Garboldisham Church Primary School at SCVA

Heatherwick Panel - Photograph: Andy Crouch
Lower Gallery - Photograph: Andy Crouch
Upper Gallery - Photograph: Andy Crouch

Visit to the Basketry exhibition May 3 2011

As part of our collaboration with the Little Ouse Headwaters project (funded by HLF) the whole school come to visit the Basketry exhibition. They divide into several age-based sets of groups, and each set starts its tour in a different part of the exhibition. Guides take their parties round the Upper Gallery, telling the children what is on show, prompting and responding to questions. The children listen, and one group in particular warms to their guide and are soon asking away. Later in the day they draw a favourite object here. Children cluster with their paper and pencils around the big woven-steel panel from Guy's Hospital boilerhouse, or surround the donkey-pannier, or one of the cabinets of fish-traps, or the aboriginal eel-trap. Some work at capturing Laura Ellen Bacon's Growth Tip as it straddles the dividing wall between exhibition and café-space. One of the older children scans the whole gallery. It reminds him, he says, of Stanstead Airport. He cannot know that the same architect designed both buildings, but he can hear the way each speaks the spatial language of the other.


In the Link Gallery the groups use the Structure Lab materials and worksheets put together by Dom Sergi, who is on hand to help. A guide also shows groups of children around. The East Anglian Film Archive video is a hit (because it's a video? Because some of it directly relates to local areas?) as is the braided spiral rush-mat by Felicity Irons. A child asks me whether reeds are waterproof. Several others take time to sketch the slippers made of seaweed, Cradletide, by Tim Johnson, though nobody fancies wearing them. "It looks like wood-shavings," one boy says, implying the slippers wouldn't be comfortable on his feet. Some of the children have visited SCVA before, but for others this is their first visit here, and perhaps their first visit to any gallery. I explain how the items on display each have a caption or label, and show how these work for the Link Bay 2 cabinet, where the slippers are. But my thunder is soon stolen by the arrival of the artist himself. Tim Johnson tells the children that if we were to open the cabinet we could smell iodine, the chemical in seaweed. The smell of his slippers. He has plans to make several more pairs. He likes to work with natural materials and in traditional ways, and to play with the idea of scale. The idea of scale? To make this concept clear and immediate Tim has the children hold up an imaginary acorn and lay it on their palm, then rock an imaginary baby in their arms, then stretch their hands up towards adult height, and finally stand to imagine a giant room, something they could all fit inside.


The children are captivated by the way Tim talks to them openly and intently about his art. They can't help but respond. How long does it take to make the seaweed-slippers? Oh, a long time. Does he paint pictures too? Yes. And sometimes he makes his own paints, he explains, and mimes crushing coloured stones, mixing the dust and grit with glue, then dipping and brushing. And besides painting he also draws and takes photographs. A child shows Tim, already a friend, a drawing he has just made of one of the nests in the cabinet. This prompts Tim to talk more about these. As a youngster he was fascinated by birds. He went bird-watching. He collected abandoned nests in the winter and kept them in a shoebox. When he was older he researched nests and nesting-behaviour. He points out where the blackbird's-nest made in an old saucepan is on display. "That's one I found," he says, and tells the story of how he went to the windswept island of cold South Uist where there's barely a tree standing or a bush bigger than a sitting child and spotted the saucepan hung up on the wall of an old barn. "Probably been used for caulking a fishing-boat," he says, "or mixing paint for its hull." And there within, the nest. He points out also the swallow's-nest of grass, twigs, feathers and mud caked onto the handle of a trowel. "A trowel, for making cement," he says, and pauses while the children connect the implement to the way the nest is itself a kind of cemented thing. "Why's it round?" he asks, and the children come up with a range of answers explaining why birds cannot make corners. Tim accepts what he's told, then has the children shuffle themselves round in a circle where they sit, telling them as they do that they are being birds shaping their own nests.


In the Lower Gallery children are given time to look independently and more closely at their own choice of objects. A sudden buzz and scattering, and knots of children gather around the willow cradle, the coracle and the reed-canoe from Lake Titicaca. Someone points out its oar. Someone else explains how she thinks the vessel stays afloat and is steered, and how it is different from the boats she knows. "It looks like a pirate-ship because of its sail with holes in," someone offers. "Doesn't look very safe: there's not a lot of room to move around." Elsewhere a boy exclaims: "A Moses basket!" and is delighted. He and his friends read the label. Two boys look at the pair of sandals from Egypt and note that they are much older than the pair Tim Johnson made, and older than the willow cradle too. Another boy and I discuss the slippers made by Felicity Irons: how would you get into them and lace them up? The boy looks very closely, and spots the cast-iron wedge inside each slipper which keeps them in shape. The slippers themselves are made of rush, I tell him, like the spiral mat upstairs. He remembers the mat. Other children watch the video of the Amazonian spirit-masks ( Apapaaatai, by Aristoteles Neto) and look at the example on display. "Must have a very big head!" someone says, a comment which could be throw-away wit or the sign of engagement stirring, a gateway to better-grounded knowledge were someone on hand to take advantage of the moment and work with it.


Two boys tell me about the basketry-armour. They are eager, fascinated. Armour is a personal interest, one they have explored in school and taken into their own out-of-school lives. They recognised the display as indeed armour despite its not being made of steel, and use some technical terms as they describe it. One of the boys tells me of his father in the Scots Guards and how he saw action at Mount Tumbledown.


All around the young people are laying claim to this or that exhibit, following their own interest or curiosity, or being drawn by their friends into a new experience or the possibility of new knowledge. I watch and hear children read everything on the labels, relating one item to another nearby, assembling the information presented and making it their own independently or in conversation with their peers.


A boy tells me that the Polynesian God-image made partly of human teeth and hair is scary. I agree, and tell him about the sperm-whale tooth nearby and its accompanying bag. But the God-image has made the bigger impression, for the boy describes it in detail when the children, gathered together for their making-activity, are asked for feedback. Bee Farrell and Nell Croos-Myhill listen to what the children relate. There is talk about myths, for this is the gallery whose objects are most closely concerned with religious and spiritual beliefs, another kind of armour. In groups the children read aloud a creation-myth, and then round off their experience of the gallery by making a fish-charm, inspired by the decorated fish-trap from Papua New Guinea which glitters in the cabinet behind them.


Back at school they will try their hand at weaving willow.


Patrick Yarker