128: ding! Round 2

This week has been somewhat marred by the return of Covid – once again, I tested negative for four days despite having symptoms. On Monday I tested negative in the morning so went off merrily to work, and then tested positive in the evening. I had to apologise profusely to the various people I had seen over the day: many colleagues, as we were working at the All Points East festival, several D&D playing children as I had sat in on a session in the morning with Jo Levin of Encounter Terrain (feeding into one of the new galleries), their dads, another colleague…and here’s a general apology to the 350 odd people we engaged with over the day too. Eek! Sorry, people.

Jo Levin and a vertical terrain

However, I’m only issuing a very begrudging apology to the lady who came to our area with her grandchildren and spent a good twenty minutes telling me how disgusting it is that we are redeveloping the museum. She has allegedly spoken to HUNDREDS of people who are all outraged. ‘I bet you hear this all the time!’ she said. ‘You must have had so many people complaining, especially as you didn’t bother consulting anyone about it.’ Actually, no, I said – you’re the first.

Well, five years of consultation with local groups (‘well, I didn’t see any of it’), with public events in the museum (‘well, I was always in there and I never saw any’), press coverage (‘not in my local paper’), focus groups and outreach events apparently don’t count because we didn’t ask her and everyone she knows. We have no right to change history, she said, and she’d been going there for SEVENTY YEARS and she worked in EDUCATION and for OFSTED and how DARE we change things? It was a LOCAL museum for LOCAL PEOPLE. The fact that the head of Ofsted is one of our trustees and approves of the changes cut no ice. I, personally, was ruining her life with my new-fangled galleries and callous disregard for EVERYONE’s childhood. Meanwhile, her grandchildren were thoroughly enjoying the blue blocks, which will be a feature of one of those new-fangled galleries. And on she went….and on, and on. And, in fact, on.

Things 1 and 2 enjoying the old museum before we ruined everyone’s childhood.

The fact that we aren’t funded by the local council was not a factor, apparently, and neither was the fact that it’s 16 years since the last rebuild – when quite a lot of the museum (and therefore history) was changed. Conservation was not an issue – she didn’t care that some things can only stay on display for a certain length of time before they start to degrade, people like to see the same things when they visit after twenty or thirty years. She does not care that her grandchildren will be able to engage more with objects, or that it will be more interesting for them, or that there will be exciting new objects and stories. She was keen to inform me, also, that we had been closed SO LONG that the younger grandchild had never even been there, and the older one couldn’t remember it. She did not care that the building work we were doing will make the space more accessible for her and her buggy. A colleague with conservation experience came to my aid, but to no avail. We were RUINING everyone’s lives with our CHANGES to HISTORY. She did not want to hear that all the objects she liked would be more accessible in the new Storehouse space, where they would be in better conditions (ie not in a damp basement or, in the case of the wax dolls, melting in horror-movie fashion in the heat of an uninsulated Victorian greenhouse) and could be seen alongside the rest of the museum’s collections. Eventually we extricated ourselves and she went to supervise her grandchildren, who were having great fun building things. My poor line manager was next in the sights, and the woman had still not run out of steam.

Whatever major project you embark on, especially in a place which was as well-loved and such a feature of an East End childhood as the museum, will have its detractors and people who want things to remain the same – luckily they are in the minority, and most of the people we engage with are excited by the new developments and can’t wait for us to reopen. As a team we are excited about the opportunities to reimagine the space, to enhance our own objects with amazing things from the wider collection, to create a museum which is for young people rather than about them. Luckily, most of the people we meet are coming with us on the ride and are looking forward to next year.

Those of you who know me in real life would be proud of my restraint, especially when I really wanted to paraphrase Frank-N-Furter and say ‘well, I didn’t make it for you’.

Gratuitous Tim Curry picture

Other things making me happy this week:

  • Testing negative for Covid yesterday and being able to go to Jill’s Tiaras and Bowties party
  • A mooch around the charity shops of Bishops Stortford with Miriam and Lesley
  • Meeting a new kitten belonging to a neighbour
  • Dropping a skirt size (hurray for the HRT, I think!)
  • Benylin original cough mixture
  • Thing 1 doing really well in her GCSEs

So there we are! Covid-free once again, and hoping to go and meet another kitty this afternoon.

