I was attracted by the Belle Vue Project the moment I read about it in Drama Placement Handbook. I immediately decided I would do a placement for my course and this was the one. The performance project is about the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens which existed in eastern Manchester from 1836 to early 1980s. According to the handbook, we were expected to work on the Belle Vue archive which is stored at Chetham’s Library, interview local people and devise a performance for the local community and schools. I was fascinated by the idea of the project to activate the past of a city in such a creative way. At the same time, as an international student, I think it would be a fantastic way to learn about some local history and culture of Manchester and Britain. It was interesting that in the end the placement holders turned out to be Dhana, Rachel from Canada and me from China, the only three international students in our class.
The process of looking into the archive was exciting. Apart from the archive at the library, we also did on-line research, viewing videos, reading people’s memories and listening to music of the past century. Belle Vue must be a place beyond the imagination of the new generation. It almost contained everything one expected to find, exotic animals, funfair, firework displays, beauty pageants, dancing halls, circus, speedway, superstars and event political events! The number of visitors to Belle Vue could reach up to 180,000 on a bank holiday Monday, which was, I suppose, an incredible figure for today’s amusement park. It represented the bygone e lifestyles when people were still used to go out to play and meet each other.
We decided to visit the site of Belle Vue in Gorton in February. The trip was a huge contrast to the exciting experience of archive and online research. We walked along Hyde Road and Kirkmanshulm Lane where the outer ring of Belle Vue used to be and tried to imagine the sights and sounds of a splendid amusement park. It was hard, especial in front of the rusty fences with messy weeds and bushes. We rarely saw a person walking by. There was only the whiz of chilly winds. Although it was not surprising, we were still disappointed to find that nothing in the site could be recognised as a former amusement park, not to mention ‘the showground of the world’.
Over a period of time, I felt like I was working on the ‘archive’ of a non-existent place or a place from another world. But as the interview section went on I learned more about Belle Vue in an internal and emotional dimension. It still lives within people. Some said Belle Vue equated their whole childhood memories. Some told us the spirit of it still stimulated their life today. We even encountered Belle Vue in unexpected situations. One day, we were rehearsing in the green room in Martin Harris Centre. During the break, one cleaning lady came in, leaning against the mop with both hands and said steadily, just like uttering one of the lines in our performance, ‘are you talking about Belle Vue? I know about it. There were fireworks, circus, dancing halls. I went dancing there when I was young.’ I did not know why, but this was one of the most touching moments for me. Probably it was some kind of connection?
Over the last few years many individuals have started to “feel the pinch” in the wake of unemployment and funding cuts (specifically in the arts sector). It’s a worrying prospect for students who are approaching the end of their studies and for this MA Literature student it’s been quite nerve-wracking.
So I was both surprised and thrilled when I was given the opportunity to work alongside the Chetham’s Library because it meant that I would be able to acquire and develop some necessary practical skills which related to my interests. For anyone unfamiliar Chetham’s Library, a college accommodating priests until 1653, is the oldest English-speaking library in the world.
It has approximately 100,000 books and has more recently begun the task of digitizing its archives. A lot of these documents date from roughly 350 years ago although there is also a focus on “living history” and collecting information on contemporary events.
My task was to co-ordinate interviews with people who had memories of growing up or working in Belle Vue during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was refreshing to be given the responsibility of managing my own time and research and even though I had previous experience working on interviews for a London film company I wanted to learn more. In order to better understand the practicalities of the role, I attended the North West oral history conference where I was able to speak with professionals and learn a great deal about audio recording, funding and so forth.
Liaising with local experts http://www.nwsoundarchive.co.uk/archive-catalogue.aspx and using the Chetham’s Jennison archive containing information about the early history of Belle Vue’s circus, funfair and zoo provided some useful background knowledge too.
The interviews themselves were of particular interest given that each one was unique. One potential challenge was ensuring the person’s comments were captured clearly throughout the recording and resisting the natural inclination to engage in dialogue which could interrupt their train of thought of the other person and ruin the recording. This is easier in theory than in practice and also made for some awkward pauses when it dawned on certain individuals that they would be talking continuously into a recorder for the next hour or so.
