“The Estate of the Future?” Woodberry Down, Hackney and why heritage matters

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Hackney and what was once deemed “the estate of the future”, now termed a “regeneration estate”, Woodberry Down.

Woodberry Down’s 20-year regeneration programme is one of London’s biggest, delivered in partnership with the Woodberry Down Community Organisation (WDCO) resident steering group, Berkeley Homes, and Genesis Housing Association. Critics highlight the cost of flats in Woodberry Park (3 beds for £800,000!) and high levels of foreign investment, describing the project as “state-sponsored gentrification”.  Some residents find themselves between a rock and a hard place – regeneration they don’t want or deterioration of their existing buildings.

I meet with Simon Slater, part community-activist, part capacity-builder. Simon is based in Woodberry Down and  has lived or worked in the housing sector in Hackney for over 30 years. He tells me how, in its early years, the Estate was a showpiece. Proclaimed as the ‘Estate of the Future’ by one newspaper and much visited by dignitaries and housing professionals, it was heralded as a model of community development. A strong community infrastructure was always at the heart of the plans, including a park, health centre (a model for the new NHS) opened by Nye Bevan in 1952 and Woodberry Down School, the first purpose-built comprehensive in the country,  opened in 1955.

The HLF-funded The People’s Story of Woodberry Down Project tells the multitude of stories that trace the estate from its post-war beginning to the present through the voices of its residents.

Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney, currently one of the most socially and economically deprived areas in England is undergoing the largest housing regeneration in the UK.  All existing 2000 flats will be demolished; some have already been replaced by a mixture of social and private housing. The upcoming years will bear witness to a dramatic change in the physical and social composition of the area. Using oral history methodology and archives research, our project will record the history of our community before it becomes unrecognisable.

Simon tells me about the power and importance of intangible heritage for community building.  Its not all positive stories.  It highlights the struggle, protests and determination of local residents at the sharp-end of low investment, social change and mixed development (not least the story of how residents fought over decades to save the reservoirs).

Woodberry Down Community Organisation and Eastside Community Heritage

The events, memory shop and exhibitions excavated and celebrated the memories and actions of local people.  They are collated into a book which is gifted to each new resident.  I love the idea of a memory shop and how it speaks to people’s everyday concerns.  Stories like these should be heard, shared, even form part of everyday conversation.  Alongside work like Tom Hunter’s film A Palace for Us, they look beyond headlines and add complexity to our understanding.  It’s what heritage does. One thing is certain, this area has started to and will continue to change beyond all recognition over the coming years

Simon and I wander around the estate (old and emerging) and then to nearby Woodberry Wetlands, the London Wildlife Trust (and HLF-supported) nature reserve of 11 hectares of reed-fringed ponds and dykes.  It’s a striking contrast – with nature and city cheek-by-jowl, as too stark inequalities in wealth and housing.  It’s quiet today (Tuesday afternoon), with mostly young families and joggers. The Wetlands feels otherworldly, a retreat and escape from the everyday.  Its an invaluable local resource but I can’t help wonder, how many people from the old estate visit, from across the other side of Seven Sisters Road?

At the edge of the reeds, with birds nesting and warbling, Simon and I walk and talk  about how funders might support communities to catalyse new activity and the changes they want to see.  He tells me how, in his work, it has been critical to support people’s ideas and develop relationships locally.  “The focus should be hyper-local, at block or street level.  Start small, build belief and capacity”.  Agreed, this is exactly how our most impactful work in Manchester has developed and it can’t be rushed.

We talk about whether investment should be in places or people and quickly decide this is the wrong question.  Simon believes there has to be greater investment in community activism and activists and we chat about how funding that directly supports heritage activism might work in practice.  He reflects on past examples; from the Settlement movement to the now defunct Scarman Trust and present-day Resident Association levy system. We ponder what a 21st century Settlement movement might look like?  And does the growing shift towards place and asset-based funding have real potential to support and galvanise those at the forefront, leading change?  To do this, funders will have to work very differently;  with greater local knowledge, collaboration and shared commitment. But are they ready to make this change?

As we walk back to Seven Sisters Road, he leaves me with the story of Robin Redmond, a much-loved local policeman who left the force to focus more on community development and whose energy and resolve instigated the centre that bears his name.  We pass what was once an old 1950’s disused and dilapidated branch library, now transformed into a Community Resource Centre and Library, home to Manor House Development Trust.   Social events, meetings, creche, exhibitions and performance events, computer training, homework club and much more besides coexist here. Robin sadly died before the project was completed but his work lives on.