See you next week! Let’s be careful out there.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Days of Anna Madrigal – Armistead Maupin

Logical Family: a memoir – Armistead Maupin

Grand Union – Zadie Smith

How to Raise an Elephant – Alexander McCall Smith

100: What I did in half term

This feels like a pretty momentous week, what with it being my 100th blog post and so on, but in reality it’s been one where I have mostly been unconscious at 8.30pm every night after a full-on day – yes, even on Friday when London was being battered by Storm Eunice, for which I have been soundly told off by the clan.

As I may have mentioned once or twice before, the museum I work for is in the middle of a spectacular reinvention and part of the process is making sure we have young voices throughout the museum, reflecting what’s important to them in the 21st century and co-creating work with them which will be on display. I am attached to the Design gallery, where we are exploring some key messages – one of which is around sustainability. Our target age range (though anyone can use the space) is 11-14, and so we’re working with a local youth service called Spotlight.

Spotlight is the sort of youth space that I would have loved to have access to growing up (heck, I’m pretty keen on it now!). It has media spaces like a radio station and tech rooms, a boxing gym, dance studio, cafe, games room, fully equipped music studio, health and wellbeing services on site, friendly and accessible youth workers who have a great relationship with the young people and (where we’ve been working this week) an art and fashion studio. This last is underused, as it’s a space where the young people aren’t quite sure what they can do in there, but hopefully we’ve changed that this week!

The project kicked off on Tuesday with a trip to the V&A all the way over in South Kensington, with 15 young people, the designer Scott Ramsay Kyle who was the creative on the project, one of our freelance team, a few Spotlight staff and me all on a minicoach bringing back memories of school trips for the adults at least. In stop/start London traffic it was a miracle we only had to pull over once for a girl to be sick, but it was a close call!

The V&A is still closed to the public on Tuesdays so the young people (YP) were in VIP mode – we fed them lunch, where they were joined by our Director and some of the curatorial and learning teams, and then we took them to Gallery 38 where our collection is currently being stored and conserved in preparation for going back on display in 2023 when Young V&A opens. Katy and Trish, two of the curators, showed them some examples of historic clothes and talked them through some of the processes used to make them. The YPs were amazed that sustainability was a ‘thing’ several hundred years ago although not so much in the 1960s. I won’t go into too much detail here as I have to write an ‘official’ blog post about the project soon.

We spent some time in the fashion gallery exploring clothes through the ages, mark making in their new V&A sketchbooks and focusing on detail and embellishment. Watching children and YP make the mental connections between new and existing knowledge is always a joy – the gaggle of Year 8 Bengali girls who had been learning about the East India Company in school spotted a dress made from the very fabric they’d been learning about, which caused a twitter of excitement and recall of history lessons. Only one of the YP had been to the museum before, on the previous project so the space was very new to them. South Kensington is a long way from Poplar both physically and psychologically, and while many had been to the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum the V&A hadn’t figured. Being able to sprawl on the floor to draw, to have access to all the knowledge they needed from curators and to navigate the space on their own terms made the galleries accessible.

VIP access to the fashion gallery

The rest of the week was back at Spotlight with fluctuating numbers of YP – but always a hard core of two or three who came along all week and surprised themselves with what they created. Wednesday was all about fashion and nature, so we worked with two creatives on different aspects of this. Hanna Whiteman explored natural dyes with the YP, helping them create swatches from red cabbage, turmeric and safflower and exploring the effects of different additives. Memunatu Barrie worked from cut flowers and textures found in the park outside, exploring how to create texture and line on paper. We finished up with a dye experiment, hanging the sleeves of a pink hoodie into the dye vats overnight. We only had four YP that day which given the messiness and excitement of the dying was probably a good thing! We were also joined by Maraid Mcewan, our inclusive designer in residence who came along for the rest of the week.

