Pottery needn't be dry and dull. Sarah Farley joins a school group on a trip to Stoke and finds an exhibition that mixes history and hands-on experience to put the fun back into ceramics
Children and china might not be an obvious recipe for success. Memories of endless dull museum displays of plates and cups, or the heart-stopping sound of breakages come to mind. But Ceramica, an exhibition and activity centre dedicated to pottery, is not like that. Instead, it succeeds in making the journey of clay absorbing and fun, from its raw state in the ground, through an array of stages of production, to its destination in our shops and homes.
Ceramica, which opened last year, is housed in the magnificent Old Town Hall of Burslem, regarded as the "Mother Town" of The Potteries. The exhibits are spread over four floors: Bizarreland, The Pavilions, Mezzanine and the education room.
Bizarreland, named after a Wedgwood trade mark, includes clay in its raw state, the crafts and tools of the studio potter designer and maker, and production.
The visiting group of 10-year-olds from Chestnut Street Church of England Primary School, Ruskington, Lincs, were riveted by the demonstration of throwing a pot on a wheel and keen to try it for themselves, a facility that is sometimes available for one or two children.
"We organise a school visit around 45 minutes in the different sections, with the option of a 10-minute short session focusing on a particular aspect that interests the school," explains education officer Karen Burgess. "You could choose a history session about the narrow boat, using our model of the Trent-Mersey canal tunnel and boat. There is a moving seat so children can try 'legging' the tunnel, moving the boat through the tunnel by laying back and using their legs to 'walk' the boat through, a process that could take two-and-a-half hours. They can also listen to eyewitness accounts, and the cabin provides a role-play area, looking at the lives of children on board a working boat."
Other short sessions feature art, design and technology, maths, PSHE, English or science, and include topics as varied as using Royal Doulton figures to find out how the modellers use portraits and historical documents to inform their work; how pottery was fired in the past, using the authentic model of a bottle oven; and looking at ceramics in the home and garden, incorporating fair testing, and sorting and classifying materials.
There are also linked workshops, lasting 45 minutes which are geared to the required key stage schemes of work. These include studio pottery, producing a textured tile, paddle coil or clay pot; places and patterns (Mexican, Greek); Egyptian discovery; and Art Deco. Sessions for KS3 and 4 can include art, design, and travel and tourism.
In the education room, other pupils from Chestnut Street are getting their hands dirty, using clay to make a beaker pot. Having heard how such pots were discovered at Stonehenge, the children are rolling out clay to coil up into beaker shape, smoothing it out, and decorating it using the imprint from a piece of string. The teachers with the group are impressed by the children's enthusiasm.
While half the group is having lunch, the others are taking part in a quiz in The Pavilions. They gather information in easily digested nuggets from boards beside the displays of ceramic designers and manufacturers, such as Moorland and Royal Stafford. Interactive exhibits help visitors understand the importance of a well-designed teapot, and how vital it was to keep the mix of oxygen and coal balanced in a bottle oven.
Surprised that learning about ceramics could be so much fun, the children of Chestnut Street departed without a single breakage.
A visit to Ceramica costs: pound;2 per child with workshops prices from 50p per child.