Rich seams of the past

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Harvey McGavin explains how old industries are artistically revived in a county-wide initiative

A trip to the local museum might not be top of every school pupil's wish list. But in one county, a pilot project is revitalising the old rainy-day standby, proving that the historical collections on your doorstep can make a rich source of artistic inspiration.

"Recreating Cheshire" is a grand title, but this is a project that can afford to think big, thanks to a pound;73,000 grant from the Department for Education and Employment's Museums and Galleries Education Programme. And it reflects the fact that Cheshire, like many of its neighbours in the North-west, has had to reinvent its economy as the traditional industries of salt, silk, cotton and canals have declined.

The 2,000-year-old practice of salt mining continues in the county - it is the only place in Britain still producing the stuff in any quantity - and its effects can be seen in widespread problems of subsidence. The area's canal network ferries tourists rather than freight these days and our cotton and silk is more likely to come from the Far East than the North-west.

This rich heritage is preserved in the Salt Museum at Northwich, the Silk Museum at Macclesfield, Ellesmere Port's Boat Museum and Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, but these are often overlooked when schools are planning a cultural outing, says Carolyn Murray, the project co-ordinator. "They go to the Tate in Liverpool, which is okay, but these museums are only down the road. A lot of secondary schools might see museums as a learning resource for geography or history or English, but this is about going specifically to look for inspiration for artwork."

The project began last autumn with a "skill-sharing" day, when 10 local artists with specialisms varying from textiles to printmaking, sculpture and ceramics visited the museums with art teachers from the participating schools. Each artist was allocated a school and a museum to work in - three worked at the canal museum, three at the salt museum, two at the silk museum and one at the cotton mill, while "digital artist" Dorrie Halliday worked across all four museums and at all 10 schools.

Key stage 3 and 4 pupils spent a day at the museum, making sketches, taking photographs, and drawing inspiration before going back to school for a three-day workshop where they turned their ideas into art.

Carolyn Murray says not everybody was convinced to begin with. "It has not been easy for some of the schools to see the value in having an artist in school." Dorrie Halliday had the practical problem of gaining access to enough computers for the digital art in some schools, as well as some less enlightened attitudes about what they should be used for.

"A lot of senior managers think that ICT is only for text-based applications," says Carolyn Murray.

But the project won some new converts once they saw te standard of the work being produced.

The Salt Museum inspired crystalline digital images, and handmade pots of salt at various stages of refinement, black and white still-life drawings of ancient implements and elaborately layered wall hangings.

The canal group produced a series of huge, woven willow figures representing the cramped and strenuous life endured by barge dwellers, collages of paraphernalia mounted in life-buoy housings and ceramic press moulds of found objects.

The silk and cotton museums provided natural media that evolved into outsize silk worms, columns of patchwork squares and batik prints.

These colourful, eclectic and accomplished works of art will be on show at the Woodford Lodge Art Gallery in Winsford until July 6. After that they will go on to satellite exhibitions - curated by the pupils themselves - at the four participating museums. A learning resource pack will go out to schools in the county later this year to encourage similar collaborations once the project winds up.

Like the museums, the gallery at Woodford Lodge secondary school, one of the 10 that took part, is something of a hidden gem. The school was originally for children from the overspill estates built during Manchester's slum clearance programme in the 1960s. But the exodus to this part of Cheshire was overestimated and the school was left with an unused, two-storey central space that has evolved into an art gallery devoted to school exhibitions.

A smart catalogue accompanies this exhibition. "Their pieces of work are in here as they would be in a professional gallery - it's important for the teachers to see that too," says Pauline Harrison, Cheshire's senior adviser for art and design "The spin-off for teachers is that they have learned skills from the artists. This was presenting them with new ways of working and new approaches. We have always encouraged teachers to take visits in this country and abroad - it's a strong aspect of our in-service training programme - and teachers have been to New Mexico and Italy with our young people. But this has been about exploring nearer to home."

There have been other benefits. One of the schools, Leftwich high school, has been nominated for the Artworks national children's art award on the strength of its contribution, and others have reported an increase in the numbers opting for art.

It has all been an eye-opener for the 300 pupils who took part. "An essential element of this has been to encourage young people to go to museums," says Carolyn Murray. "They may never have seen a museum in terms of art. This has been about changing their perception. It seems really obvious but some of them had such a narrow view of what artists do. Some of them have actually said 'oh, this is art!'" Further details on Recreating Cheshire project from Carolyn Murray, tel: 0151 652 8086 or Pauline Harrison, tel: 01606 814351

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