Land and the Sea

Happisburgh Primary School at SCVA

 

Three groups of ten KS2 pupils from Happisburgh Primary School are lined up in the Crescent Wing reception-area.  One of the thirty is itching to speak but she can’t just now because the question is: “What are you expecting to see when we go to the gallery?” and as she’s been here before she knows already.  “A great big hall!” says one pupil.  “Lots of different rooms with artefacts in,” says another.  “Objects.  And lots of writing about each object,” says a third.  Good answers.  We hurry to see just how good.

 

In the main gallery each of our three guides, Beverley, Michele and Sue, takes her small group to a different starting-point for the short introductory tour.  I’m with Beverley.  She leads the way to the mezzanine.  We stand near ‘Bucket Man’ and look out over the wide open space as Beverley tells us how the SCVA came to be built, and what its purpose has been.  A great big hall, in a way.  With lots of objects.  We consider ‘Bucket Man’: his plastic buckets and real clothes, his wrinkled fibre-glass torso, the odd shape on his head and the white everywhere.  Is it plaster?  Beverley tells us how the artist, John Davies, used to work in a studio without running water.  Maybe that’s what filled the buckets once?

 

We look at the ‘toys’ nearby, and wonder why the Cycladic marble figures might have been made and preserved.  Then single-file down the spiral staircase to Degas’s little dancer, the one with the haughty look and the ribbon in her hair.  We look closely, see the wrinkles in her bronze dancing-tights.  This figure was wax originally, says Beverley; the fourteen-year-old who modelled for it would be dead in a few years.  We think about that, and try to turn our legs out to mimic the position she has held for a century.  

 

Next Beverley steers us to Giacometti’s thin woman with the big block at her feet.  The pupils look and listen and ask questions and make comparisons with the nearby painting Giacometti made of his brother.  We spot more paintings all of a sudden.  One boy confronts Francis Bacon’s portrait of a Pope.  That man looks cruel, he says, a feeling intensified by the darkness behind the Papal throne.  Turning round, this pupil spots Vincent van Gogh, another Bacon portrait facing the Pope across most of the width of the gallery.  “He paints with dark colours but van Gogh painted with bright ones,” the boy tells me.  

 

Beverley lets the pupils decide which objects to pause at and study over the final part of our tour.  She keeps clear of the North American section, which we will engage with later.  Several pupils tell me about the collections they keep at home: gems, shells, rocks.  These are displayed in cases or desks, labelled and carefully arranged.  We talk about how they have made miniature museums.

 

We re-group, running slightly late, and kit ourselves out with clipboards and a worksheet of varied activities to do with objects from North America, the more delicate artefacts apparently bequeathed to George by his sea-faring grandfather.  Janet Woodcraft has devised the worksheet, and the pupils busy themselves to look, think, imagine, draw and narrate.  Everyone seems to get something out of this directed engagement with a part of the collection.  

 

After lunch we split into two crews.  Guides work with one crew more intensively on the North American objects, exploring the theme of land and sea.  Members of the other crew have time to explore the collection for themselves, drawing and writing as they see fit.  In due course the two crews swop.  I watch Michele capture her small group with a dramatic tale of her own beach-combing along the Norfolk coast around Happisburgh, Cromer and West Runton.  At the high point of her story she produces a bag of fossil-finds and hand them round.  Ancient bones and teeth weigh down our palms.  Michele makes the link with how Eskimo and Inuit live, hunting walruses and making use of every part of the creature to stay alive themselves.  Walrus-ivory blackens as it ages, Michele says, pointing to a case full of worked objects, some of which are dark as ancient wood.  She shows us the masks too, and we talk about what such things might be for.  

 

As their visit draws to a close the pupils talk about what was unexpected and has stayed in their minds.  Answers are many and various.  So many artefacts!  What the Inuit do with bladders!  One pupil says he’d not expected to have such freedom to explore the space and the objects for himself.  He liked this. 

 

Out front, everyone gathers for a final photo, then sets off for the coach.  Left behind, Bucket Man stares after them.

 

 

Patrick Yarker

November 2011