My visit here has been enlightening, not least to hear Simon articulate why heritage matters. For him, it is, simply, the “mortar between the blocks”.  The memories,  histories, rituals and sites are what bring people together.  They remind communities of who they are, the values they share and the future they might collectively build, or as the book Woodberry Down:The People’s Story summarises;

The people of Woodberry Down have a history they can be proud of, the present and future generations could do a lot worse than follow in their predecessor’s footsteps.







Lessons from the European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk


On a cold bright morning I wander through the handsome city streets of Gdansk towards the former shipyard now home to the European Solidarity Centre.  This has been top of my must-visit museums since hearing about it at the European Museum of the Year awards last year. At that event (my own museum, the Whitworth, was specially commended) we met with and heard from 49 other European museums who shared their extraordinary collections, buildings and work. Two of the winners stood out for their commitment to social justice and impact. The first, POLIN (Museum of the History of the Jews, Warsaw) won the overall prize. I have yet to visit but look forward to going. The second, the European Solidarity Centre, won the Council of Europe prize;

It’s a fascinating example of a cultural institution working to promote freedom and solidarity. The events it recounts and its programme make it a forum for modern Europe. It succeeds in making the history of the trade union Solidarnösc a powerful and moving source of inspiration for civic engagement and action.

One of the judges Jette Sandahl, suggested that with my interest in museums, civic purpose and the growing trend for activism in the sector, I really should visit Gdansk. So, here I am (a day after Teresa May announced her intention to hold a general election in expectation of securing her Conservative vision for Brexit) at the heart of an institution created for and devoted to solidarity across Europe. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Its not like any other cultural institution I know. A mix of museum, archive, library and Trade Union HQ (Lech Walesa still has an office on one of the floors).  The Centre was established in 2007 and its new building opened in 2014 on the anniversary of the August Accords signed in Gdansk between the workers union “Solidarnosc” and communist authorities in 1980. The Centre promotes itself as an agora – a space for people and ideas that build and develop a civic society, a meeting place for people who hold the world’s future dear.

Its mission is to commemorate, maintain and popularise the heritage and message of the Solidarity movement and the anti-democratic opposition in Poland and throughout the world. It seeks to inspire new cultural, civic, trade union, local government, national and European initiatives with a universal dimension.

The exhibitions, archives, media library, research and national heritage department (social historians) focus on telling the story of this site and the solidarity movement. Its a compelling story that unfolds across a series of seven distinct spaces or exhibitions. Design and artist-led installations are carefully and sparingly integrated, not least the first room your enter with its ceiling full of shipyard worker’s helmets, a visual reminder of the people power behind this story.

It’s all about the narrative, which is both fascinating and complex. Visual propaganda is at the heart of the story and, throughout, photography and film is used to powerful effect.

Space is also made for more intimate encounters with objects and one of the real successes of the displays is in striking this balance between the personal and universal. This approach also underpins one of the most effective and moving “feedback mechanisms” I’ve ever seen in a museum, with thousands of small comments cards completed by visitors, together spelling out ‘solidarnosc’. As Adam, one of the archivists reminds me, the majority of Gdansk citizens participated in this movement, this is their common and recent heritage (at the height of its powers, Solidarnosc had over 9 million members).

Alongside the permanent displays, there are spaces for “the adventure of ideas” aka temporary exhibitions and events. A Play Department works with young children, exploring solidarity in play; developing co-operation, building confidence and small communities. I love this and I’d suggest a Play Department with these aspirations is relevant to more than just the very young.

Another space on one of the floors is dedicated to ‘everyday solidarity’, a free space for local NGOs to work on developing this idea with the Centre. This openness to new ideas and organisations shapes how the Centre work with others (offering rent-free space, profiling their activities and seed-funding their projects) over the longer term. Unlike some accelerator or incubator models, this seems a more collaborative approach supporting the development of grassroots activity and activism as part of their wider work to build civic society.

It prompts me to think about how, in spite of strong and long-term partnerships, we rarely witness this level of civic integration in UK museums. Is it always lack of space, capacity or funding that stops us from doing this more often; inviting others to join us, be based within our walls (and for more than a few days or weeks)? Can and should we be more than a platform for others ideas and work? If museums were to open up more and we dedicated time and space to working with other organisations which share our vision and mission, how might it change and shape our work and impact? What might we learn? Would we be more relevant? What would we have to stop doing to enable this and would it be worth it?