On Thursday we broke out the deadstock fabric and charity shop finds and introduced some sewing skills – curator Trish joined us again, and we explored mark making on fabric with embroidery thread and layering using bondaweb and felt. Some of the YP took their hoops and threads home to work on, as they were so engaged in the process. Trish, Maraid and I also got pretty attached to ours, as did Lydia the brilliant youth worker. There had been an SEND open day in the morning so we attracted a range of YP with different needs in the afternoon, and as there were so many adults it worked really well in terms of the level of assistance we could provide. As I know from helping the Things sew at home, it’s much easier with many pairs of hands to help thread needles and untangle knots! Although our target range for the project was 11-14, the centre works with YP with additional needs up to the age of 25 and we will be an inclusive museum so everyone was welcome to join the session.

On Friday, despite Storm Eunice making an appearance just before midday, we saw 15 YP over the day – some carrying on with their embroidery, some remaking clothes by embellishing and adding materials, some discovering the studio for the first time as they had only signed up to the centre on the previous day. There was some knitting, some draping on mannequins, fabric painting, more bondaweb as the YP customised clothes, but such a creative buzz all afternoon. We sent them all away with their hoops and embroidery (‘what – we can keep them? They’re for us?’) and the things they’d made. The injection of coffee mid afternoon from the cafe was much needed – if you find yourself down in Poplar in need of refreshment, the cafe makes quite possibly the best chocolate brownies I have ever tasted, and a good range of other food at very reasonable prices too.

Other quotes from the week included ‘I’m eleven years old and I’ve made two outfits in two days!’ (one of which was his own interpretation of a 17th century waistcoat he’d sketched on Tuesday), and ‘This is the best place EVER’ from one of the new sign-ups.

Although Scott and I were shattered by the end of the week, we were blown away by the talent and creativity we’d seen over the week and we can’t wait to go back to finish up their co-creation at Easter.

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Torchwood – First Born (Audible)

Ninth Doctor Novels vol 2/Tenth Doctor Novels vol 1 (Audible)

The Lost Art of Letter Writing/The Witches of Cambridge – Menna van Praag

Ink and Sigil – Kevin Hearne

Week thirty six: if you go down in the woods today…

Over the last few months I have railed at the randomness of the learning collection at the museum: plastic tat you can buy at any English Heritage gift shop, for example, or objects too fragile to handle. I have been adding things to the ‘someone else might like it’ pile with abandon, and sure enough Fran, our brilliant Creative Practitioner, has been finding new homes for all sorts of strange things; including the House on the Hill Toy Museum and the New Vic Theatre. I have never understood the point of a handling collection that can’t be handled.

And then this week I got to the teddies. Oh dear.

Teddy bears have been around since the early 20th century, when two toy makers – Richard Steiff in Germany and and Morris Michtom in the USA – were inspired to create toy bears after a political cartoon was printed in the Washington Post. It told the story of a bear hunt, where Theodore (‘Teddy’) Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear that had been caught and tied up by a handler as it was unsportsmanlike. I won’t comment on the fact that they were out shooting bears in the first place, as that’s not the point here!

Cartoon by Clifford Berryman, published in Washington Post, 1902

Michtom saw the cartoon and was inspired to create a toy bear cub which he displayed in the window of his shop, with a sign saying ‘Teddy’s bear’. He’d sent a bear to Roosevelt and been given permission to use his name, although apparently Roosevelt himself hated being called Teddy.

Simultaneously, over in Germany Steiff designed a similar toy bear and exhibited it at the Leipzig Toy Fair. Both toys were an instant hit, and the world has been buying teddy bears – and other stuffed animals – ever since. Our most popular ‘Spotlight Talk’ (on-gallery short teaching sessions delivered by the brilliant Activity Assistants) was Teddy Bears. One bear in the museum – Little Tommy Tittlemouse – is a celebrity and gets birthday cards sent to him every year by members of the public. His previous owner started the tradition when he donated the bear in 1965 and it continued until his death in 1986. He even has a museum blog post dedicated to him. (In case you’re interested, his birthday is the 24th of November, so this week our Tommy turned 112)

The mohair has rubbed off, the wood wool is coming out of his paws, his nose is squashed but someone really loved this bear….

