Up until now, the main focus of the Past on Glass project has been on getting the bulk of the material in the collection rehoused and digitised. Our volunteers have also done some really interesting research, and we are trying to make some of that available in our weekly blog posts. We also have an exhibition planned for the summer. But in terms of ongoing interpretive work, education and outreach, our capacity has been very limited.
As part of our agreement with the Heritage Lottery Fund which funds our project, we undertook to create opportunities for the collection to used to provide worthwhile and valuable learning opportunities. With a background in museums education, it has also been a personal interest of mine to explore the collection in this way. As we have worked our way through this amazing collection of images, not really knowing what we would find as we did so, the real potential of what could be done with this archive has become very evident and it is something that we really hope to build on in the future.
One highlight on our activity plan – and something that we have been looking forward to for a long time – was a series of pre-arranged workshops with Sutton Mencap, a local charity, established in the 1940’s by parents and carers. The charity supports over 80 children and 200 adults with a learning disability in the Sutton area ‘to have fun, learn new skills, socialise and make friends’.
Throughout March we ran a series of workshops for a small group of visitors from this charity based on the idea of self-image and photography – using our glass plates as a starting point to think about some of the issues surrounding portraiture, both now, and in the historical context.
We were very lucky to have the help of Sarah Glover an heritage education facilitator, in the running of these sessions. Over three weeks, a group of nine participants plus their carers attended both Sutton Central Library and a local historic building, Honeywood Museum, to learn about the collection and be involved in activities designed to explore the collection: what it is; what it represents; and to see if it held any resonance for them, as young people who have grown up in a world ruled by technology and convenience.
The group explored the idea of portraiture, looking at images from the collection and seeing what visual clues they could decipher to tell them about the lives of the people depicted. Sarah used recorded sounds, music, smells, dressing up props and drama activities to help them explore what life would have been like 100 years ago. The group looked at their own lives and at old photos of their own to pinpoint items or interests that helped to define their own identities and then with the help of ipads and some simple photo-editing apps, the participants took photo portraits of themselves with items significant to them personally and ‘aged’ them to look like Edwardian images.
We also looked at the idea of all images being a construct of the photographer, and at how images can be edited after capture to give a particular image or message. We looked at modern images of Photo-shopping in magazines and at some editing done by Knights-Whittome on the glass plates themselves, and in a simple exercise, we asked the participants to create ‘made up’ portraits of their own by piecing together different facial features taken from images of themselves which we had taken and printed out from their ipads.
Finally, in a session at Honeywood House, a local museum with Edwardian interiors, we used the images that had been taken in previous workshops to make blueprints or cyanotypes of the group. Obviously we cannot expose our original glass negatives to prolonged sunlight so we used an online tutorial to expose light sensitive paper behind digitally printed paper negatives of the images our participants had created in previous workshops as well as of various found objects from the gardens and house.
The sessions were not only huge fun for all involved but produced some really beautiful results and proved to us that we can simplify and tackle some quite complex themes with some very simple activities and exercises.
Most importantly it is fantastic to see this material being discussed and re-imagined, and brought back to life by a group with such huge enthusiasm. Working with this kind of material is not all about obtaining accurate historical fact and research, it is also about inspiring thought about our lives, our communities and about how they have changed, and are changing over time. It is about bringing people together as communities and creating opportunities for meaningful discussion and for creativity and for fun. Thank you to Sarah Glover for running these fantastic sessions for us and thank you to Josephine, David, Peter, Michael, Rachel, Nicola, Kirsten, Wayne and Jade from Sutton Mencap for coming along. You made our March.
Here are some of the images of the sessions and of the work created by the group, reproduced with the permission of Sutton Mencap and the participants.