Head of Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection Judy Willcocks shares her knowledge and expertise on socially engaged practice and the museum’s recent series of workshops in collaboration with Claremont Project and BA Textile Design staff.
What do you think of when you hear the name Central Saint Martins? Do you think of our students – creative, energetic and full of personality? You might think of some of the subjects we teach – from art and architecture to fashion and textile design. But would you think of mental healthcare or support for those in vulnerable housing situations?
In fact, socially engaged practice is an increasingly important part of the College’s portfolio of activity. We know that design-thinking can help build projects that deliver positive outcomes for communities. We know our students want their practice to have agency and that they want to make a contribution to society. We know there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that taking part in creative activities – particularly in a museum environment – can help alleviate social isolation, improve self-confidence and address a range of mental health issues.
Our knowledge exchange project came about when staff from the Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection, who have been exploring social prescribing since 2016, discovered that staff from BA Textile Design had been delivering similar workshops through the housing charity Crisis in Brent. Having successfully collaborated before on the Real Dirty Blue exhibition, we were keen to work together again to develop workshops for socially isolated older people.
We know that the most sustainable way of working with local communities is to engage with existing community groups, as they already have the trust and respect of their users. Central Saint Martins is currently working with a broad range of community partners including Crisis, Mind in Camden, Portugal Prints and the St Pancras and Somers Town Living Centre. For this activity we chose to work with Claremont Project – an Islington based charity providing a spectrum of services for the over 55s.
We kick-started the process with meetings between the Museum and BA Textile Design staff to share ways of working and to design a series of workshops which we hoped would challenge and inspire participants and give them new skills. Our devised workshops would begin with a handling session from the Museum collection and then move onto a creative activity led by staff and students from BA Textile Design. We decided to look at colour and identity, using a heat press and colour transfer papers to make flags which represent both the individual workshop attendees and Claremont Project as a whole. Student Ambassadors played an important role in delivering the workshops, offering opportunities for inter-generational collaboration and to hear more about life in the College.
Ten participants attended the first workshop and quickly got to work. Having looked at colour wheels, textile samples and dye books from the Museum collection they went on to explore how the colour papers transferred dye through the heat pressing process. This session was very much about the participant’s individual colour response, and while many had an interest in arts and crafts they were not necessarily creative practitioners. The heat transfer process transformed simple ideas into extraordinary designs. Staff and students from BA Textile Design gave individualised support throughout the workshop and helped participants realise their ideas.
During the second workshop participants worked collaboratively with a mutually selected colour palette to create a banner which will be displayed in the Museum’s Window Gallery for a temporary exhibition, before taking pride of place in the Claremont Project entrance hall. Getting the group to work together to create a coherent design proved much more challenging – a reminder that while our students may be well versed in the dynamics of group work, for many people the process is quite alien. In response to this, we chose to work with individual components. The result was a stunning display of different personalities pulled together by a common factor of lettering design – a fitting representation of what Claremont Project is all about.
During this process, the Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection team have learnt how art and design teaching can help get participants talking and thinking in a self-reflective manner. We organised break points in the workshops, so participants could display and describe what they were working on. This was a really good way to draw people into conversation and get them to engage with the rest of the group. For BA Textile Design staff, the key learning point was in observing how objects can be a direct source of inspiration and act as mediators in conversations about creative practice.
An issue which struck all of us at the College was the need to create a calm and focused environment in which the participants could independently come up with ideas. This chimes with the Museum’s experience of working with mental healthcare providers, where workshop participants may suffer from a range of mental health problems which are triggered by stressful environments. Even tasks such as navigating a way into a building and dealing with reception staff can prove challenging. However, of course, this doesn’t mean we want to simplify the activity or underestimate the capabilities of those involved.
Something we had all taken on from previous projects was the need to address the question ‘what happens to me now?’ The upcoming display of the flags and banners in the Museum Window will provide an opportunity for participants to come back to the College in the autumn. The Museum is also planning to offer follow up workshops in conjunction with a recent Central Saint Martins Textile Design graduate, so the relationship with Claremont Project is ongoing.
In addition, we have tried to be keep abreast of activities in the wider sector so we can point participants towards other opportunities. We were delighted to discover that one of our participant banner makers worked as a visiting lecturer for the Central School in the 1970s on community art projects. He was hot-footing it from our workshop to one at the Whitechapel Gallery and from there to the Estorick Collection, noting how much more there is on offer to the public since the early days of his practice.
At the end of this project, in order to get a sense of the success of the workshops, we designed a simple postcard to gather feedback from participants on their experience. They almost all gave us a five star review and reported feeling inspired, exhilarated, happy, calm and stimulated. While running this kind of activity is labour and resource intensive this positive feedback from participants is definitely a strong motivator to continue.