London's Design Museum is hosting a table setting with a difference, as part of a school project to serve the last supper of the millennium. Al Constantine finds out what's cooking
Who would you choose to share your last supper of the millennium? Staff and students of Penwortham Priory high school in Preston, Lancashire, asked themselves the same question more than a year ago, in the summer of 1998. And this week, after months of painstaking enquiries throughout the school, the distillation oftheir efforts will go on showin a prestigious millennialexhibition at London's Design Museum.
The installation features an exquisitely bedec`ked banquet table on which the momentous meal would be served. The table is set with individually designed plates featuring homages toMondrian, Warhol, Macke and other artists. Themed placemats honour the big names on the guest list, along with sterling silver cutlery and napkin-rings. And the pi ces de resistance, 12exquisitely crafted chairs, areso splendid that they makePosh and Becks's wedding thrones look like upturned milk crates. Everything on show was made by Penwortham Priory pupils.
With technology college status increasingly in their sights, staff and students at Penworthamhave been busy expanding their technological repertoire. Their impressive and ambitious whole-school millennium project was inspired by a day trip to London last July, when a group of Year 9students visited the Design Museum for one of its education workshops. Food technology teacher Shelley Lewis-Lavender says: "Our original theme was 'Guess who's coming to dinner?'. Only later did we adapt it to the millennium. Enthusiasm forthe idea seemed infectious, and it just grew and grew."
The school's art and design teams set to work on a planning package that covered most of the technology curriculum for all year groups, involving food, textiles, computer assisted design and electronics. Deputy head Jenny Hunter says the project also invited irresistible and seemingly endless cross-curricular links with other departments, including humanities, sciences, languages, maths, music and religious studies. "It broke down many barriers," she says.
But the final decision about which of the students' all-time greats should be invited was - and still is - hotly disputed. "We set up debating groups around the school asking who the pupils would invite," says head of technology Ian Tindsley,"and got all sorts of answers. The morewe went into it, the more difficult it became.
"Eventually, we decided we'd need to point pupils towardsparticular categories, such as showbusiness, art and design, fashion and human rights. Having 12 guests seemed symbolic, and it prevented the project from becoming too unwieldy."
One of the dilemmas, he explains, was that students' first choices came from a limited range of personal tastes - for instance, singer Robbie Williams andfootballer Michael Owen were hot nominees initially.But through a patient and gradual programme of research and debate, and with the casting of a wider net of historical and cultural interests, something approaching a consensus was finally reached.
At the final reckoning, the Beatles (squeezing into one seat) were the number one choice in the popular music category, and Brazilian footballing legend Pele was eventually substituted for Michael Owen. And student research threw up another name who challenged even the great Pele for a place at table. Tom Finney, a football genius of the Forties and Fifites, not only played for local team Preston North End all his professional life, but also still lives little more than a goal-kick away from the school. When Penwortham hosted a dinner to showcase its completed work, Tom was invited as a guest of honour but was too unwell to attend. "If he'd been able to come, we would definitely have swapped him with Pele," says Ian Tindsley.
Apart from the achievement inherent in the work itself, the school has found a new spirit of enterprise. At every stage in the project's development, students tapped into local resources and forged links with people who were ready and willing to lend a hand in trying out new ideas. And at one point, the school timetable was suspended for three days to make way for a rolling programme of workshops, which staff from all departments planned and all 1,000 students took part in.
As well as backing from British Aerospace, which provided support with computer design, and financial help from the local training and enterprise council, staff at the school managed to bring on board local expertise, from coach-builders to florists, from professional chefs and food writers to jewellers and master goldsmiths. "People helped us out in all sorts of ways," says Ian Tindsley. "It's not always a case of them coming in with a fistfull of dollars - it's the expertise and new ideas they bring."
One of the high moments came in November, when the school persuaded celebrity chef Paul Heathcote to offer students top-quality training at his school of excellence, and to lend them Heathcotes Brasserie in Preston to host a celebration dinner for more than 80 guests.
In keeping with the resourcefulness of the project, the meal was free because the cost had been covered on all fronts by contributors from local business - supermarket chain Booth's supplied food and wine, others provided cakes, floral work and trimmings, while the students themselves provided the menu designs, cooks, waiters (with specially designed livery) and entertainments. With the installation in place at the head of the restaurant, a dozen tables were set and thematically decorated to represent each of the 12 guests.
Now the school is sharing its expertise with others in the community and making further investments into its technological know-how at the same time. Penwortham is involving local primary schools in computer design work and demonstrations in technical processes, while local adults are also benefiting from its extra-curricular workshops in graphic design, silverwork and engraving classes.
Lesley Butterworth, head of education at the Design Museum, who has liaised with the school since the workshop that first gave rise to the project, is now looking forward to hosting the school's exhibition. "We regularly work with schools but few have been able to offer this level of commitment," she says. "These students have used their time constructively and we are proud to be associated with such an energetic group."
And when the exhibition is over, Penwortham's project is set to carry on to new heights. Staff and students are already working on a theatre production planned for February. An experimental drama, it will be based on a series of imagined conversations shared by their chosen icons around the dinner table.
In the meantime, all that remains to be seen is whetherPele or Tom Finney will be best placed to play footsie with Marilyn Monroe.
'The Last Supper' is on show at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, from December 16 to January 7. Tel: 0171 403 6933
The final line- up
* Nelson Mandela
* Vivienne Westwood
* James Dyson
* Marie Curie
* The Beatles
* Edward Elgar
* PeleTom Finney
* Marilyn Monroe
* Emmeline Pankhurst
* Winston Churchill
* Roald Dahl
* Pablo Picasso