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.

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!

 

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.