I meet up with Magdalena Fryze-Seroka and Anna Fedas, both from the Civic Department (a team that combines the energy and grassroots activity of solidarity with cultural programmes) to find out more about their other work. They tell me about the Solidarity Academy (now in its 12th Edition), a programme for young journalists across Europe. 16 participants attend a week-long intensive training and leadership camp with professional development and support over the following months. Last year, one group combined forces to organise a campaign #Make facts great again.16422423_1771492876505543_6003281757586229280_o

They aimed to tackle fact-free public debates, fake news and media illiteracy. Supported by the European Solidarity Centre, they have produced take-away coffee cups and sleeves throughout the Baltic States, displaying absurd “facts”. It’s intended as a wake up call to critical thinking. The accompanying Facebook page sharing articles and tips that help people evaluate the contents of their social media feeds is well worth a look. Older journalists participate in a parallel Europe with a View to the Future programme, the Ambassador for New Europe book prize and contribute to the bi-monthly publication New Eastern Europe (a collaboration between The City of Gdansk, ECS and the College of Eastern Europe). The Civic Department also run several exchange programmes across the Baltic States for volunteers and cultural practitioners.

Locally, the team coordinate the All about Freedom Film Festival (now in its 10th year), a wide range of ‘immigrant support and civic practice programmes’ for all ages, which include language skills, fundraising and volunteering for newly arrived people. Every year, they lead Understanding August, a distributed co-production programme across the city, working with community and civic leaders to remember and celebrate the creation of Solidarnosc, a key historic moment. Picnics, games, oral histories, exhibitions and events will take place across districts. This year they will culminate in an ambitious Arts Festival (developed in partnership with other arts organisation in the city), headlined by the Expat Philharmonic Orchestra.

One of the things that strikes me is how, across their programmes, they seed-fund and financially support the good ideas and activities which emerge from participants. They tell me this isn’t a huge financial commitment but makes a real difference and for the longer term. It forms part of their funding agreement.   In the UK, as arts organisations’ are increasingly committed to and actively involved in building capacity (not just delivering a service), will funders support and develop this way of working more?

The complex governance of the European Solidarity Centre (central government, local government, trade union and NGO) might save them from the fate of the newly opened nearby Museum of the Second World War. Whereas many state-run institutions in Poland have had to change their programmes, activities and displays to align with and meet the demands of the populist government, the range of stakeholders involved in decision-making processes make any shifts of political direction and programme difficult and time-consuming. This, staff hope, will help them maintain their current position and approach.

We talk about the other challenges they face. I ask them what’s not working. They laugh. “We’re very open so we have many failures”. They tell me about how they engage an intellectual elite but still have much work to do to be relevant to the lives of a wider range of Gdansk citizens. (I experience this myself at an evening event exploring art, action and rural communities, attended only by a small number of committed researchers, artists and activitists). We talk about an increasingly divisive future (not least the rise of populism) and what “European solidarity” means today. They and colleagues from the National Heritage Department tell me of their desire to work more collaboratively internally; “People don’t know how to work together. Even in this building, of all places, there could be more cooperation between different departments”. Many of these challenges are familiar and shared by other forward-facing cultural institutions. But I believe there is much to learn from the European Solidarity Centre, not least their clarity of vision and purpose.

I’ve highlighted just some of the work that most inspires me. I think Jette Sandahl and the European Museum of the Year judges were right – if you’re interested in museums, activism and social change, you should really visit Gdansk.



The State of Parks: Learning from Lordship Rec

Earlier this week, on a fresh sunny early April morning, I wait outside Turnpike Lane tube station for Dave Morris, Chair and London and South East representative of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces (the umbrella organisation for the UKs 6,000+ local Friends of Parks groups).  I’m on his patch and have come to visit and find out more about his local park Lordship Rec.  Wandering down the residential streets towards the park, Dave picks rubbish out of hedges as we go.  “Can’t stand it.  No excuse“. Yep, too true, I agreed.  As we walk and litter-collect, Dave starts to tell me the story of community engagement, empowerment and ambition that is the story of this park over the last decade. The vision for this Haringey recreation ground as he now articulates it, was disarmingly simple; to achieve more for everyone, shaped by local people.  This means more wildlife, more recognition of historic features, more play areas, more paths and signposting and more amenities.

