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Creative Wiltshire on show in Chippenham

Balance – Sarah Purvey

I had the pleasure of visiting Chippenham Museum recently and was able to catch the Sarah Purvey retrospective ‘A Decade On‘. This is part of a programme of short exhibitions celebrating the huge wealth of creative talent in Wiltshire. The exhibition was held in the Museum’s elegant temporary exhibition space.

I wasn’t familiar with Sarah’s work but my father for many years was an enthusiastic amateur potter so I am always interested in artists who use this media.

Finding that Sarah was in the gallery was an added bonus. She told me it was so lovely to have her work on display in her ‘local’ gallery and confessed that she had popped in several times during the exhibition period. She was due to hold a ‘meet the artist’ event the following day.

I enjoyed the opportunity to chat with Sarah about her work. Interestingly she didn’t see them as ‘pots’ or ‘ceramics’ they are artworks. She views her two and three dimensional works as different ways of expressing herself. Her palette is mostly monochrome (“I don’t do really do colour!” she joked) but I loved her piece ‘Balance’ where the raw colour of the clay really stood out amongst the other more muted drawings and sculptures.

The sculptures are coil pots and the elegant wave like pattern inside the pieces created in their construction echo many of the painted surfaces and paintings.

“Based in Calne, Sarah Purvey creates powerful, sculptural ceramics which combine monumentality and subtlety to unique effect. Her sculptures and drawings are united by a bold and confident use of mark making, and their expression of the inner journey and personal landscape of the artist.”

sarah purvey ‘A decade on’ exhibition programme – chippenham museum

This exhibition is part of a summer programme ARTSPACE@Chippenham Museum running until 27 July organised by Mel Barnett, the brilliant Curator of the Museum. Mel is determined to draw attention to the creativity and the talent in Wiltshire and this rapid-fire programme is a great way to do it. See the image below for the remaining programme.

This season of exhibitions and the Creative Wiltshire programme are celebrating the ongoing inspiration that Wiltshire provides to artists of all kinds. If you want to find out more why not visit The Salisbury Museum’s current exhibition Creative Wiltshire: A Celebration which provides an “eclectic and visually stunning celebration of art in Wiltshire“?

Chippenham Museum is free to enter and supported by Chippenham Town Council and the permanent collection provides an interesting timeline of this ancient town that dates back to Saxon times and beyond and reminds us of those industries and crafts that have disappeared. Any new (or old) resident of Chippenham should make the time to visit this wonderful record of the town’s history. We should all understand more about the history of the place we live in.

I particularly love these yellowing clippings that tell the story of the foundation of the Museum in the 1960s.

Do make the time to visit the Museum. The volunteer welcome team are friendly and there is plenty to see. The ARTSPACE@Chippenham programme will provide plenty of opportunities to return.

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Devizes – Caen Hill Locks and more

The Easter weekend sunshine coaxed me out to finally make a visit to the Caen Hill Locks near Devizes that I’d been promising myself for ages. Plainly many others decided to do the same as the car park was busy on Easter Monday.

On arrival, I was delighted to find the Diamond Jubilee Wood funded by the Forestry Commission as part of a national scheme to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and full of native species which will in time create a rich habitat for wildlife.

The Locks themselves are undoubtedly impressive. It is one of the longest continuous flight of locks in the country, with a staircase of 16 locks the centre piece of a series of an incredible 29 locks in total. These were designed by John Rennie to solve the fact that the Canal has to negotiate a 273 ft drop within 2.5 miles as it travels through the Vale of Pewsey.

We talked to a party taking their boat through the locks. They thought it would take them at least 3 hours to complete. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted! This marvellous piece of engineering was created between 1794 and 1810, with the Caen Hill Flight the last stretch to be completed. The locks also have unique side pounds where boats would have waited as they traveled up and down the Canal. It’s heard to imagine this part of Wiltshire as a motorway of the 19th century carrying goods to and from London and Bristol along the Canal before trains and better roads meant that they had fallen out of use by the second half of the 20th century. The pounds are now havens of wildlife as they are not deep enough for boats to use now. The nesting swan close to the towpath would never have found a spot here in the heyday of the Canal.