An unusual aspect of the interviews that I picked up on personally was the fact that both myself and the interviewee tended to indulge in a bit sociolinguistic code switching reverting to a more local dialect in conversation and adopting a neutral dialect when the recording took place. This got me thinking about the way language itself acts as an intermediary medium and the effect this has had on spoken histories (for instance the likelihood of spontaneous or ambiguous statements which may have lead to misinterpretation or misrepresentation). It was interesting to note that when the participants were asked what images or thoughts came to their mind when they heard the words “Belle Vue”, no answer was identical which raised intriguing questions about the construction and reliability of memories. I also found the interviews prompted the issue of peoples motivations for preserving history which are varied, be it social obligation or personal legacy such as the examples I came across while researching similar projects like http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/the-listening-project or http://photooftheday.hughcrawford.com/
It is intended that more interviews will be recorded as part of the Manchester History Festival 2014 and will soon be available on the Chetham’s Library website. In the meantime here is the link to the Library and a couple of interesting projects which might take your fancy! http://www.chethams.org.uk/index.html http://www.sketchbookproject.com/library/ http://www.suitcaseexhibit.org/indexhasflash.html
My ICP placement was located at the Manchester Art Gallery. My job there was to update the catalogue descriptions and photos of the works on paper collection. Many of the pieces of the collection have very limited or incomplete information on the database. This updating of the database is a part of an on-going process that has involved many volunteers over the last few years. The database system that they use is the KeEmu; this work has greatly enhanced my knowledge of this database. The volunteers’ jobs are to check the information already on the database, update any missing or incorrect information, retake all of the photographs at a higher quality, and provide more detailed descriptions. The descriptions of the works are published on the Manchester Art Gallery’s website for the general public to view. The more accurate and detailed the descriptions can help increase the accessibility of the collection for the general public.
There are a series of cabinets with boxes of different works on paper. Most of the pieces were prints but towards the end of my placement I was able to catalogue some watercolours.
The box of watercolours that I was able to catalogue was very exciting. There were over 150 pages of watercolours. Each page had to be individually photographed, but since they only had one catalogue and accession number there was only one description needed. The watercolours were from the Redgrave collection, titled “Wildflowers of Surrey”. They were painted from about 1860-1880 by a woman named Elizabeth (Edith) Redgrave. They were beautiful renderings of the local wild flowers in Surrey. The collection was at one point bound into a book, presumably by the artist. Sometime later the paintings were then cut out of the book, so that they could be displayed. There is not much written about the artist but there was one page in the artist file that was interesting. She was able to put such tiny detail into her paintings and you can tell that he wanted them to be as close to accurate as possible. The page is a photocopy from a catalogue book on an exhibition at the Horsefall Museum. The Horsefall Museum was the art museum in Manchester before the Manchester Art Gallery was established. This is able to show that the Redgrave collection came to the Manchester Art Gallery from the Horsefall Museum. At one time some of her watercolours were on display at the Horsefall Museum, alongside other plant renderings including a drawing by Burne Jones. It is interesting how things can get lost to time, as these paintings have been seen in years.
It has been a great learning experience working at the Manchester Art Gallery. It has been fun to work with such wonderful works of art and to get to see the day to day work that is needed to keep a museum functioning in this modern world.
“When the walls came down, the magic spilled everywhere, and it will be all over the city, and it will live…”
David Grey kindly shared these words with me. David worked at Belle Vue, and I was fortunate to hear his stories as part of the Theatre-Making: Belle Vue placement. Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, operating in East Manchester from 1836 until 1981, attracted up to 2,000,000 visitors per year from England and beyond. It featured a zoo, amusement park, event halls, a circus and a speedway, and hosted concerts, competitions, wrestling matches, political rallies, and firework displays.
The placement was hosted by Chetham’s Library (UK’s oldest public library and home to an extensive Belle Vue archive) in collaboration with the University of Manchester. In a team with two other MA Theatre students, our task was to create a performance about Belle Vue, drawing upon the archives and oral history interviews we conducted with people who visited or worked there. Besides devising the script, rehearsing and performing, we were responsible for coordinating venues and publicity, and liaising with people in Gorton – a deprived area of Manchester where Belle Vue once was.
