138: back on the merry-go-round

This has been one of those weeks when – by the time Friday came around – I felt as if I’d been put through the washing machine on top spin and hung out to dry. At least I can never say my job is boring…

Monday was spent catching up with the hundreds of emails that had come in over half term, having what felt like about a dozen meetings. Taking a week off always seems to result in a lot of things that need doing, and not enough hours to do them in, as there is a whole new week of things to do when you get back. On Wednesday we were interviewing for a new role in the team, which meant another day of not getting things done (but meeting some interesting people, which is always a plus), and on Thursday we had a ‘Town Square’ event in Bethnal Green in partnership with St Margaret’s House. Friday was a day on trains: six hours, altogether, on public transport. I was speaking at Brunel University in the morning, then went back to South Kensington for a meeting and then headed home which took many hours thanks to train cancellations.

The Town Square event was a gathering of creative people held at the Tramshed, a converted (yes, you guessed it) tramshed whose architecture echoes that of our own Victorian pile – high ceilings, open space, big windows and no flipping insulation. It was cold, but we did get to hear from Maraid McEwan, our recent inclusive designer in residence and also Kazuko Hohki, who enchanted us with her tales of growing up in Japan believing in The Borrowers. We ate posh biscuits, drank a lot of coffee and brought some of the objects from our growing Learning Collection along with us – echoing the new galleries, we brought Froebel’s Gifts One and Two from the Play gallery; a maquette of Joey from the play War Horse made for us by Little Angel Theatre (Joey will be on display in the new museum, and he can currently be seen in the theatre and performance galleries at the V&A) from the Imagine gallery; and from the Design gallery we brought an outfit by Petit Pli, who feature in the case study ‘Design makes things last for longer’.

The sharp-eyed among you will be saying ‘but what about Tuesday?’. Ah, Tuesday. Tuesday was great. Despite swearing off ever getting on a coach with children again after the Spotlight trip to the V&A last February, with the mash and liquor and projectile travel sickness (amazingly, the two were not connected), I brought a class of Year 5s and their associated adults to the V&A for a very special visit.

The V&A and Penguin have published a book called Jim’s Spectacular Christmas, written by Emma Thompson (and yes mum, she did write it herself!). The star of the story is Jim, who was V&A founder Henry Cole’s dog and who is buried in the museum garden. Jim was immortalised by Henry Cole himself in a set of sketches made in Broadstairs in 1864 – a scruffy terrier type, he became the inspiration for the book. Emma Thompson met all the children, and read some of the book to them (and they all had copies to take home as well as a copy for the school).

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

I had told the school that the children would be meeting Emma Thompson and would be having a ‘Jim experience’ as well as being in the photoshoot (all I can say is thank heavens for this school, as they are pretty much up for any mad schemes I suggest to them) but what I hadn’t told them is that the ‘Jim experience’ was going to be a drawing workshop with the – as it turned out – completely adorable Axel Scheffler. Probably most famous for his work with Julia Donaldson- The Gruffalo, Stick Man, Zog, Room on the Broom, Monkey Puzzle, Tabby McTat and so many more – he’s an absolute legend with those of us who spend a lot of time reading bedtime stories or doing story time with small people.

The kids loved it – he showed them how he had drawn Henry Cole and Jim, and then they drew along with him. He signed the two large pictures he’d drawn to the school, and signed the school’s copy of the book, answered questions and – as far as the children were concerned – he was a much bigger celebrity than the actual author. Oliver the teacher was literally hopping with excitement at meeting Axel. I packed them all back onto their coach and apparently it was ‘the best school trip ever’. I do love my job! Organising the trip (I was just in charge of locating and transporting the participants) had taken several months of back-and-forth with Penguin, our comms team, the learning team and the school, but it was worth it…

Other things making me happy this week:

  • Fun at Fireworks night – helping behind the bar at a local event
  • A very rainy but glorious swim at 10 degrees c this morning
  • Lunch at the Japanese Canteen with the team
  • Catching up with The Power of the Doctor
  • The flock of parakeets in the garden this week

Not making me happy is the pile of ironing in my very near future….

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Fever of the World – Phil Rickman

Fairy Tale – Stephen King

Doctor Who: Twelfth Doctor Tales (Audible)

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