I remember as a child in the 1970s being taken to somewhere along the route of the Kennet and Avon by my parents who were interested to find out more about the restoration of the canal which was then in its early days. I don’t know which stretch we visited but I do remember seeing the drained canal, the rubbish at the bottom of the channel and the people working hard to repair and clean up the canal so that it could become usable once more. Here I am in 2019 looking at the fruits of their labours.

We walked right into town to the Devizes Wharf where we watched as the MV Kenavon Venture set off to give visitors an experience of travelling along the Canal. This is yet another heritage attraction in Wiltshire dependent on the assistance of volunteers. Canal and River Trust volunteers at the floating visitor centre were friendly and knowledgeable and The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust run the Kenavon Venture and the small museum at Devizes Wharf. Their AGM is coming up soon and they have some volunteer vacancies if you would like to get involved.

A WWII pillbox tucked away near the Marina reminded us that the Canals were an important part of our infrastructure that needed to be protected in case of invasion by the German army.

Devizes is undoubtedly an excellent destination for visitors and one which is often overshadowed by the more famous destinations in Wiltshire such as Salisbury, Stonehenge or Stourhead. The Canal and its Museum, the Wiltshire Museum with its nationally significant archaeological collections, the Wadworth Brewery and Devizes market and independent shops mean that there is more than one day’s worth of things to do here. It’s close to the Avebury part of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site and there are plenty of excellent walks to other sites such as Roundway Down or Adam’s Grave at Alton Barnes.

It also has a thriving cultural scene with its Arts Festival and annual Carnival, independent cinema and plenty of nice places to eat.

The volunteers were able to provide information for visitors on the history of the Canal and things to see and there were a selection of both free and paid-for publications available that were informative, attractive and easy to read. There were clear signposts and information boards to help orientate the visitor. The Canal is a wonderful place to relax, enjoy nature, wonder at the engineering skills of our Georgian ancestors and to give thanks for those volunteers who worked so hard to restore the infrastructure so that we can all enjoy it now. They have a nice cafe too! I’ll definitely be back.

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Malmesbury – oodles of heritage and a sense of place

One of the joys of freelancing is that you get to travel around, meet new people and discover new places and stories. I guess I’m basically nosey and I’m lucky to be able to have these opportunities to indulge my curiosity. I had reason to go to Malmesbury on the Wiltshire / Gloucestershire border recently. It’s a town with a huge amount of history and it knows it!

The town’s Neighbourhood Plan 2015 recognises the essential historic character of the town with its hilltop silouhette, central place of the Abbey and the ancient network of streets at the town’s centre

The setting to Malmesbury and its Abbey in
particular will continue to be the most
distinctive feature of the town’s appearance.
This aspect will be protected and enhanced over
the coming years. Its historic buildings and the
pattern of its streets, paths, public spaces and
alleyways will be conserved and the public realm

Malmesbury neighbourhood plan 2015 volume 1 A7.1

I first went to Malmesbury a couple of years ago with colleagues from the Wiltshire Archaeology Service to see some of the projects that they were working on. This included a house under restoration whose garden, an old burgage plot, met the towering town walls. The views were spectacular. It’s one of the many towns in Wiltshire where you just have to scratch the surface to discover something fascinating and ancient.

On this visit I discovered Malmesbury’s beautiful Market Cross, which Pevsner describes as “one of the finest in England”, had been damaged by a recycling lorry late last year. This Grade 1 listed structure was constructed in the late 15th century and has some fine carvings. The photograph below shows the extent of the damage. A post on the Malmesbury Town Council website dated 12 February 2019 notes work is progressing and that this is a ‘lengthy process’. Having cared for historic buildings with English Heritage I feel their pain and frustration with the time that a repair of such an historic structure will take. However, it seemed that there was a missed opportunity here.

