Reflections on the International Standing Conference for the History of Education

I recently attended the International Standing Conference for the History of Education at the University of Porto, which was themed ‘Spaces and Places of Education’. Although I didn’t attend as many sessions as I would have liked because it was doubling as a holiday and a chance to explore the city, it was a really good opportunity to talk about my research in a different contexts and to hear international perspectives on histories of education. 

Of particular interest was the session ‘Educational history and the challenges of justice: Contested spaces and their legacies’, featuring papers by Emily Barker (University of Greenwich), Jona Garz (Humboldt-University Berlin) and Eleanor Simpson (University of Winchester). Covering topics from migrant children’s access to play spaces in post-war Britain, to schools for learning disabled children in Germany, to tabloid moralising around Section 28 and sex education in the 1980s, they explored concepts around justice and justice, ideas about ‘educability’ and who can be educated, socially defined categories of identity and inclusion, acceptance and intersectionality, the construction of social norms around ‘ordinary’ behaviour and family life, the othering of those who do not conform to this, and the spatial borders and boundaries placed around education.

Another session I enjoyed was ‘Transnational entanglements of Educational Spaces: Material, Affective and Imaginative Connections’, which explored transnational influences in progressive education. I was particularly pleased to hear from Lottie Hoare (University of Cambridge) about ‘Vanishing Primary Schools & 1970s Yorkshire’. Hoare’s paper focused on the Open University programme Balby Street Kids. Featuring leaders from the West Riding of Yorkshire education authority (disbanded the year before following the 1974 reorganisation of local government), including the recently-retired Director of Education Sir Alec Clegg, the programme was discussed as a defence and representation of progressive education and its aspirations for an imagined audience. The programme featured children at a school in a West Yorkshire mining community. As well as paying attention to their surroundings, through projects such as creative writing, the programme showed them engaged in movement, giving them physical confidence, as well as drama, in a re-enactment of Beowulf, presenting both a translocal and transnational picture at the same time as presenting a particular vision of English education. Although the programme was a documentary, the question and answer section highlighted its creative approach.

My paper took place in the session ‘Material, Textual, Imagined and Virtual Spaces of Education’. I was particularly interested in a joint paper by Nelleke Teughels and Wouter Egelmeers (KU Leuven) about Lantern Slide Projection in the Classroom: Virtual Spaces of Education (c.1880-1940)’.

Teughels and Egelmeers discussed the use of magic lantern slides in Belgian schools, as objects of direct and indirect observation. In subjects such as history, such visual aids were a way of bringing the inside and outside together, and the object into school. Used for ‘virtual travel’, magic lanten slides were both a substitute for and complementary to field trips, opening up new horizons for students. They highlighted the limitations of the sources they used – two educational journals published from different religious perspectives, which mentioned magic lantern slides without discussing them in detail.

The resulting discussion included comments about the link between photography and ‘truth’, the role of magic lantern slides in classification and the creation of pre-defined categories, and how educationalists wanted to see the world.

Some of the questions directed at the paper could as easily have been asked about Pictures for Schools, such as ‘how did the schools access the materials’ (through catalogues)? Was it possible to find out about the experiences of the students? What was the relationship between the magic lantern slides and object lessons in the 1920s, and educational ideas around intuition and sensing? How widespread was the use of these educational resources (it was often affected by a lack of funds)? How did these resources relate to new technology, such as radio and cinema?

The questions I was asked following my paper also gave me several perspectives to consider, such as:

  • How did Pictures for Schools fit into earlier school museum projects?
  • The children who answered questionnaires at Pictures for Schools appeared to use sophisticated vocabulary – what preparation did they have for the exhibitions?
  • Were all the answers this enthusiastic?
  • Was there any relationship betweenPictures for Schools and Elliott Eisner, who was also interested in critical education (and was very important in Brazil, where the asker was based)?

The conference had a strong strand to support early career researchers, and it was particularly beneficial to attend a session about publishing in journals concerning the history of education, such as History of Education Quarterly and Paedegogica Historica. The three pieces of advice that stood out to me were to 1) look at who’s on the reviewing board 2) consider how your work is internationally relevant and make it relevant to people in other countries and 3) that interdisciplinarity is encouraged.