As an Applied Theatre student, I was drawn to this placement due to my interest in community-based theatre and social engagement. I was also drawn by the prospect of speaking to people with direct experience of Belle Vue, and then embodying their words in performance.
Initially, I questioned the relevance of Belle Vue, wondering how a place closed for over 30 years could still be important today. I also wondered what the significance of Belle Vue could possibly be for people who had never been there. Answers to these questions began to reveal themselves during the interviews. As an example, David Grey, mentioned above, shared his memories of Belle Vue. His story about Suzie, an ape who became ill, moved me deeply and became a key piece of text for the play.
As an ape keeper in the zoo, David was instructed to shoot Suzie with a dart gun to administer medicine, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he “spoke” to Suzie through the metal door of her cage. She “responded” to him, inviting him in. He gave her the medicine without having to shoot her. As he was leaving her cage, Suzie put her arms around him and hugged him. David’s experience with Suzie changed the course of his life forever – it inspired him to bring animals into the realm of social work, allowing people who’d suffered abuse to experience the healing respect, affection and love that can transpire between humans and animals.
Belle Vue indeed was a source of connection: between people and animals; within community; to childlike play. It truly was a place where magic happened!
We performed our 40-minute play at the Gorton Monastery to a highly appreciative crowd of about 100. The Monastery, recently reclaimed and revitalized by people in Gorton, was the ideal venue. We also had the pleasure of performing to enthusiastic Year 2 and 3 students at Aspinal Primary School who studied Belle Vue last year.
I’m grateful for the experience of playwriting and performing, and for a deeper understanding of the importance of knowing the history of one’s community.
I connected with people in Gorton by hearing their stories and memories, and experienced first-hand the “magic” of Belle Vue. And I agree with David Grey about the magic – “it will live.” I sincerely hope that the project will continue next year, build upon our achievements, and become a permanent form of community engagement in Gorton.
Education and the pursuit of a twenty first century pedagogy has shaped most of my academic and professional career to date. It is my strongest conviction that everyone has the right to an education, and everyone has the capacity to gain from new experiences. I am inspired by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and the Constructivist view that all learning is experiential and inherently social. It would appear that our museums are the ideal environment for such learning to take place.
I have worked in statutory educational institutions and more informal learning environments, and I am pleased to observe that the two are not mutually exclusive. Schools and museums have an interesting working relationship; the strengths of both are negotiated to offer the best possible experience for the learner. My placement at the People’s History Museum would involve finding out more about the dynamics of this particular partnership.
The People’s History Museum tells the story of the struggle for democracy and equality in the UK, which is eloquently encapsulated by the institution’s maxim; “There have always been ideas worth fighting for.” I first visited the museum two years ago during my PGCE year. I was impressed by the interpretational methods throughout the galleries which transformed difficult and often dry political events into personally relevant and deeply engaging issues. When the opportunity arose to work closely with the museum’s learning team, I didn’t hesitate.
My main task at the museum was to assist the development of a brand new creative writing session with the working title ‘Every Object Tells a Story’. This would involve working closely with schools and various other practitioners across the region, in order to research what makes a good creative writing session in the environment of the museum. However, I was also involved with adapting the existing learning offers to render them more accessible to a wider audience with a diverse range of needs.
The PHM are working in partnership with the remarkable Lancasterian School. This is a school specialising in communication and interaction specifically for children who have physical, complex medical and or complex communication difficulties. Conversation and debate between visitors are central to the museum’s learning programme; however communication in these sessions is often limited to verbal or written forms. Working closely with the Lancasterian, the learning team are creating alternative forms of feedback which would increase interaction with the popular Living Histories performances.
I was responsible for adapting No Bed of Roses, a performance which sees the protagonist Gabrielle battle with the difficult decision of leaving her home and family in St Kitts to find work and a new way of life in Manchester. The audience are asked to help her make this decision. They think carefully about how she must be feeling, and offer advice and solutions. By offering a range of visual prompts, such as emotive facial expressions and various words of advice related to the story, the learners are able to communicate their response via an interactive whiteboard.
