations into thinking a bit more about my role as a film maker or storyteller, about how I can develop my work to have more impact and about how I can collaborate with others who inspire me.

A superb opportunity for reflection and learning has been the University of Sunderland‘s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Arts and Media’ online course, developed in partnership with ArtsWorks Alliance and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.  It’s packed with really interesting case studies, as well as lots of opportunities to reflect on what the learning means in respect of my own work.  As part of the course, I have been asked to write a blogpost reflecting on an aspect of my own participatory practice and why I feel passionate about this.  So, here goes…


When I reflect on the most enjoyable and satisfying projects that I’ve worked on, they have consistently related to using oral histories and archives with young people.  I see participatory heritage projects as a starting point for participants to understand more about who they are, how they can connect to the world around them, how they fit into the wider picture and how change happens in society.

Pupils are turned off learning about people and places which are distant geographically, historically and in relation to their own lived experiences.  Yet when events from the past are presented in an exciting and relevant way, rather than a series of facts to be digested and regurgitated, really interesting things begin to happen.  When they play a role in taking ownership of the work then things get really exciting!

The Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ ‘Pool of Memories’ project was one such project.  It linked pupils’ experiences of swimming at their local swimming pool to the experiences of people who had swum, bathed or worked in the building in the past.  Through tours of the building, online research and oral history interviews, we created some very passionate champions for local swimming facilities!

Heritage Projects can also give space for young people to open up about their family’s personal stories.  Here is an old film created for The Lichfield Festival by a pupil about her Great Grandfather’s experiences of military service in North Africa in WWII.

In this film produced with the People’s Heritage Co-operative, students from Swanshurst School were involved in researching the experiences of wounded soldiers from WW1 in South Birmingham and interviewing War Veterans from other conflicts.  In their reflections on the project they highlighted why these kind of heritage projects are important:

‘You learn so much about where you live and what goes on that you feel responsible to continue this’.

‘I think that taking part in experiences like this can be even more informative than learning about it in lessons, because in this situation you’re learning more about actual people’s experiences’.

I am interested in developing this work further, so that workshop participants can come away with the skills and confidence needed to explore spaces, places and people around them independently.  Instead of one-off experiences, is it possible to create a culture of curiosity, where understanding events of the past is valued more than it is at present?

This will mean using archives and stories more creatively – ‘curating’ material in creative ways to develop narratives which have a resonance for others, beyond the initial participants.  How can the ‘responsibility’ that the student spoke about develop into action which impacts on people’s lives in the present day?  What kind of infrastructure is needed to support young people to take on this task?  What are the best examples of participatory, creative and empowering heritage work?  Do share your thoughts!

40 years of Birmingham Friends of the Earth

Birmingham Friends of the Earth are celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year. To help mark four decades of campaigns and action, I am working with local historian, Liz Palmer,​ on a Heritage Lottery Fund supported project.  It will involve working with activists, past and present, to explore memories and archives.

Back in April I attended the 40th Anniversary Party.  The fact that it was so well attended (see above!) really shows what an important role Birmingham Friends of the Earth, and The Warehouse, have played in people’s lives.  So much has been achieved, so many friendships formed and so much creative and committed work has been put into making positive and sustainable environmental change.

If you want to get involved with delving into archives or recording oral histories, there is an informal meet-up next Tuesday, 8th August at 6pm at The Warehouse on Allison Street. Or, if you would like to be kept in the loop with news and events, you can subscribe to the project newsletter for occasional updates.

Lichfield Travels

Where are you from?  Where have you been?  Where are you going?  These are all questions that I have been asking as part of a new commission for The Lichfield Festival.  As part of the Festival’s focus on journeys, we wanted to explore Lichfield’s connections to the wider world – and what better way to do that then through a gargantuan map!

Last Saturday, on Day 2 of the Festival, I took up residency for the day in the Festival’s pop-up shop, armed with the said map, a wad of colourful stickers and a bag of craft materials.  As well as a band of trusty Festival volunteers, I also had a Hare and Tortoise for company!  Using the map, I invited members of the public to mark out where they were from, where they have lived or worked, and one place (only one!) where they would like to go.  This sparked off some fantastic discussions, particularly between families.  Kids planned out holidays, their parents pointed out some far flung places they had visited, some visitors revealed ‘other lives’ spent as children overseas.

Alongside the map, we have been creating a ‘patchwork quilt’ of our collective journeys, ahead of Textile Artist Elizabeth Blades’ upcoming textile project (keep an eye on the Festival website or even better, join their mailing list for more details).  Using maps, stickers, crayons, pens and plenty of imagination, participants created their own ‘patch’, illustrating a journey which has been, or will be important to them.  Some have been fantastical (flying cars and trips to the moon), some have been fond memories (childhood holidays on the beach) and others have been possibly the first stage in planning an adventure (Manga fans wanting to visit Japan and children excited about going on an African Safari).

Come and view the quilt and the map so far and add your own journey this coming Saturday, 10-3pm at the Festival Shop, next door to Costa Coffee in Three Spires Shopping Centre.  If you can’t make it, maybe add your own journey to the conversation using the #lichfieldtravels hashtag.

Here is a quick timelapse that I put together of the day – if you were there, see if you can spot yourself!

Hedgehog Helpers are go!

Back in February I wrote about an exciting HEDGEHOG related project that I had in the pipeline.  Well, I’m thrilled to share the finished film – it’s going down a storm with the kids who made it, their classmates, teachers, parents and the super people who worked on the project.

Mr Griffin from St Albans RC School receives a hedgehog friend from Julia from the Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery.