Early teddies looked more like real bears, with long noses, beady eyes and a hump on their backs. They were also a lot less cuddly than the bears we have today – stuffed with sawdust or wood wool, they were heavy and hard, but still lovable. Their ‘fur’ was mohair, which rubs off and so a lot of our older bears are bald and a bit battered. And really, really hard to give away. Own up – how many of you still have your beloved childhood bear? I know I do. He’s balding in places, a bit flat, is missing an eye and has some very amateur repairs but he’s mine and I love him. My mum never quite forgave her own mother for getting rid of her teddy while my parents were on their honeymoon.

My panda, given to me when I was born.

I knew there was going to be a problem when I unwrapped a particularly old bear…and started talking to him. Only an ‘ohhh, hello you!’ but still, it was a slippery slope.

The modern, mass-produced bears were easy to say goodbye to – they have no personality and most of them are brand new. I admit to hanging onto all the Paddingtons, of course, but the McDonalds Happy Meal toys, Beanie Babies and film tie-ins will be going to new homes. The very odd poodle toy (with detached ear and jewelled collar) was also pretty easy to say goodbye to.

Please look after this bear

But…the old bears have character. They have been loved, and their faces are a bit wonky and sometimes their fur is a bit patchy. I don’t know who they belonged to in most cases, but they have had a second home – even if its been in a box – at the museum. I mentioned this on Facebook the other day and a friend said that when she was buying a soft toy as a gift she deliberately looked for the one that wasn’t perfect. Sometimes a toy just calls out to you and you fall in love with it – my mum fell for a Hamley’s polar bear on a shopping trip to Bath, for example, and my dad went back to buy it for her Christmas present.

Our teddy collection ranged from the tiny, pocket-sized bears to much larger Steiff growly bears, nearly half the size of the six year olds who ‘demonstrate’ them in school sessions. Some were handmade, some were beautifully dressed in handmade clothes. There were also rabbits, cats, dogs and the box of more than 100 mice I have mentioned in a previous post.

Can you see why it’s so hard to get rid of them? I confess that a number of these are staying, if they can be handled. Teddies come on life’s adventures with us, after all, and some of them deserve to come with us to the museum’s next life too.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

What happens to rolls of double-sided sticky tape? Where do they go? I started a new one a couple of weeks ago when I was making my colleague’s birthday card and today I couldn’t find it anywhere. I managed to find a squashed roll in the shed, luckily, so my plan to frame various cross stitches wasn’t thwarted. I also found a stash of coloured aida fabric which was in the wrong box – that’s going to come in useful.

Nearly a whole sock!

Progress on the sock has slowed again as I was only on the tube two days this week, but I have started putting together squares for a blanket. I wanted a nine-patch effect, and am edging the squares and each block with charcoal grey. I like the stained glass type effect.

Zoom blanket

So that was week 36. Things 1 and 2 have both had days at home this week as there have been confirmed cases of Covid-19 in their year groups, and Thing 1 has to isolate for a fortnight as she’s been identified as being in contact with a case. I really can’t fault the school, whose communication with us has been effective, clear and timely; yes, they have a duty of care towards the school community but right now they are going above and beyond, working long into the night to make sure things carry on as close to normal as possible. Who would have guessed that a lockdown that didn’t include the schools might see cases spreading, eh?

Later this morning I’ll be heading to Redricks Lakes for my weekly dip – the water was 7 degrees C yesterday after a few frosty mornings this week. That’s a big drop from last week’s 9.5 but I’m still looking forward to it!

Let’s see what week 37 brings.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Last Stand in Wychford (Witches of Lychford) – Paul Cornell

Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries – Kim M. Watt

Sampleri Cymraeg – Joyce F. Jones

The Dark Archive (Invisible Library) – Genevieve Cogman

The Graveyard of the Hesperides/The Third Nero (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)