Two million children from 25,000 primary schools will soon be starting work on a project that will, quiteliterally, represent the fabric of society. Emma Haughton reports on the Millennium Tapestry
Lizzie Owen is a woman on a mission. A very big mission. As chief executive of the newly-formed Millennium Tapestry Company, she is planning one of the largest exhibits in the world: a tapestry made by more than two million British schoolchildren.
All 25,000 primary and special needs schools will be invited to complete one square metre of canvas, illustrating some aspect of their lives and the opportunities and issues that affect them - locally, nationally and globally. If all contribute, the result will be five metres high and more than 2.5 kilometres long.
"I saw Tony Blair on the news talking about the Millennium Dome and how it would be the biggest, brightest, boldest exhibition site in the world. I immediately thought that what it needs is the biggest, brightest, boldest exhibit," says Lizzie, whose work with textiles and children has won awards.
She wrote to Chris Smith, the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, and after a meeting with the New Millennium Experience Company, was given the go-ahead for a pilot scheme. This involved 12 schools around Banbury in Oxfordshire, and focused on the theme of autumn. Each child painted an aspect of the season that they liked and their teachers decided what to include on each school's tapestry. Their efforts were filmed for a training video for schools participating in the national project.
"It was hard to find the time," admits John Legg, headteacher of Bloxham Primary School. "Like most primaries, we're wrestling with lots of things, but projects like this are crucial. It involved lots of hidden skills like team-work and co-operation, and the children can take a bit of pride and enjoy something that will be seen by lots of people."
The tapestry particularly suits special needs schools, says Kevin Griffiths, headteacher at Frank Wise School in Banbury. "We included everyone, even those with the most profound difficulties. They could use all sorts of materials and textures. It is an opportunity for them to celebrate their achievements."
The tapestry will be launched nationally this month - more than 70 local education authorities have already expressed an interest in taking part.
Starter kits will be ready for schools to work on after Easter. They will then have only 13 weeks to complete their canvas, before the massive operation of co-ordinating the pieces begins. By the time the whole tapestry has been put together in time for January 1 2000, Lizzie says it will be "a unique celebration of life through the eyes of children at Day One of the new millennium - a unique vantage point in time. Our children will be the first generation to influence the next 1,000 years...their images will echo down through the generations."
Following in the tradition of the 1,000-year-old Bayeaux Tapestry, which recorded the invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror in 1066, the Millennium Tapestry will have a similar linear progression, with commentaries above and below the main images. Lizzie hopes the finished product will go on show in the Millennium Dome - "but it depends how big it turns out".
The subjects illustrated will reflect the 14 areas of the Dome, looking back to the past and projecting into the future. Each section will reflect the school's geographical base, but although LEAs will give schools an in-depth brief of their subject area, different ways of viewing it will emerge.
"With something like faith, for example, you'll get very different ways of viewing it depending on whether its a Muslim school in Bradford, a Catholic school in Northern Ireland or a Gaelic-speaking school in the Western Isles," says Lizzie.
Colour will form another dimension. Each school's starter kit will incorporate the colours the designers want the children to use, with the aim of building up a cohesive visual narrative.
There will also be a questionnaire to pick up the areas that most interest children, and the 14 most mentioned items will be worked into the tapestry's images as yet another dimension.
Lizzie hopes the result will tell a story yet be enormously diverse. "It will celebrate rural and urban, traditional and ethnic life, including themes as diverse as favourite foods, television programmes, pop groups, sports stars, wild flowers, pets, farm animals, zoos, the rain forest, even what 'my street' looks like. It will chronicle life as we live it at the time of the millennium."
Putting it all together entails a huge feat of organisation. Once completed, each canvas will receive a barcode containing details of the school, and this will be logged on to a computer. The Millennium Tapestry Company also plans to scan every square metre to produce a virtual version of the tapestry that could be made available on the Internet.
All this costs money: the estimated budget for the national project is pound;1.4 million. The company has identified some pound;600,000 in sponsorship and donations of materials, and is hoping for another pound;400,000 from the Arts Council.
The result will be well worth it, says Lizzie. "It will become a national archive, which we hope will go into the Millennium Dome, but it can also be broken up into smaller touring sections to go around the country and abroad."
There will be many knock-on benefits, she believes: "Arts and crafts are being badly squashed by the curriculum. We're in danger of having a lost generation of children who have never had hands-on experience of crafts like sewing or knitting; many don't even know what they are."
Millennium Tapestry Company. Tel: 01295 721 334