Attractive presentation without ostentation

1st March 1996 at 00:00
The techniques Pauline Carr learned in the commercial world can open up lots of new imaginative possibilities. Gerald Haigh reports

Paper, card and fabric are ever more expensive. Classroom time is increasingly precious. And yet teachers still want to produce good displays. What they need, therefore, is some guidance about inexpensive materials and quick but effective techniques. This is exactly what the Alternative Display Company aims to provide in the form of courses backed up with mail order supplies.

The concept of display is familiar to most teachers. Many of them have a good working idea of the techniques - the use of backing paper and card; how to wield a staple gun. In a sense, there is almost nothing new to say about what is by now almost a handed-on craft.

The interesting thing about the Alternative Display Company, however, is that it comes from a different tradition. Managing director has for 20 years earned her living as a dresser of exhibition stands at venues such as the Barbican, the National Exhibition Centre and the GMEX Centre in Manchester. She also installs displays in record stores and windows.

Pauline's first encounter with education came through a request for help from librarians. "I was asked to show them how the professionals go about catching the public eye."

She began putting on workshops for library staff in 1991. They were enthusiastically received, and in 1994 she tested the water with teachers at the Education Show. Since then, bookings have poured in.

She works with individual schools, with groups of schools and for local authorities.

The approach is usually the same. Working with about 25 people she will first give a lecture-demonstration. Then there will be a workshop session during which groups create their own displays. Pauline then tours the room commenting and improving on them as she goes.

I saw her at work at Kings Heath Library in Birmingham. The overwhelming impression was that the session was good fun: her demonstration is funny, irreverent and eye-opening. For teachers it made a refreshing change from the average in-service course centred on the national curriculum.

She stood in front of a wall of fabric-covered panels holding a staple gun in one hand. "Don't take any notice of people who say you shouldn't staple to these," she said. "You can't ask a display person to work without a staple gun. What they are really worried about is that the staples will be left in, and I'll show you how to take them out."

With her other hand she holds all manner of materials up to the fabric - record sleeves, crumpled newspaper, coloured ribbon, Cellophane, tissue - banging it on at high speed with the gun. As she works, she outlines and demonstrates the rules and techniques. Lengths of ribbon are made into borders; crumpled Cellophane gives an urban, broken glass look to a dark subject. The same material crumpled up gives a bright, bridal look to something flowery and light.

A torn poster is more effective if you tear it carefully so that the torn edge shows the white of the paper. Ribbon can be brought out of the display and stapled to the floor to create a tent-like effect, or folded and draped to make an overhead canopy. Fruit boxes and paper "straw" will create an instant rural background for work on a children's book.

Always, the emphasis was on the quick, the cheap and the cheerful. Ribbon, for example, was used unstintingly. "It's 3p a yard. Don't try to save it. Get a life instead!"

Schools which have sampled Pauline Carr's workshops are enthusiastic.

At the Unicorn School, in Richmond, Surrey, where Pauline Carr conducted a whole-day workshop, head Fiona Timmis was particularly impressed by the emphasis on speed and convenience.

"That's one of the most useful things for teachers because we all have better things to do. Her emphasis is on quick, instant, vibrant results. Pauline Carr was tremendous - very witty and highly entertaining, and we were all inspired. "

* Alternative Display Company, 91 Bristol Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham. B5 7TU Tel: 0121 440 2569. Stand B83

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