Back in 2010 £3.8 million was awarded to Lordship Rec as part of HLF and Big Lottery’s Parks for People Scheme.  Haringey Council contributed over £3 million in capital and running costs and additional funds have been obtained from the Environment Agency and Greater London Authority. Last year almost 900,000 people visited the park, three times higher than a decade ago.

The 23-hectare park, known by locals as ‘The Rec’, was opened in 1932 and is one of the few open spaces serving a densely populated inner urban area that includes the adjacent Broadwater Farm Estate.  It is a much used and locally loved park, with the busiest Green Gym I think I’ve ever seen.  It has some unique and distinctive features, not least the first ever Model Traffic Area (Pathé 1938 newsreel here),  a pioneering education facility now restored.

I think it’s worth retelling the story of how the park has evolved over the last 15 years.

Like many urban parks, the 80s and 90s were decades of decline and under-investment. In the mid 2000s, Haringey Council tried to persuade the Friends of Lordship Rec that the park would benefit from a makeover from a company seeking to offload several tons of subsoil from the new Wembley Stadium construction site.  They could, so the thinking and vision of the powers-that-be went, re-landscape half the park instantly and renovate all the paths, at limited cost.  What a gift!?  The Friends group considered this carefully but in the end  decided to fight this tooth and nail.  They weren’t ready, it was still early days for them as a group and local force.  They didn’t know what the vision for the future should be yet.  So they said no, very firmly.  To the Council’s credit, they stepped back and the subsoil went elsewhere.  The Friends regrouped and they and the council committed to ‘follow the vision, not the money’.

They worked hard to imagine the future of their park.  The Friends of Lordship Rec, like voluntary organisations and resident associations across the land, are formed from an alliance of the willing; committed people, not least Dave Morris, who give their time and expertise to matters they most care about. They worked closely with other user groups and the Council, reviewed the management of the park, sat on the project and design Board and co-developed the Parks for People bid.

In the last three years, the Friends membership has increased from 300 to 1400 members (though, as Dave puts it, that doesn’t necessarily mean more people at meetings or higher turnout in poor weather!)  The park’s Hub cafe and community centre, is a base for a wide range of independent community groups, including 20 dedicated park user groups for all interests; wildlife, walking, cycling, performing arts, football etc. Dave speaks of a co-mangement principle, where council and Friends groups work together and community participation is central to every area of park life and decision making.   I encountered this, in spades, during my visit. Community involvement has shaped the whole park; from local organisation Rockstone Alley’s cycling workshop beside the bike track and the crowd-funded Roof Terrace and wildlife planting at the Hub to the moving memorial to local residents (who died in the tragic bombing of Downhills Shelter during the Blitz in WW2) and the Herculean work to uncover the ‘forgotten’ and culverted River Moselle so local people will be aware of the river’s history and its role as an important local watercourse.

Dave had told me that they had always wanted Lordship Rec to show what could be possible. For him, community involvement should be a key driver for demand for investment and Green Flag should be the standard across the board, throughout the UK.  I completely agree, our aspirations should be sky-high.  He spoke about empowering communities and how important it is for the Friends group to be strong and full of initiative;  “Engagement is fine, it’s a start.  But empowerment, that’s the thing”  None of it would have happened, you see, without people power.

But people power alone is not enough.  Dave is uncompromising in his stance that parks should be a statutory service.  For him, this is clearly political and parks are a physical reminder of the big issues of today.

“Those seeking alternatives to a statutory duty have recognised there’s no silver bullet available  in fact there’s not even a wooden bullet.  Recent governments have been causing the current under-funding crisis and park lovers need to put a rocket under the government.  They big up the Lottery funding but this is just taxation in reverse, with the poor punters being used to subsidise the government and its tax cuts for the rich.  The recommendations in the recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report do not go far enough.  Yes, the report set out the situation and challenges well, but, for me, its recommendations ran pitifully short of what is needed. Parks should simply be recognised as a statutory service and be backed by adequate public funding.  There are ways to find the money.  Its about political will.”

We talk about innovation in parks, not least the significant leadership role HLF has had in this field, including Rethinking Parks. He is at pains to point out that he is not anti-innovation.  He makes a compelling case for the unique contribution and place parks have in our national psyche and there is much we agree on.  However, parks are, he believes, in danger of being driven by different agendas.  Whilst he believes that money earmarked for statutory services including health, flood control, transport crime prevention and climate change mitigation should logically go into parks as well, he believes it is vital that our struggling Local Authority Parks services should be properly funded and in control of the budgets and decision-making.   So we talk about how you can’t compare parks with their incredible range of benefits, to any other service.  He observes that generally only Friends groups and parks staff care for them on their own terms, have an agenda which is 100% park and that is what they need.  Of course, whether we live in an age where what we need is still achievable is another matter.   It reminds me of past conversations with Ken Shone, who was for a long time Chair of the Friends of Whitworth Park.  Very sadly, Ken recently died, but his love, ambition and tenacity for his park in Moss Side, live on.