Malmesbury’s Market Cross

It may be that I am unaware of such a project, but it seemed that the time that a conservation project like this takes could be used to its advantage and that some community engagement could be undertaken to help the residents of Marlborough understand the Market Cross better. A Town Council minute notes that the Civic Trust wanted to undertake an aerial survey in 2017 – I do hope that this was completed as the survey will be useful in ensuring that the work restores the Cross to its former state. Some really fun and creative work could be done by local schools and groups to help them discover more about the Cross and the history of the Town. What about an inter-generational reminiscence project asking people about their memories – after all how many sweethearts must have met here?!

After pondering this, on the recommendation of a friend, I sought out the Moravian Chapel. I had read about this fabulous community project run by the Friends of the Athelstan Museum. Although closed, our attempt to enter had not gone unnoticed and one of the volunteers graciously showed us in. I was not disappointed, this is an exemplar project and the quality of the work was evident. It’s a beautiful and flexible space which still retains the character of the Chapel but can be used for a variety of community events. As a result of their work this beautiful heritage building has a long term future.

Moravian Star outside the newly refurbished Moravian Chapel, Malmesbury

Finally I took a trip to the Athelstan Museum itself. I had heard lots of good things about them and was not disappointed. This Museum which is entirely run by volunteers offered a warm and knowledgeable welcome from the volunteer on duty when I arrived and excellent displays, well presented on the various aspects to Malmesbury’s long history – and its all free.

I particularly liked the hats which featured Malmesbury lace and the temporary display on the pubs of Malmesbury as well as the timeline and features on specific events and people such as Thomas Hobbes.

Sometime after my visit I happened to meet up with a colleague that I knew had worked with the Museum. He confirmed that the team there run the Museum well and that he often uses them as an example of best practice. They are an Arts Council Accredited Museum and from my discussions with the volunteers on duty their members are actively engaged in research into various aspects of the history of the town, including the Market Cross. They definitely had a sense of place. It’s so important for us to understand where we live and how it has developed and changed over the years and the Athelstan Museum does an excellent job at sharing this with residents and visitors alike. (Oh and they have a nice shop too!)

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Archaeology – supporting the well-being agenda in Wiltshire

I attended the annual Wiltshire in Archaeology Conference last weekend. This is arranged by the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society (Wiltshire Museum) and the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group. It’s been a highlight of the year for me for several years now. I first attended as part of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Coordination Unit. We were one of several organisations who took a stand at the conference. It was always a good opportunity to talk about the work of the Coordination Unit and future plans for the World Heritage Site and to distribute the annual newsletter Megalith.

Since becoming a freelancer I have continued attend. It’s a great way to find out about what’s going on in Wiltshire’s wonderfully rich archaeological landscape, catch up with colleagues and keep up to date on the latest trends and developments.

Durrington Walls Dig 2016

The format is tried and tested now and always begins with an excellent round up from Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger, County Archaeologist for Wiltshire, of the projects and development led archaeology that her team have dealt with over the last 12 months. It never ceases to amaze me that we are constantly adding to our knowledge of the history of Wiltshire with not just new Roman villas but whole communities still being discovered. The chalk soil of many areas of Wiltshire means that the archaeological deposits are often very close to the surface and consequently vulnerable to ploughing or animal disturbance.

For the conference this year there were two particular stand outs. Firstly the work of the Map of Australia Trust (MOAT). This project has restored the map of Australia at Compton Chamberlayne which was created by Australian troops during the First World War. Spearheaded by the inspirational Helen Roberts who grew up in the shadow of the Map, the project was entirely run by volunteers with support from Historic England who undertook a landscape survey of the monument before restoration work began. This Scheduled Ancient Monument is now off the Heritage at Risk list and should be maintained for years to come by the Trust. Not only did Helen and her volunteers restore this monument but the project also sparked a wider interest in the history of this area during the First World War where a large number of Anzac troops passed through the camps established at the foot of the Salisbury Plain at Compton Chamberlayne. They will be marking Anzac Day on 25 April so why not join them?