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Exhibition visit: ‘But what if we tried?’, Touchstones, Rochdale

‘But what if we tried?’ by Harry Meadley at Touchstones in Rochdale is an illuminating experiment to display as much of town’s 1,500-strong art collection at once as possible (there’s only space to show about 300 pieces within its Edwardian galleries, it turns out).

At a time when public ownership and funding of art, and issues around access and storage, are more contentious than ever, this timely exhibition explores the curatorial and logistical processes behind the scenes of programming a municipal gallery which is resource-poor but rich in artworks and heritage.

Piled high in the largest gallery are a selection of artworks acquired since the gallery first started collecting, displayed in accession order and giving an insight into how the collection has evolved and grown over time, and the types of artists and artworks acquired during different eras.

Some of the collection has clearly been acquired due to local interest and connections, from portraits of local dignitaries and paintings and drawings depicting the town and its surroundings, to artworks by locally based printmakers. Other work has been acquired through bequests, meaning it cannot be sold. Other artworks have come into the collection through changes in local government; for example, when the nearby towns of Middleton and Heywood were incorporated into the borough in the early 1970s, their collections were merged with Rochdale’s.

The collection also reflects developments in modern art and contains works by major artists such as Patrick Caulfield, Gillian Ayres and Lubaina Himid (though, as elsewhere, woman artists are underrepresented in the collection, comprising around 8 per cent), and the gallery is still collecting today. Works by well-known artists are frequently lent to other galleries – enabling them to both be seen by a wider range of people and providing a source of income for the gallery. This is such an important part of the life of such a collection that one wall of the exhibition is filled with carefully packaged artworks ready to be shipped off to other destinations.

Displayed alongside the artworks are a series of thoughtful, behind-the-scenes films showing in detail how a gallery such as Touchstones actually works, taking us into the stores and through staff meetings, curatorial decision-making, PR planning and installation. Staff, including curators, technicians and the council’s Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods, Community & Culture, are interviewed with a refreshing candour about their work, including the challenges and responsibilities of conservation and care. Rochdale today is a very different place to the cotton-rich manufacturing town it was when the museum and art gallery was established, but the interviews reveal a wealth of knowledge, passion and expertise about the collection and its place in the town.

This exhibition is a must-see for anyone who can make it to Rochdale before it closes on Saturday 1 June. www.contemporaryforwardrochdaleartgallery.org/projects/harry-meadley-but-what-if-we-tried/


Football Is Art at the National Football Museum

I recently went to the launch of a new exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester showcasing the museum’s art collection, which has been developed with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

One of the works which has been acquired is a maquette for Peter Peri’s ‘Boys Playing Football’ (I went to see the original on the wall of an estate in Lambeth back in 2017).

Peri was one of several artists who exhibited at Pictures for Schools whose work has been acquired by the museum; football, particularly local and amateur matches, was one of the aspects of everyday life captured in the pictures shown at Pictures for Schools and bought by local education authorities for school loan collections (see Carel Weight’s lively ‘Village Cup Tie’, purchased by the London County Council, and apparently later sold to the football museum, although not on display in this exhibition and Fred Uhlman’s atmospheric painting of a game on a winter evening, recently sold at auction as part of the disposal of Hertfordshire County Council’s art collection). Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, as a member of the Artists’ International Association he was interested in depicting and reflecting relatable aspects of people’s lives, and presenting his art in places that was familiar and accessible to them.

The exhibition encompassed a wide variety of styles and genres, from Lowry’s iconic images of northern life, to delicate illustration by Paul Nash, to contemporary British artists such as Rose Wylie and digital artworks, to fashion and textiles, to vintage posters and advertising, to portraits of footballers and artworks by famous footballers such as George Best, and even a sculpture by Piccasso.

Far from the glitz of today’s game, with its superstar footballers on multi-million pound salaries, many of the works I liked best depicted the quieter, more personal aspect of the game and its individual and collective meanings to people as part of their sense of identity, leisure, routine, community and belonging: crowds huddled loyally in the cold of a snowy day, as in Alistair Grant’s lithograph ‘Snow at Stamford Bridge’, or behind the scenes of the game as in the Mass-Observation documentary photographer Humphrey Spender’s 1930s images of changing rooms, which suggested some of the tension and anticipation of the game.