Parks are highly contested spaces.  I’ve become increasingly interested in them over the last decade, leading park-based programming, festivals and partnerships and originating an alternative approach to engaging communities – The Cultural Park Keeper at the Whitworth.  I’m currently working with AHRC’s research programme Understanding Everyday Participation to consider future-thinking for cultural organisations aligned to parks and green spaces.   They are the most democratic (and maybe even the most creative) public space I know.  It’s why I love them.

Alongside many others, Dave and the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces campaigned long and hard for a national enquiry into public parks. He has high hopes that the enquiry has helped mobilise the sector and that the various key green space organisations and the new UK Parks Alliance will champion green spaces together.   I really hope he is right.  Time will tell.  Until then, I owe Dave Morris and Lordship Rec a debt of thanks.  I leave with a renewed ambition to play my part in securing a future in which our green spaces offer more (for everyone), are better supported and their beauty, creativity and care is fully valued.  Its the least we all deserve.

Ageing, activism and arts

Activism (taking action to effect social change) comes in many forms.


Frustrated by the lack of action, this group of older Mancunians from Levenshulme highlight trip hazards and other problems that might cause older generations mobility problems. Linked to Manchester’s Age Friendly team, they form part of a wider movement of older people committed to making sure their city is a great place to grow older. You can read more of their stories here,  Living in Manchester: Our Age friendly city

Ive written elsewhere about the social impact of arts and ageing, including reflections from visits to Japan and Hong Kong.  There’s much to learn from overseas but its work locally that gets me really excited.  Manchester has over 150 volunteer Culture Champions, advocating for and shaping the culture of their city.   They are currently developing and programming Punk Panels, cultural takeovers or hijacks, community-based events and their must-listen radio show (Vintage FM at AllFM) has become an important space where they seek to tell a different story about ageing and be heard.


One of my first ever conversations with a Culture Champion several years ago sticks in my mind.  At a “Valuing Older People” meeting I asked the lady sat next to me, “what do you want from culture and cultural organisations in your city?”  The response was “More for my generation. I mean I’m far more club night than tea dance“.  Brilliant and quite right too, my well-worn assumptions rightly overturned.  In fact, the MyGeneration Clubnight (for over 50s) has been running in the city for several years.   After all, this is Manchester.

For 6 months until February, I was on secondment to the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub as  part of its plans for public service reform and devolution.  Alongside leads for housing, transport, health and social care, research, urban planning and older people themselves, we worked and continue to work together with a shared ambition to make our city-region a great place to grow older.  Its the most collaborative work I’ve done across sectors and I’ve observed an ever-growing consensus to effectively rewrite the story of old age (from a narrative of loss or deficit to one of aspiration and growth).  But there’s a problem.   No-one is sure how to do this and whilst we figure it out, the stereotypes persist (including my least favourite, below).





So, enough already.  Its time to show, not tell.  This is where the arts really come into their own.  Last month, alongside Vintage FM live broadcasts, we bought together over 250 partners, practitioners, policy makers and older people to launch the GM Ageing Hub.  This report shares what we’ve learnt and our big ambitions and aspirations for age friendly culture and change.

Age Friendly Culture Flyer - Artwork

We’re asking how can we draw upon the lived experience of older people and some of the most creative, imaginative writers, artists and performers living and working today? How can we show and tell a different story, support action and mobilise change?

Slowly, perhaps, the tide in the cultural sector is starting to turn.  There are already brilliant organisations leading change, including entelechyarts, Luminate festival and West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Baring Foundation has over several years now, imaginatively and consistently supported arts and ageing.  But finally, its going mainstream.  Arts Council recently announced the successful projects to its Celebrating Age fund and earlier this month, the Turner Prize confirmed that it had changed its rules to allow artists of any age to be eligible to apply  (previously you had to be under 50).  About time.  Its a start, a recognition from the arts sector that ’emergence’ and creativity occur and should be supported throughout our lives (some of our greatest artists are producing their most powerful work in later life).  But there’s still a long way to go.