(c) MOAT
Map of Australia 2018 ©MOAT

The project demonstrates how a small number of people can make a positive difference. The ever increase in digital communication and our busy over pressured lives often lead to lack of  involvement in our local communities. It was clear from Helen’s presentation that those who participated really benefitted from being part of a group that was making a literally visible difference. With so many good community projects out there crying for volunteers to commit just a small contribution of time how do we encourage more to discover that they get back so much more than they give and that they will feel so much better for it?

Linked to that idea the other stand out theme for me were two projects that further demonstrated the impact that archaeology and historic landscapes can have on our wellbeing. I think that the benefits of culture and heritage on wellbeing is now well established in the sector. There are numerous case studies and reports that reflect this. Social prescribing is being used more and more to tackle social isolation and mental health issues.

Daniel O’Donoghue of the Richmond Fellowship and Laura Drysdale of The Restoration Trust spoke about the Human Henge project   which I have been following since it began in 2016. The Human Henge Project involves English Heritage, the National Trust, Bournemouth University, Wiltshire Council and the local NHS mental health partnership and is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This is a project which demonstrates how organisations working together as partners can produce extraordinary things. By its nature Human Henge has only impacted on relatively small numbers but the benefits have been already recognised and I understand that there are plans to roll this out to other parts of the country.

The project introduces people with mental health problems who may not normally access heritage sites to the wonderfully fascinating landscapes of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. Experts give their time to interpret and explain what they know about the ancient landscape. The participants are active, not passive, partners in the process who are valued and take part in the debate on how the ancient landscape was used throughout the 10 week programme. It uses guided walks across the landscape and music to help people explore the historic landscape. The funding enables key barriers such as entry fees and transport to be overcome.

By its nature Human Henge has only impacted on relatively small numbers but the benefits have been already recognised and I understand that there are plans to roll this out to other parts of the country.

Finally, Richard Osgood (2019 Archaeologist of the Year) of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation gave us an overview of the much lauded Operation Nightingale. This project has supported many serving soldiers and veterans to recover from physical and mental injuries through archaeology. Richard says soldiering has many parallels with archaeology and the participants love the camaraderie of sitting around the camp fire spinning yarns as well as the experiences of excavating a range of different sites. I am most familiar with the Barrow Clump excavations just north of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. There have been spectacular finds there but the Project has also worked on First World War practice trenches on the Wiltshire/ Hampshire border and on a Second World War aeroplane crash site.  Again, the impact of archaeology on the wellbeing on the participants has been well demonstrated and several have gone on to train and work as archaeologists with commercial units. So it has not only provided healing but employment opportunities too.

The past is an endlessly fascinating area and everyone can find something to absorb them and take them away from their own personal issues. The physical nature of walking or excavating a trench takes us out of ourselves and provides much needed vitamin D and exercise. Being with others and being part of a communal activity helps put things in perspective. Reaffirming a sense of place and identity. All these and more can help us re-balance our lives and feel better.

Bronze Age Cremation Urn Barrow Clump 2014
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Museum Freelance Conference 2019

I first came across the Museum Freelance Network around a year ago when I heard about their conference last year which was held at the London Canal Museum. As a relative newcomer to freelancing it was great to be with other freelancers facing the same problems that I was: work flow, insufficient budgets and juggling work-life balance. More experienced freelancers generously shared information and tips with newbies like myself. It was a great event both practical and inspiring.

Since then I have been following the inspirational duo who head up the MF Network Marge Ainsley and Christina Lister on Twitter and through their e-newsletter. I recently attended their How to set up, survive and thrive as a freelancer in the cultural sector, a one day training course which was full of information that Marge and Christina wished that they had known when they first started out. They have another one coming up in June and I heartily recommend it if you are thinking about freelancing or have just started.

I’ve always believed that networking events like this year’s Conference in Manchester at the Manchester Art Gallery are essential to support professional development. They can reinvigorate and remind you of what you love about the sector, confirm or challenge your ideas, refresh your practice and introduce you to new ideas and best practice by other organisations or colleagues.

