Stalham and Papua New Guinea

Culture of the Countryside Outreach

Stalham High School

18th July 2011

On Monday 18th July, the Sainsbury Centre travelled to Stalham High School to deliver a day long workshop as part of the School’s annual Literary Festival.

The workshop aimed to develop the student’s vocabulary whilst thinking about the theme of the relationships between identity and heritage, local and global. We were invited to help to take the pupils notionally ‘out of Stalham’, to widen their ideas about where they are from and its place in the world, but also to enable them to see their own local identities in new and positive ways.

29 children from year 9 took part in the workshop led by Veronica Sekules, Bee Farrell, Diana Pereira, Nell Croose Myhill and Artist Kate Munroe.

We started the day by looking at slides of Papua New Guinea in order to contextualise some of the objects we would be looking at later in the day. This prompted discussion about the geographical similarities and differences between the rural settings of Stalham and Papua New Guinea.

We moved across into the art room where the tables were prepared for handling with blankets and conservation grade tissue paper.

Two objects from the Sainsbury Centre Handling Collection were placed on each table and the students provided with handling gloves. The students were encouraged to act as museum professionals and treat the objects with great care, ensuring not to handle the weakest parts of the objects and always use two hands.

The students asked had 3 minutes to get to know each object of their table, asking questions and speculating about the possible answers.

This exercise generated a range of different questions including:

  1. What was its purpose?
  2. Who made it?
  3. Why put all the effort into making it?’
  4. What did it contain?
  5. What’s it made from?
  6. Could it symbolise something?
  7. What do the patterns mean?
  8. Why is it deformed?
  9. Who owned it?
  10. Who broke it?
  11. Why express the eyebrows?
  12. Why no elbows?
  13. Is it in a collection?
  14. Is it valuable?

These questions stimulated many interesting possible answers including:

  1. Protection
  2. Demonic
  3. Tribal
  4. Fragile
  5. Intricate
  6. Culture
  7. Religious
  8. Carved
  9. Spiritual
  10. Decorative
  11. Ceramic
  12. Inspiring
  13. Valuable

This exercise encouraged the students to look closely at unfamiliar objects, in order to stimulate new words and develop their vocabulary as a group.

The students then moved on to write a story in their groups about the object they had looked at using all the words they had generated in the previous task. The stories were all very different, but all of the groups created atmospheric settings which often engaged with their experience, attitudes and values and used a rich descriptive vocabulary generated during the first part of the day.

After break, Veronica talked about the objects, where they were from and what they were used for, the students were keen to know about the objects and many were pleased when their predictions were proved to be right!

Each student was then encouraged to develop their own character within the story, many characters took on the role of explorers discovering the objects, echoing the work they had done at the start of the day.

After developing their characters through writing and drawing, Kate Munroe introduced the practical activity that would continue for the rest of the afternoon. The idea was for them to create a visual identity which could help to animate and perform the story.

Each student was given a plastic hula hoop, and using it as a framework was asked to create a prop, a costume, a mask or a visual representation of their character. The materials they were provided with were not highly sophisticated, but flexible- card, string, wire, wool, ribbon, feathers, corks, tissue paper, pens, glue, sellotape and scissors. Kate invited them to treat these materials in a really considered way, with the care and attention they had seen used by the makers of the objects from other cultures.

The students really went for it and grasped the complex idea of visually representing their character straight away. The artist workshop was less about developing new practical skills and more about developing on the theme of identity and responding visually to the descriptive words they had come up with in the morning session.

A teacher responded:

“It is really good to see the children being so industrious, they are really flourishing”.

After Lunch, the students continued making. Miss Jillett, responsible for co-ordinating the festival came in to see how they were getting on. “Would you rather be doing English this afternoon?” She asked a student, who responded: “No thanks, this is good.”

The day had been designed to develop the student’s vocabulary and literacy skills. Using the handling collection as a stimulus took the children out of their regular school routine and allowed them to explore familiar subject areas in new ways.

Something that really came across during the day was the ways in which the groups worked together- in generating ideas, asking questions, in helping each other out with the practical making- holding pieces together whilst another student sellotaped them down etc. Each table shared similar approaches to their ‘character hoops’- sharing materials or techniques or colours, there was a sense of a shared group identity at each table.

At the end of the day, the students performed their stories using their hoops as props, or masks or costumes.

The performances were all completely different and everyone really got involved and took their role seriously. Most groups really took on board the premise of the day and used lots of descriptive language in their stories. The students were all confident in performing, some relied on their hoops to hide behind, but others embraced the performance and used their hoops to be more dramatic.

Some of the narrators struggled when using the new words, but this was a positive sign as it suggested that the words that were generated in the morning session were not words that featured in the day to day vocabulary of the children.

Was it about Culture of the Countryside and local heritage?  Most of the stories stemmed from the objects and the objects still played a central role in many of the stories and .the day was successful in encouraging the students to think about their own character identities in relation to the objects and develop vocabulary whilst doing so. It threw very interesting light on their own values, and on perceptions of ‘the other’ as well as on themselves. One table pursued a lively discussion about the relative attitudes to beauty in different cultures. The story by another group fixated on trans-gender identity, love and conflict, having started the day looking at figure-objects with both male and female characteristics. In one story a character stated that different cultures have different understanding of evil. So in oblique and surprising ways the project was very much concerned with local cultures and their differences. There is much which could be developed further in future projects.