Final thoughts go to John Hyatt.  I met John for the first time last year when I chaired a session at the Whitworth about ‘the emerging artist’ with Whitworth Young Contemporaries (under 25s) and older artists, including John (artist, musician, professor and one third of the infamous 1980’s post-punk band, The Three Johns).  He showed a  film of his band performing back in 1980s cut seamlessly (like travelling through time) with film of them performing today.  If they were good then, they’re great now.  Reflecting on ageing and experience, he suggests we’ve been caught up and bound by the words of the past.  If we want to shift the narrative, we probably have to use new words. So lets not speak of the old, elderly or aged but instead lets talk of the deeply experienced, the later lifers and the enriched.











People power and heritage in “English Chicago”

My secondment to the Heritage Lottery Fund is taking the form of me leading an inquiry, as part of HLF’s Strategic Team, to explore how they might change their funding approach to support communities to catalyse new heritage activity. Right up my street, of real interest to HLF and suitably strategic forward-facing stuff. So, through a range of encounters (including interviews and “walking conversations”) I’m drawing upon multiple perspectives from a wide range of people, including existing grantees, community change-makers and leaders, practitioners, researchers and funders.   This will not be an exhaustive study and I’m no consultant. Instead, drawing upon my experience, a range of networks and practice, I’ll seek to identify issues, new opportunities, models and challenges to working differently with communities and heritage. I have a licence to do things differently and hope to bring forward other ideas and perspectives, including from beyond the arts and heritage sector.

I’ll be sharing much of my thinking, conversations and ideas in this blog.  As part of this inquiry, I wanted to work directly with a town or area with rich heritage assets, strong community infrastructure but to date limited investment in heritage activity.  I wanted to start to get to know a place and its people, to understand issues on the ground, where it matters most. Barrow-in-Furness (often called just Barrow) is just that place, situated at the tip of the Furness peninsula on the north-western edge of Morecambe Bay, about 20 minutes drive from the Lake District. It ranks amongst the top 10% deprived areas in England according to the datasets produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government.


The RSA and HLF Heritage Index gives Barrow especially high scores relating to nationally important landscape and natural heritage assets and industrial heritage assets, and overall ranks the town amongst England’s top 6% places (and top 1% for its landscape and natural heritage). Yet it has had amongst the lowest levels of HLF investment and is a priority area for the North West region.

Date: Tuesday 28 March

So, having been working at the wonderful Grizedale Forest the day before,  I left the Lakes behind and headed out west on A590, seemingly to the back of beyond. Eventually, industrial units, housing estates and in the distance a series of looming box-shaped buildings appeared. Known locally as ‘Maggies Farm”, these BAE shipyard structures dominate the skyline and town.

Today was all about starting to meet some of the people, community leaders and changemakers in Barrow – “Barrovians” as I now know to call them. The glorious nature reserves, wild landscape, beaches, ancient monuments and museums would have to wait.   I headed to the imposing Town Hall to meet Councillor Helen Wall. Helen spent her first career working for Barrow’s paper North West Evening Mail and is local born-and-bred. Her love of and ambition for her hometown was infectious. She’d offered to take me on a mystery tour, to uncover the spirit of the town and share the Barrow she cared most about.

Inside the Town Hall, hued from local stone and grand civic aspiration, she told me about Barrow’s history; the four Victorians who built up the town, how within 40 years Barrow went from being a small village on a remote headland to a large industrial town with railway, docks, iron/steelworks and a thriving shipyard. By 1870 it was the largest ironworks in the world and had earned the nickname “the English Chicago.” But its success was inextricably linked to the fortunes of its shipyard, “from boom to deprivation – from an influx of 1000s of workers to lost contracts and uncertain futures, its always been like this”

I heard about the town’s sporting prowess; its love of rugby and football (footballer Emelyn Hughes was born here and then there are the Bluebirds, Barrow AFC, local football team) and that it once produced many world-class table tennis stars (one of Helen’s council colleagues was an ex-member of the national team). And who knew it had one of the UKs leading roller derby teams?  The town has long been a strong supporter of the arts. Arts organisations ArtGene, Signal Films, Dare Dance and Octopus Collective all call the town home. Yet with real sadness, Helen spoke of how, as the cuts deepen, they’ve recently made the difficult decision to outsource the Forum Theatre. Its too early to tell exactly what this will mean but she’s under no illusion this is a huge loss.  This is a council hit harder than many, “deeply bruised” by the severity of the cuts, calculated at 47% over the last 4 years.