The fringe event at the People’s History Museum provided an opportunity to discover how this institution is changing its role as a campaigning museum rather than a museum of campaigns with a myriad of stories about people who challenged society from early trade unions, anti-slavery, equal pay, votes for women and the Chartists. There were lots of artefacts on display telling the stories of the many brave individuals who, in some cases, sacrificed their lives or suffered hardship to provide the freedoms that we often take for granted.

The displays provided plenty of topics for discussion about museum practice as well as finding out about the work of the conference delegates with the conversation continuing afterwards over drinks and dinner.

The Conference proper consisted of a range of speakers, not all directly related to museum freelancing. They were all very generous in sharing their experiences honestly with us including how their personal lives had impacted on their work. A strong theme was well-being and self-care with a powerful listening exercise from Simon Seligman and the personal stories of Jim Richardson and Claire Turner where life events forced a complete re-evaluation of the way that they worked. The first and last speakers, Alistair Hudson of Manchester Art Gallery and Esme Ward of Manchester Museum both spoke about how the purpose of museums are beginning to change and perhaps even return to their original (mostly) Victorian, public spirited and philanthropic foundations. Museums should be ‘useful’, loved and be places of care and compassion not just places that dole out ‘learning’ from the great and the good. They should be ‘constituent’ museums that are part of the civic network. There was a generous spirit in the room and lots of networking chatter.

Not forgetting Caroline Newns, Amina Lone and Laura Weldon. All of whom gave inspirational and informative presentations.

There was lots to learn and share. There is power in joining together. The Network seeks to work with organisations such as the Museums Association and AIM to ensure that Museums and freelancers can work together to achieve the best outcomes for all.

See you next year?

Jim Richardson
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Inspirational learning and engagement in Blaenavon World Heritage Site

I’ve just come back from a World Heritage UK meeting in Blaenavon World Heritage Site (WHS). The meeting was aimed at learning and engagement colleagues working in World Heritage Sites and it was great to see people representing sites as diverse as Fountain’s Abbey, Derwent Valley Mills, Kew, Saltaire, Frontiers of the Roman Empire and more! We also welcomed some of the UK’s tentative and aspiring World Heritage Sites from Shetland, North Wales, the Wirral and the Flow Country in Scotland.

It was really inspiring to be in the same room as colleagues who are all passionate about sharing what’s so special about their World Heritage Sites with the wider community.

We heard about the increasing role of person-centred engagement and using heritage to meet the individual needs of some really challenging and difficult to reach groups. We also thought about formal and informal learning in a more abstract way with Jamie Davies who has just completed his PhD Thesis with the Ironbridge Institute on World Heritage Learning which will be published shortly.

  • Derwent Valley Mills are using the inspiration of the entrepreneurial spirit of the inventors of factories to help young people to learn practical business skills.
  • Blaenavon Town Council and National Museum Wales are programming successful intergenerational activities working in partnerships in their Dementia Friendly town.
  • Torfaen Borough Council and the Blaenavon WHS team have been leading for some time on their Youth Ambassadors Scheme, which thanks to an injection of National Lottery Heritage Funding is set to expand to more World Heritage Sites across the UK.
  • Cadw through their Unloved Heritage project are meeting the needs of hard to reach young people often resulting in unexpected outcomes.

All of these projects have people at the centre and heritage is one tool in the practitioners toolkit but the impact on the individuals is meaningful and lasting.

All of this took place in the former Bath House of The Big Pit in Blaenavon. One of the joys of taking part in the World Heritage UK meetings is the opportunity to visit World Heritage Sites around the UK. Although not my first visit to Blaenavon it was my first (and it won’t be my last!) visit to The Big Pit, part of the National Museum Wales group. The trip underground was fascinating and brought to life by the ex-miners who are able to give first hand accounts of what life was like underground.

There are 27 mainland UK World Heritage Sites – these are sites on a par with Taj Mahal, the Pyramids at Giza and the Great Wall of China. Why not explore your own world class heritage sites this year?