Working on a project such as this has reiterated the importance of making cultural education relevant and accessible to everyone.
My name is Eva Kovatsova and I am an AGMS student. Among my four placement choices was my current placement at the Bolton Museums as a collection assistant working on the Constance Howarth exhibition. As I found out from the placement description Constance Howarth was mainly a textile designer and I found it more than interesting that I might have the opportunity to work with textiles. One of the reasons I chose this placement was the challenge it had with it. As I am not an expert on textiles it was a good opportunity to learn something new and widen my knowledge about textiles. The other reason was that it gave the perfect opportunity to learn and be involved at almost every stage of a collection’s life in the museum, from the beginning of its arrival through its documentation until the display.
However, the main target of the placement was to document a recently acquired collection of a local milliner, fabric designer, dressmaker, business woman and sometimes model, Constance Howarth, I had the opportunity to help with the exhibition about her life and work as well. She became famous with her designs during the 1950s in the UK and later she captivated USA too.
The museum first came across her work when they were working on the Jubilee exhibition last year. Sadly Constance Howarth passed away before she could see the exhibition but the museum decided to acquire her designs and some of her personal belongings and honour her with a exhibition about her life and work. She was a very creative designer, her designs range from the 1950s to the 1980s. The clothes and outfits purchased by the museum are mostly from the 1970s and 1980s with beautiful and vivid colours and some are very particular of their kind. The rest of the collection consists of her sketchbooks, family photo albums, photos about her as a model wearing her own designs, a press cuttings book and a suitcase full of her painted pattern designs which contained more than 800 pieces. The pattern designs are fascinating, they have the same vivid colour range as the dresses in the collection.
I was extremely excited to be part of the exhibition about her work and life which run between January 26 and April 7. It was a small exhibition but it represented her talent and her charm and fame during the 1950s. She was a ‘Girl with go’ and I am more than happy that I could met her and knew her through her amazing work.
The arts sector can often appear an exclusive, self-involved, alienating institution where the only way is in the helping hand of familiar friends. The backgrounds of those work in the arts sector usually range from series of arts form, dance to drama, music to mcing: a discipline in creative expression is key. As for me, an (MA) in Contemporary Literature and Culture, who has spent many years reading and writing in isolation, I already stood out like an outsider.
One of the reasons I pursued an MA is because I feared literature itself has become inaccessible to large sections of the population. Institutionalised in the university, this great democratic art form had exited the public arena. What I seek to do later in life, and specifically with this placement, was to bridge this gap, invite those previously excluded and make it accessible to all again.
As different as the forms are, the participatory arts sector is about bridging this same gap. The project I am helping to support is called RE:Scape, a story focused upon one’s journey into the digital world. RE:Scape follows on in the tradition of much great dystopian fiction. With a contemporary twist, participants, adolescents from Greater Manchester, are involved in a space that serves to facilitate and develops their own creative expression through a range of mediums. Through this creative process a narrative is formed, written their own language and about the issues of young people today.
The project is ambitious. Conceptually, it enters the debates of what the digital world is and what role it plays in constructing our contemporary identity. Artistically, the piece strays into the non-traditional environment of the theatre space; the story is an invitation, rather than a self-enclosed escapism. My role has been to support the project in an administrative capacity and an artistic capacity, utilising my organisational skills and literary skills to help construct a narrative. One pertinent situation was that some of the participants struggled to get involved with the writing task, a writing task that asked them to construct who they are and who they want to be. Instead of writing we opted to discuss philosophical issues such as the meaning of happiness and the nature of identity and how it applied to them. I also introduced them to a range of poetic forms, free verse and concrete, which showed them poetic form is not an alien structure that has to rhyme, but organic to the comfortable way of expressing yourself. Our output is now included in the show, where these young people who previously felt shy and lacked confidence in their writing are now going to perform as the final act in the show.
It is from this ambitious creative process that I have found a place to make literature a social use without it being patronising. I have established my space within the arts sector and developed new abilities to communicate with young people. Most importantly, I’ve made literature accessible!
The final show is on the 28th and 29th May at the Z-Arts Centre. You are more than welcome to come and check out our trailer below!