Mid-twentieth century British art was particularly well-represented in the exhibition. I was interested to find out that several of the works had been exhibited in the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition, held in 1953, and organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Football Association in order to mark the latter’s 90th anniversary. One of the highlights was the Great Bardfield artist Michael Rothenstein’s prize-winning etching and aquatint ‘Moment of Victory’, an abstract set of shapes which appeared to represent little in a literal sense, but suggested movement and celebration. Another highlight was the robotic stacked shapes of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun’s colourful oil painting ‘The Game of the Year’, dating from the same year as the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition.

Football Is Art is at the National Football Museum until Sunday 27 October: www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/whatson/football-is-art/

 


Sale of Hertfordshire County Council’s collection

Sad news from Hertfordshire, where the county council is following in the steps of Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire and selling the bulk of its impressive educational art collection. The collection was founded in 1949 by pioneering Director of Education John Newsom for loan to the county’s schools, as part of an extensive programme of school building and educational reform, and purchased artworks by leading British artists from Pictures for Schools among other sources. This is no particular surprise given that the loan service was suspended in 2012, staff who had previously been involved in its operations were made redundant and it was extremely difficult (impossible?) to get anyone from the council to answer any of my enquiries about it during my PhD.

This follows a ‘consultation’ on the future of the collection at the start of 2018, which was couched in terms which made the sale sound like it was a foregone conclusion, and a petition by local woman Armaiti Bedford against the sale of the works, which was signed by thousands of people.

The sale is being handled by Cheffins in Cambridge, who handled the (highly lucrative) sale of the Cambridgeshire art collection in 2017, and the first auction, of paintings, takes place on 21 March.

The sale has received a few passing mentions in the regional and national press; for more information see www.artlyst.com/news/hertfordshire-county-council-sells-off-art-assets.

 


Visit to Cartwright Hall

I recently fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit Cartwright Hall in Bradford, and learn more about its impressive print collection, which was partially developed through a series of International Print Biennales held at the gallery between 1968 and 1990.

A small selection is on changing display in a dedicated print room, with more works available to browse on a screen. Many of the artists who were popular and active in Pictures for Schools are represented in the collection, including Julian Trevelyan and Peter Green. I was particularly taken by two lithographs by Michael Rothenstein. They were far more modern and abstract in appearance than the work he sold at Pictures for Schools, which often focused on motifs such as cockerels. The collection is still actively acquiring prints. Although I am often underwhelmed by her work, I loved a set of recent photogravure etchings by Cornelia Parker, inspired by the Fox Talbot glass collection.Cartwright Hall has recently developed a gallery dedicated entirely to the work of Bradford’s famous son David Hockney, showing off the gallery’s Hockney works and contextualising them within his upbringing and education in Bradford. I was interested in particular in his work for the city of Bradford. ‘A Bounce for Bradford’ (1987) was printed on newsprint and distributed in the local newspaper, the Telegraph and Argus, in order that everyone in Bradford had the chance to own a Hockney. He also designed covers for a local travel guide, and the phonebook.


Willi Soukop’s Donkey in Harlow

I was briefly in Harlow earlier this week, and took the opportunity to track down a couple of sculptures on residential estates, which I didn’t manage to get to on my previous visit to Harlow.

One of the sculptures I was most excited about seeing was Willi Soukop’s bronze donkey, which sits in a quiet residential estate called Pittman’s Fields.

One of the reasons I was so keen to see the donkey was that I have seen a photo of a cast of the sculpture that was exhibited at the 1949 Pictures for Schools exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery. Soukop was involved in Pictures for Schools for many years, and was a member of the committees that selected sculptures for display at the exhibitions.

The Donkey sculpture was originally commissioned for Dartington Hall; Soukop taught sculpture at the independent Dartington Hall School, as well as other private schools and art colleges. I believe it was installed as a play sculpture in Harlow 1955.

The sculpture was smaller than I expected, but rather sweet, and I was encouraged that local people were well aware of its existence (it was quite hidden; after walking around in circles for some time, I was directed to it by three different people).


Exhibition visit: Carel Weight at Tullie House

I recently visited Tullie House to see a small exhibition of work from a collection acquired for the city of Carlisle through the Royal Academician Carel Weight, as part of nationwide events commemorating 250 years of the Royal Academy. Weight was one of the artists who was heavily involved in Pictures for Schools, and sold work through the scheme. As well as showing Weight’s own paintings, the exhibition showed work by members of Weight’s circle, including peers and students, such as Peter Blake, acquired for Tullie House. I reviewed the exhibition for Corridor8: read online here.