What this also means though, suggested Helen, is that the town has developed a sort of “Grow your own” attitude and it’s this we sought.  First stop, Women Community Matters (http://www.womenscommunitymatters.org) an independent community-based charity offering support to vulnerable women. Centre Manager Rebecca sums up their approach, “services delivered with care, kindness, compassion and love”.   One of their clients, in a recent peer-led evaluation, summed it up in yet more poetic terms, “We build on love, on faith, on meeting of minds, A bundle of hope, creativity and rhymes”.  Sounds good to me.

Next a similar approach at LOVE Barrow Families, designed to help improve how health and social care services work together to achieve the best outcomes for complex needs of vulnerable families. Or put more simply, “we give families a chance to stay together and grow”. Both of these community-based organisations (and there are many others locally) spoke about how important a sense of heritage and identity was for their clients and the town and how engaging with heritage could encourage care, kindness, compassion and love. They both had ideas about how communities could and should lead and develop this.  This is what Helen had wanted me to see, what she cares most about and I’m inspired by their collective energy, commitment and vision.  But they’ve never applied for HLF funding. Something is not working at the moment. So I asked, if you ran HLF, what would you do differently?

The processes are so complex and time-consuming. Sometimes I feel we have to promise the earth, but we can’t deliver the earth and that stops me feeling we should apply. You can feel like you’re sending an application into outer space.   There’s a real need to close the gap between groundworkers and funders. Lets find a way to do this.

How do we navigate the different funding streams and providers, it could be a full time job. Imagine if we could put in one application for one brilliant project and then seek the right funder (not the other way round)?

And what if I don’t want to reinvent the wheel? Surely, we should keep supporting the things that work? Why not support us for 10 years or the lifetime of a child so we can make a sustained difference?

They raise critical and often-discussed issues about local knowledge, transparency, longevity and relationship building, relevant to many funders. They explained that many of their clients feel a lot of doors have closed for them, they are excluded from opportunities. The way to approach this is to develop work with an ethos of “nothing about us, without us” and seek to open those doors together.

What would it look like if funders took a similar approach? Is this possible? Their investment may increasingly be place-based, but few are being place-led, as articulated so powerfully in Maria Adebowale-Schwartze’s book the place making factor   How might a funder like HLF work collaboratively for the long-term with communities, other organisations and funders to understand a place, its assets, priroities, idiosyncracies and ambitions?  Over the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring this. I’ll look at other sectors, programmes and funding models. And I’ll be returning to Barrow to meet many more people, listen longer and deeper and together, imagine and consider what would work and what different might look like. I can’t wait…

The useful museum

Decorators at the Linthorpe Art Pottery, Middlesbrough

From visits to Derby Museum’s Silk Mill to the Design Museum in Kensington and York Art Gallery’s centre for ceramic art, February was definitely a month of makers. But it was my first ever visit to Middlesbrough that really captured and  held my attention.

First stop, to get the lie of the land – a visit to RSPB Saltholme, “where nature and industry meet”. Couple of miles outside town. Cold, grey, windy day. Big skies.  Handful of people (young families and bird enthusiasts), mostly sheltering in hides and cafe.

Proud, knowledgeable volunteers, shared latest sightings and the project Birds of Durham (like Blue Plaques for Birds).  A landscape restored for wildlife (wetland habitats), surrounded by industry (power plants, refineries, overhead lines). On first sight bleak perhaps, but a stark beauty, sense of purpose and renewal prevails.

My main reason for visiting Middlesbrough though was MIMA Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.  I’d heard alot about MIMA and its ambition to be a Useful Museum, to be driven by the people and place, not collections, exhibitions or programmes. All this aligns strongly with my values and aspirations so I’m excited to be there, to see and experience it for myself.

First impressions.  I’ll be honest, I experienced slight threshold anxiety as I approached MIMA, all shiny straight lines and hard surfaces.  Inside too, it’s a huge,  intimidating space; concrete tiles, glass, pillars and hard surfaces abound with an enormous look-at-me staircase.  How can I have spent over 20 years working in museums and still feel like this?   Its people, as always, that put me at ease.  As I sit at one of the workbenches in the huge atrium, I start to settle. Next to me sits a woman knitting, watching the world go by and beside her, a group of young children and families munch their lunch, at home in this lofty space. For me, its not the architecture or spaces that really make MIMA stand out from the crowd.  Instead, its the ambition to be a useful museum.  As Alistair Hudson, its Director tells me, they want to take a leading role in addressing the things local people care about and creatively contribute to change. It wants its art to work hard for its living, as its Vision Statement makes crystal clear

“In Middlesbrough, an industrial region that is perhaps most removed from the capital that has supported the visual arts, there is the opportunity to evolve a new kind of institution that leads the field in testing new approaches to making art work in society”.

