Breaking new ground

12th December 2007 at 00:00

Jonathan Croall on an exhibition where parish maps have shed their dusty image. Ten years ago parish maps knew their place. Hidden away in libraries and archives, cartographically correct but aesthetically dreary, they were essentially docu-ments created by specialists for specialists.

Today, thanks to a brilliant but simple initiative by the arts and conservation group Common Ground, parish maps have become instruments of community power, a means by which people of all ages and backgrounds have been able to record and express what they particularly value in their locality.

Parish maps can be made by anyone, in any place, in any way. The hundreds that have been put together since the project started in 1987, in towns and cities as well as rural areas, have been sewn, knitted, printed, drawn, painted, photographed, filmed, animated, sung, acted and written.

Children and young people have been intimately involved in many of these, often stunning, creations, both in school and outside. This week several examples of their work, which expand the traditional notions of both parish and map, go on show at a celebratory exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London.

One of the most ambitious exhibits is a 30-foot-long textile map of the River Wear, made by children from 21 schools in and around Sunderland. Each school used knitting, quilting, collage, weaving, fabric-painting or other methods to record the buildings, features or patterns the children felt to be important on their own stretch of the river.

Helen Sinclair, education officer at the Tyne and Wear Museums, says: "The project was far more than the sum of its parts. For the first time, apart from through sport, these schools had a sense of each other, and an identification with the whole city."

Another unusual exhibit is the "map" from Mount Pleasant and Mow Cop villages in Cheshire. Children from Woodcocks' Well Primary School record their impressions of the village for use as voice-over material in a delightful animated film, which they also helped two visiting professionals to make.

Both artists and teachers have noticed how parish mapping has prompted unexpected ideas from children. Artist Sally Tallant asked a class of eight to 10-year-olds in the village school in Aveton Gifford in Devon to help with a proposed map.

"Led by our guides, we found hollow hedgerow trees where you could lose your arm right up to the shoulder, drain covers and paving slabs which made patterns of flowers and diamonds, and derelict barns which were haunted," she recalls. "The children could teach many a long-standing resident to see the village with new eyes."

The Barbican exhibition, and a linked artist residency, has now stimulated schools to action. At the City of London Girls' School, GCSE art students are developing their own "emotional" map of the centre.

"We've got very excited about the possibilities," says head of art Jane Curtis. "The idea touches on so many areas of work that link with art."

Textile artist Margaret Williams, who has worked on several maps with schools, believes the activity can fill a gap for children. "They don't often get a chance of working together in school," she says. "It's valuable for them to see how their small piece of work can contribute to the whole."

Parish maps are often linked to community action. In Thirsk in Yorkshire, five primary schools helped to create a "four seasons" map, initially to oppose a supermarket development. It was later used in a public inquiry, as evidence against the threat of pylons being erected around the town.

In Burtonwood near Warrington children from two primaries helped to turn an open space into a community woodland. Their map was a photographic record of all the tree-planting and other work carried out. "Many of the children's ideas were taken up, and they involved their families at weekends," says Andrew Cocker, headteacher of St Paul of the Cross School.

In one of a series of essays published to coincide with the exhibition, Robin Grove-White suggests parish maps have the potential to reinvigorate democratic politics. Certainly many children are learning as much about citizenship through their involvement as they are about art, geography or history.

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