Cultural heritage and participation

Morris Festival at Upton on Severn

There was a time when I thought that community art had to be rooted in contemporary forms of art. I didn’t see how traditional and craft-based culture could engage people in the urgent issues of contemporary life. I was mistaking my own experience for reality, allowing my enthusiasms to become prejudice—and the one thing prejudice prevents you from seeing is itself.

It was the fèisean movement that helped me get past that particular blind spot. Since 1980, there had been a revival of Gaelic cultural teaching in the highlands and islands of Scotland, mostly through short festivals called fèisean, in which children could spend a week of their holidays learning traditional songs, airs and dances. In 1995 I spent several months researching the fèisean in the Western Isles, Ross and Cromarty and Inverness. I discovered a series of grass-roots organisations who were passing on a rich cultural heritage to the next generation and in doing so having all sorts of wider effects on local confidence, community organisation and people’s sense of identity. Despite, or perhaps because of their commitment to Gaelic culture and language, the fèisean I saw were very inclusive, welcoming those who spoke only English and musical beginners.

Fèis Rois, Dingwall, 1995

A few years later, I worked on a programme in South East Europe, whose aim was to support community development through cultural resources. Living Heritage was, I came to see, a kind of community art programme without professional community artists. In their absence, we supported communities directly, with training, advice and small grants. Naturally, the projects they created grew from their own culture—weaving, pottery, music, carpentry, food, architecture, dance, festivals, embroidery, landmarks, sculpture, and drama all featured. Again, I learnt a lot from this experience, including how power dynamics change when people work in their own culture. In every project, the people involved were, literally, the world experts in the artistic work being done. The only thing outsiders like myself could offer them was technical knowledge, for instance about how to plan a project, and an external perspective. We had nothing to teach them about art because it was their own art they were making.  Our input was to help them make what they could do more powerful. And they did – many of those projects continue today, while the programme itself is sustained in Bulgaria by the Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation.

Living Heritage project, Bulgaria, 2004

2018 is the European Year of Cultural Heritage, and the European Commission has just published a brochure featuring 15 initiatives that bring heritage resources into the heart of community life. You can read about projects focusing on archives, carnival, museums, , puppetry and textiles. Others confront painful aspects of the past, such as the legacy of communism, or controversial ones like migration and the long presence of Islam in Europe. Each one, though, underlines the potential of heritage for creativity in the present. Art is an act of meaning-making. The legacy of the past can be an extraordinary resource for artistic participation today.

European Year of Cultural Heritage

PS My prejudices about traditional culture were challenged again when my then teenage daughter joined a Morris team: she was the youngest by 40 years and the only Goth: she gave up only because it was too exhausting.

2 – A Fun Palace reimagined in Farnham

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Farnham is a handsome market town in Surrey, an ancient place with a castle, Roman roads and hill forts. It is 45 miles from Joan Littlewood’s East London, where she fought to build The Fun Palace, but it seems a world away. London changes continually – the Olympic Park has replaced the post-war wastelands where artists and local kids once explored other worlds – but Farnham is continuity England, evolution not revolution. It’s hard to imagine Littlewood liking it much – if she ever came here.

But appearances can be deceptive, though we forget it. After all, Farnham sided with Parliament in the Civil War, and it was the home of William Cobbett, the great radical writer and MP, who would surely have enjoyed arguing with Littlewood. It’s also a town with a long interest in arts and crafts. Farnham School of Art opened in 1866 and it continues as part of the University for the Creative Arts. And in 1961, just as Joan Littlewood was imagining her Fun Palace, Farnham opened a free museum in a fine Georgian house on West Street. With its emphasis on local history, the Museum of Farnham probably felt more palace than fun to its first visitors. Still, in common with Littlewood, the museum wanted to involve people more in culture. The question is how.

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Half a century later, these two strands of thinking about the place of art in people’s lives have come together: the Museum of Farnham is hosting a Fun Palace, one of almost 300 taking place this weekend across Britain and abroad. A group of volunteers has been given the run of the Garden Gallery, an attractive wood and glass building that is the museum’s education space, and everyone is welcome. When I get there, at lunchtime on a blustery Saturday afternoon in October, I can already hear happy voices.

There’s so much going on that it has spilled out onto the verandas, where children are busy making hand prints on paper. Round the corner, Bridget Floyer asks visitors to add themselves to a map of local creativity, as she develops her ideas about participatory art. Inside, Farnham Art and Design Education Group are hosting a Big Draw event; elsewhere people cluster round tables to make things with clay or from melted plastic. There are lots of families, and if the parents are often helping their kids, they’re having no less fun. Generous provision of refreshments makes a hospitable atmosphere as people move from one activity to another. Farnham’s radicalism is not forgotten either. I talk with members of the local Amnesty International group and sign petitions about refugees and political prisoners in distant lands.

Meanwhile, in the main building, Wendy Richardson is talking about Joan Littlewood with  Christine Jackson, who worked with her on Bubble City in 1968 and many other projects. Richardson has just completed a film, ‘In the Company of Joan’, which would have been shown too, but there are too many people having too much noisy fun to make that possible so, recognising what’s important today, that plan has been abandoned. Still, we get more time for conversation and it’s an inspiring reminder of the power of imaginative play and the creative freedom that can be found – paradoxically –when no one is interested in you. Christine Jackson evokes a world in which people do things because they want to, not to fulfil a carefully worked out strategy or meet a funder’s targets. And if that includes setting out to build a hovercraft, well – why not, if that’s what the young people are excited to do? At worst, you’ll discover that it’s beyond your resources, but you can have a fantastic time finding that out, and you might find what it is that you can do. This is art, science, creativity. This is fun.

And this is the heart of the Fun Palace idea: the spirit of saying ‘Yes!’.

That’s not naïve or careless. But it is the opposite of trying to persuade people to be interested in your ideas, a common trap for arts policy today. It’s knowing that good work begins with our desires – something that artists usually remember where their own work is concerned. We all have to adapt our desires to reality, but that’s the essence of learning: me in the world, exercising agency and discovering its limits and consequences.

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The photos I took at Farnham are pretty dull. Photography struggles to capture a creative workshop because what matters is invisible. What matters is the experience people get when they mould a piece of clay for the first time, or discover what oil pastel does, or see plastic cord soften with heat and become capable of making an expressive line, your line, that you drew. That experience cannot be shown. Six people sitting in a room, talking about long past events, make for a dull photograph. But being there, being part of the conversation – that was a great experience.

Art is only ever a route to experience of connecting minds. The object – painting, book, recording – is easily fetishized but it only matters because it has been charged by its maker(s) with the power to communicate, move, teach… Because the object is photogenic and tangible it is easily mistaken for what is happening, for art itself.

A Fun Palace is not in children’s drawings or happy faces: it is in discovering that you too can be an artist, and that no one else can be the artist you can be. That is an empowering experience, whatever you make of it.

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Part 3 tomorrow

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I’m very grateful to Carine, Alex and everyone I met at Farnham Fun Palace for their welcome, openness and encouraging me to have fun…