The film is the culmination of a partnership between Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery, The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, Birmingham City Council Park Rangers and pupils from St Albans RC Primary School and Woodthorpe JI School to give ‘Help for Hedgehogs’!

The short film was made by pupils at both schools, and I gave hands on support along the way, as well as editing it all together. It is packed with information about how YOU can help encourage hedgehogs into your own garden and neighbourhood. Hedgehog numbers have declined dramatically in the past 50 years – unless communities take urgent action we may witness their terminal decline in our lifetime.

This project has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and took place between August 2016 and July 2017. 

Really enjoyed my child taking part in the hedgehog project.  It has made us all curious as a family to do our bit to help the hedgehogs, but also spread the word to others.  This project has built confidence and self esteem in the children, strengthened relationships for all involved, promoted curiosity in nature and started a very special journey for children, families, schools and their communities.  It is a joyous project that should be rolled out and continue to be funded to help many more.  Thank you.

Help for Hedgehogs

Some of my favourite projects are the ones which pull together lots of the things I love.  Last year I worked as a Community Engagement Officer for The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, and found myself in the lucky position of concocting one such project.

‘Help for Hedgehogs’ is a Heritage Lottery Fund funded project, focusing on Hedgehog habitats and activity in and around the beautiful Brandwood End Cemetery in South Birmingham.  The Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery have worked incredibly hard over the years to develop and celebrate the Cemetery, but wanted to focus on practical steps that they could take to support wildlife in the area.

The result is a project which involves conservation work such as creating bug hotels and hedgehog homes, alongside small mammal surveying, art and craft activities, informative talks, knowledge sharing, school workshops and, naturally, community film making.  Emma Sargent from The Wildlife Trust has been working alongside some of Birmingham’s Park Rangers to deliver some really exciting, hands on learning.


I have been working with pupils at two local schools – St Albans and Woodthorpe Primary – to document the project.  Starting from basic film-making workshops, the pupils then went on to film on location whilst their classmates built bug hotels and hedgehog homes.  It always astounds me the speed of the transition between kids nervously approaching a tripod to taking responsibility for directing a shoot!  Some members of the crew conducted interviews and presented to camera.

We hope that the final film will carry key messages around what people can do to encourage hedgehogs, a rapidly declining species, into their gardens.  The three key messages are:

  • Leave areas wild to create spaces for hedgehogs to hibernate
  • Encourage tasty bugs into your garden by leaving log piles or making bug hotels
  • Cut holes in fences to allow hedgehogs to travel safely between gardens – they travel around 2km per night!

To help The Wildlife Trust map out hedgehog activity there is now an online tool to report sitings.  I’m quite chuffed that my parents have recently been able to record a live siting in North Walsall!  Go to http://www.bbcwildlife.org.uk/hedgehogsighting and record any ‘hog siting’!

The film will be screened in early June – more details to follow nearer the time!

#keepswimmingmrb

Anyone who has read the blog for a while will know that I’ve spent a chunk of the past ten years championing Moseley Road Baths, a Grade II* listed Edwardian Swimming Pool in inner city Brum.  It’s a spectacular building, full of marble flooring, stained glass, original tilework, huge steel arches and wooden panelling.  It houses old ‘slipper baths’ for washing, which were used up until 2004 and closed during my brief stint working on Reception in the building.  It even has a steam heated drying rack, a remnant from its former days when the public laundry was a busy and important amenity for the local community.

But really those bits are incidental.  What really makes the space so alive and vital is the way it embraces the local community.  It’s not just somewhere to swim, it’s a real community hub.  Many swimmers have been coming for decades.

The Friends of Moseley Road Baths wanted to capture this, so asked me to make a film as part of their ongoing collaboration with the World Monuments Fund, since Moseley Road Baths was listed on their 2016 Watch List.  The resulting film was used to kickstart a month long social media campaign to show some love for the building before the scheduled closure in Summer 2017.

If you need that again, here’s the deal…

  • Share online through words or images why you want to swim at Moseley Road Baths
  • Use #keepswimmingmrb – and #moseleyroadbaths if you can too!
  • Share the posts that are being put up by the Friends of Moseley Road Baths and spread the love!
Moseley Yoga want to #keepswimmingmrb

To see the results, head over to the group’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages.  And don’t forget to contribute and share!

Untold Stories: sharing stories across the generations

This blogpost also appears on the People’s Heritage Co-operative website.

As part of The People’s Heritage Co-operative’s HLF funded project, ‘Untold Stories: Birmingham’s Wounded Soldiers from WW1’, Year 8 pupils at Swanshurst School took part in a series of workshops with Rachel Gillies – Community Film Maker to learn how to conduct filmed oral history interviews.

The result of their hard work is 11 remarkable interviews with a range of people discussing their own experiences and the experiences of relatives in some of the major conflicts of the 20th Century.  From shelling in the trenches of The Somme to the shelling of Hartlepool, patrolling the Suez Canal to holding the line in Korea, back to the UK to the aftermath of conflict in people’s daily lives, including the reality of medical care, the interviews are eye-opening and frank.

Students took on a massive responsibility in helping interviewees share their often harrowing experiences.  Special thanks must go to staff at Swanshurst School and to former teacher, Doug Smith, who facilitated the project and who organises the school’s annual ‘Veteran’s Day’.  Thanks also to Veterans, School Staff and Lt Col. Steve Jeffery who were so forthcoming and generous in their interviews.

The quality of these interviews really does speak volumes about the maturity and sensitivity of pupils who were only born in the 21st Century.  They are ensuring the the lessons from previous generations are passed on.  And in a world that feels in a state of flux, what could be more important than that?