Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Drawing on Memories

Guest blog by Helen Thomas

I’m a visual artist based in Wakefield. I’ve worked on several projects with Wakefield Museums and Wakefield Libraries. In autumn 2017 Wakefield Museums asked me to work with communities as part of an Arts Council England funded project to deliver activities in the South East of the district.

I started the project by catching the train to South Elmsall and walking to Moorthorpe station. Along the way I took photos to use in the project. I visited South Elmsall Library to see the museum case that Wakefield Museums installed in 2017. If you haven’t seen the display yet, do check it out next time you’re in the area. This micro museum features a fascinating collection of ancient and modern objects specific to the area - from Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds, to original John Godber scripts.


South Elmsall Library is staffed by a great team who make it a welcoming place where people can socialise, learn, relax… and even borrow books. In January 2018 I invited people to two ‘Drawing on Memories’ sessions at the library: one for the regular Monday Crafternoon group and a drop in session on a Saturday for families and anyone who wanted to come along.

The South East of the district area has a rich history that is well documented thanks to the work and generosity of local historians. For this project I was interested to hear people’s memories stories of everyday places and things they care about.

I invited people to share their memories through a range of activities. Some people brought an object or photo with them and told us their story - we were surprised and delighted when one participant brought in a miniature bronze statue of a miner, by sculptor Graham Ibbotson. The piece was one of an edition made in memory of the miners who lost their lives in the South Kirkby mining disaster.  Wakefield Museums were interested in objects from the area that they could loan or that could be donated. The event generated donations to the museum service, from a 1970s Christmas Decoration given to a child at school, to one resident’s 1950s TV licenses, nostalgic old money and working man’s club vouchers. One visitor even donated a Bronze Age axe head found locally that is thousands of years old.

John Welding  https://johnwelding.blogspot.co.uk has worked on several illustration projects for Wakefield Museums including: The Battle of Wakefield, Stanley Ferry Log Boat, and ‘The Extraordinary Life Of Charles Waterton’ comic book. John is great at bringing people’s words to life through pictures. At the two ‘Drawing on Memories’ activity sessions John made wonderful quick sketches of people’s memories that they were able to keep and take home.

There were objects from Wakefield Museum’s handling collection, themed around leisure & celebration. We chatted about what you might find in a museum… is it just old valuable things? Is there a place for new things? How do we know what to keep for future museums? We talked about our favourite things, drew pictures of them and made our own mini museum on the library wall. We stuck photos and wrote memories on a large hand drawn map of the area.


Participants were invited to visit Wakefield Museum with me. The visits were a wonderful opportunity for both museum staff and visitors to swap and share stories sparked by objects in the collection. During one visit we noticed a map showing an artefact that had been found in South Elmsall. When we noticed that object was missing from the accompanying display case we were pleased to learn that the object is now displayed in the museum case in South Elmsall Library.


In March 2018 I took one of Wakefield Museum’s Memory Boxes to Westfield Centre Children’s Day Care. I chatted to parents and carers about the free children’s activities on offer at the district’s museums. The toddlers had lots of fun dressing up, playing picnics, taking pretend photos on the old camera, dancing and singing to the vintage radio and looking at things (and at each other) through the magnifying glass. Children had a great time drawing and sticking things in their ‘my mini museum’ books and everyone went away with a little Wakefield Museums goody bag and a copy of the latest museums ‘what’s on’ guide.

I really enjoyed meeting people and hearing their stories through this project. I learned about dolphins in the swimming pool in the 1970’s. I heard stories of discos and beat nights at The Chequers, playing billiards before going to ‘2nd house’ at The Palace and, of course, where to get the best fish and chips in the area and I learned that trying on a 60’s Crimpolene frock made toddlers, parents and staff giggle at me. I’ve realised that, for me, it’s people’s stories that make museums interesting, that help me understand and connect with the displays.


I’m writing this at in the final week of ‘Mini Museums & Drawing on Memories’. I’ve just had a lovely conversation with my contact from the Crafternoon group. A combination of bad weather and winter flu meant that several people missed out on the original dates that we’d arranged to visit Wakefield Museum.  Group members were very keen to take up the invitation, so we’ve arranged another date. I’m really looking forward to meeting them all again later this week at the museum, hearing stories inspired by the museum displays… and rounding the project off with a cuppa together at Create Café.

It’s clear that people welcome the opportunity to get involved, to try something, to share and to learn. People responded to an informal approach, to being invited. It’s also clear that Wakefield Museums are looking to find ways to reach beyond the district’s main Museum sites, and I hope they find ways to continue and extend the reach of these activities.

Very big thank you’s:
Arts Council England - for funding the project
Wakefield Council - for securing the funding and offering activities in the South East of the district. Particular thanks to Steven Skelley for limitless enthusiasm.
South Elmsall Library and Westfield Centre Children’s Day Care - for a warm welcome, hosting workshops and supporting the project.
John Welding - for drawing unseen memories in mere moments
Special thanks to everyone who took part - for sharing research, stories and memories. For donating an object. For drawing a picture, reading an old newspaper or sticking a photo on the map. For playing, for listening for visiting the micro museum in South Elmsall or the museum in Wakefield One, for taking an interest.

Some feedback from the project:
“The children were amazed at the camera and other interesting items”
“The children loved it”
“I plan on visiting the Wakefield Museum with or family”
“I love these ‘little’ events whereto can speak to museum staff - and learn from other people there”
“The concept of jointures of library/museum is a good one. It enhances both genres”
"I really like the idea of museums in libraries"
“Having history to look at is great. It should always be passed on for our children to learn”
“We would like more information on other events like the one today”

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