On 20th November 2014, six Fine Art and History students in Year 12 from Haverstock School, Camden and four elders from Open Age in Brent came together in The British Museum’s Clore Centre for Education. The purpose was for all participants to bring in artefacts and memorabilia from their homelands and heritage for an open discussion. Keen to share their thoughts, feelings and memories, they brought a wide variety of precious special objects with them.
The rich mix of students from migrant communities with Chinese, English, Gambian, Irish, Italian, Moroccan, Somalian and South Sudanese heritage spoke passionately and emotively about their chosen objects. The Jamaican and Trinidadian elders too, spoke with great sentiment, knowledge and fondness of their objects. Many were from their childhoods giving the young people an insight into happy days gone by and the elders, the rich tapestry of backgrounds and values of the young.
The fascinating range included a wooden carved mask, a bamboo tray with the map of Trinidad, a Chinese and a Somalian fan, rosary beads, a birth bracelet, leather handbag, a 1950s hand painted skirt and a gourd used for games. All the objects represented their personal experiences, identity and culture.
‘Hearing such touching stories connected to the objects brought in [was the best part]. The mood and responses from the elders were very lovely to hear and experience.’
‘It was interesting listening to their cultures and what was handed down by their parents… it was inspiring and entertaining.’
When asked to say one word to sum up their feelings about their object ‘pride’, ‘wonder’, ‘happiness’, ‘nostalgia’, ‘reassurance’, ‘unique’, ‘memories’, ‘remembrance’, ‘keepsake’, ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ readily sprung to mind.
What was fascinating was the revelation of the common link between people worldwide; how as humans with the ability to handcraft from natural resources, it is such objects that we choose to treasure and that evoke meaning and significance in our lives; e.g. ornaments, jewelry, clothing and accessories.
‘I discovered interesting similarities between cultures and had great discussions.’
Jay Jay (Ajok), student
The session was mutually beneficial providing a welcome platform for:
‘…hearing elders’ stories, sharing their objects and watching the interaction between our students and elders. Our students responded incredibly well and were encouraged to think about and delve into their cultural backgrounds.’
Sunshine Coward, Fine Art Teacher Haverstock School
‘Listening to the participants’ stories and memories about the objects they brought with them-it’s always interesting to listen to new perspectives and gain new experiences.’
Emma Taylor: Community Programmes Coordinator at the British Museum
When asked what future plans they have for their objects, student Maria stated that the workshop had actually helped her (despite not being particularly religious) to realise how attached she had become to her rosary beads.. ‘I will keep it until I die.’ Others said that they would be passed on to children and great grand children, continue on display in homes or simply used. They are valuable in extending our cultural heritage and preserving a legacy for future generations.
All in all the participants not only found the workshop very informative but a wonderful opportunity to meet new people of different ages in meaningful discussion. Back at school and full of enthusiasm, the Fine Art students will follow up with designing a traditional Jamaican hand printed skirt.
What cultural object do you possess that is precious to you and why?
Gene Huie -Manneh
JHH Education Coordinator
The Objects In Detail
Nancy and Carlton Medwynter brought in a leather handbag that nowadays is handcrafted and sold to tourists in Jamaica. Nancy spoke about going to the back of the house where her cousin tanned the leather and how young children would often secretly go and cut strips off the cow hide as it hung to dry in the sun to make belts for themselves.
Eris Felix brought in a bamboo tray with a map of Trinidad given to her by her sister before she left for England to remind her of where she came from. She also brought in a picture, which reminds her of her childhood and how she lived. It depicts mango and banana trees and the cane field. The cane was loaded onto the donkey cart en route to the factory and as a young girl she would take cane from the cart to eat. She recognises and celebrates the African links in Trinidad in the crafting of cane and bamboo for everyday objects.
Margaret Mitchell came to help the young people learn about and engage with a part of history. She brought in a much-loved 1950s skirt. It was made from flour bag material, which was naturally bleached by the sun then hand painted and tie-dyed. It reminds her of the music in Jamaica and girls watching the elders dancing around in skirts just like hers.
Her pre independence Jamaican money and the British passport she travelled to the UK with, as a British subject under colonial rule, are valued objects amongst others. They all remind her of a very happy childhood in Jamaica; swimming in the rivers and of the games she fondly played.
Kyraba, a 3rd generation Briton from maternal Gambian heritage, brought in a wooden carved mask that was a present given to his mother by his grandfather. All of his aunts and uncles have one displayed in their homes. He cherishes his mask with great pride as a symbol of his heritage and background. He feels that it is important to remember where you come from and felt honoured at having the opportunity to share his thoughts and feelings.
Sara, of Moroccan and Chinese parentage, brought in a hand painted Chinese fan which reminds her of when her family first moved here and the debates of where to display the fan in their home. Particularly interested in the art aspect of the workshop she felt inspired to go on and make an item from her culture to pass down as a family heirloom.
Maria, of English and Italian descent brought in rosary beads that had been given to her by her grandmother. Although not religious herself, she treasures them as a link to her family back in Italy who she does not see. She was interested in the use of personal background as a stimulus in creating art forms.
Jay Jay/Ajok brought in a South Sudanese gourd, which is a toy. Her house is full of cultural artefacts, which she did not fully appreciate as a child. Now as a young adult she has a deeper understanding and respect for them. Their importance lies in her mother maintaining links with her homeland and valuing her heritage. They also represent the struggle and difficult choices that had to be made to migrate and leave behind all that is familiar and loved.
Deqa brought in a handmade wicker fan from Somalia that she still uses today. She wanted to learn about different cultures and the arts.
Eva, born in Germany of Greek parentage, brought in a bracelet that was hand crafted and given to her when she was born. However, her mother held it in safe keeping for her until she was sixteen years old. It gives her an idea of how small she once was when it was lovingly placed on her wrist as a newborn. Nowadays although the tradition of a gifted bracelet is upheld they are not handcrafted but mass-produced. Eva is interested in learning about historical objects and will continue to treasure her bracelet as a keepsake and a piece of history.