So as we wander round the galleries, I meet James Beighton who tells me about his and  Emily Hesse’s work re-visiting the idea and value of a social enterprise through the medium of local clay. In 1879 John Harrison and Christopher Dresser launched Linthorpe Art Pottery on the site occupied by the Sun Brick Works in Middlesbrough. This enterprise aimed to tackle the town’s unemployment, while Dresser’s intention was to produce innovative ceramics through the employment of local clay. Today, the New Linthorpe  project asks how clay, dug locally, can be used as a material for engendering social change.

New Linthorpe Project

Over lunch (in probably one of the finest museum caffs Ive visited in a long time – the Smeltery, itself a socially engaged art project),   I learn more about the breadth and depth of partnerships being forged at MIMA and how they shape what the museum does, what it is for.   It’s a hugely compelling vision.  Hudson would be amongst the first to tell you how 19th century progressive thinkers Ruskin and the Mechanics Institutes have shaped his thinking, inspired this approach and how MIMA is a proponent of Art Util (useful art).  Until recently, there was even a dedicated public space for this, an Office for Useful Art.

So, we chat about the role of museums post-Brexit in developing a sense of belonging, the impact of the closure of the steelworks and the future of heritage, how communities can lead change and the importance of “psychologically owned” public and civic spaces.  From free meals to chess clubs,  new arrivals programmes to social housing, MIMA as a Useful Museum  seeks to replace the ‘audience’ model with a constituency model, driven by the people for social purpose. Its heady stuff and this ambition feels exactly right, for here, for now.

I just wish this had all been more visible as I walked round the galleries on my own earlier in the day.  I wondered how many other visitors were aware of these aspirations, how many of them might have been intrigued, annoyed or just plain curious?

Admittedly it was a Tuesday in mid February, some of the spaces were in changeover and the show, the Middlesbrough Collection, did hold a few clues.   It was publicised as having been made in dialogue with ‘local users’, constituent groups, visitors and staff.  But it didn’t feel bold enough. Not enough conventions challenged for my liking.  I wanted to hear more of the dialogue. “Turn up the volume” I wrote in my fieldnotes.

It’s early days in the display of this collection and I’m impatient for MIMA to find more compelling creative ways to use this to share people’s stories and what they care about. I have no doubt they will soon enough.   I think I’m a little frustrated that I, as a visitor, wasn’t aware of or invited to join in or engage in the bigger ongoing civic conversation (as at lunchtime).   Plans are afoot for a new space that takes over from where the Office for Useful Art left off.  I realise this is what’s missing.  The vision of the Useful Museum shouldn’t have been hard to find that morning or for any visitor. It’s a fine aspiration, relevant to many. It deserves shouting about.

Not all who wander are lost

Not all who wander are lost

I’m Esme Ward and am currently a Clore Fellow exploring cultural leadership, figuring out what museums are for and exploring the social, learning and civic purpose of arts and heritage.  My usual day job is leading participatory work and teams at the Whitworth and Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester. I also  work as the Strategic Culture Lead for Age-Friendly Greater Manchester and lecture in Creative Learning and Museology.

I’m now halfway through my Clore Fellowship and it’s leading me to pastures new, introducing me to smart, inspiring people, both on the doorstep and further afield.  From Middlesbrough to Gdansk, Barrow-in-Furness to San Francisco,  I will be wandering, flaneuse-style, through heritage; sharing insights and observations from site visits, everyday and extraordinary places, projects, people and conversations. Keeping an eye on imaginative, smart ideas from the world of museums, heritage and beyond. Grappling with future-thinking and social change.

As part of the fellowship, I’m on secondment to the strategic team at the Heritage Lottery Fund, investigating how to support communities to catalyse heritage activity and activism. This blog will also, in part, chart this process.

Inspired by field notes, I’ll aim to record descriptive information (date, time, settings, actions, behaviours) and reflective information (my thoughts, ideas, questions, concerns) about the places, work and people I encounter.  If you read this and it touches a nerve, do share your thinking. Ever learning, ever curious..