A collection of objects not known to this coast

Outreach day at Happisburgh CE VC Primary School

18 October 2011


This day was imaginatively framed.  The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts had received a letter from George O’Connell, a Norfolk fisherman from a sea-faring family.  George had inherited from his adventurous grandfather a collection of objects not known to this coast, and wondered whether SCVA might be able to furnish him with further information about them.  It transpired that some of the objects would be taken to SCVA for further study, while some could be made available for Happisburgh pupils and SCVA investigators to analyse at the school.  


So, the pupils were briefed in the necessary techniques for handling and scrutinising such objects in the proper manner, and then were able to unwrap and examine some of George’s collection.  They asked many questions about the objects.  What materials were the objects made from?  How had the paint been made with which some objects were marked?  Who had owned the objects?  Why had they been made, or what had they been used for?  Answers, or at least assertions, were offered too, and some groups were able to hold up these more definitive responses for further examination.  We heard some feedback from each group, before learning a little more about the probable provenance of at least these particular objects.  They seem to have come from Papua New Guinea.  Janet Woodcraft, a UEA science student, had put together an informative set of slides about North America, from where other objects in George O’Connell’s collection have originated.  Janet drew links between coastal erosion along Norfolk’s coast and that of Alaska, and the effects of this on the local inhabitants.  Her talk planted some ideas for the pupils to re-consider on their forthcoming visit to SCVA to see the rest of George’s objects. 


In groups, pupils invented a short dramatic presentation based on what they had encountered so far.  One group imagined a voyage from Alaska to Papua New Guinea, and drew a careful map of parts of the journey.  Several groups enjoyed acting out a caribou-hunt.


After lunch we looked at a handful of slides which foregrounded various kinds of patterning on the objects, or on similar kinds of objects from PNG, then braved the blustery day to collect sketches, rubbings and physical materials from the school-grounds in preparation for the making activity.  The imaginative theme was extended when pupils undertook to believe they had never encountered these familiar places, patterns and materials before.  


Back inside, we used what we had brought back to mark long thin paper-strips individually, and then to develop collaborative images.  One pupil cut a leaf into the shape of a car and attached it to her strip, having already threaded a long stick through the paper to mimic a white-lined road.  Another pupil pressed a daisy into her paper to colour in a circle, making a pale sun.  A third managed to brush free all the seeds from a prickly seed-head, and find a use for these on her strip.  She told me how the wind would loosen the seeds and carry them away to begin a new growth.  


To end the day pupils went back out into the chill wind in two groups to work with artist Mark Haywood, who had prepared a ‘slip’ of watery clay using two different kinds and colours of clay from the local Happisburgh beach.  The idea was to use the ‘slip’ as a kind of ink on Perspex oblongs, and to draw or press images from the individual or collaborative strips into this, then print the results onto strips of prepared fabric.  The adverse weather made this more difficult than had been anticipated, and also, sad to say, more messy. 


Finally the pupils were left with some decisions to make.  Which objects ought George to give to a gallery or museum, and which ought he to keep, if any?  Should any object he donates (for example to SCVA) be held safely in store, or put on display?  And might the monoprints created this afternoon be suitable for sending as a gift to young people in PNG?  Perhaps by the time the pupils come to visit SCVA after half-term they will have had the chance to decide.