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Writer in Residence

Miles Travelled = 456
Museums Visited = 8
Mood = Recovering

I’ve been out of action for two weeks due to a bout of flu. This has stopped me going out and visiting museums, but it has also given me time to think. And one of the questions on my mind has been this: what are ‘artists in residence’ really for?

On first glance, the idea of bringing artists into organizations and having them ‘reside’ is a strange one. What might a painter have to contribute to a bank or a sculptor to a football club or a novelist to a museum? Even writing about the concept is hard, because the range of art forms and the range of places when one might ‘reside’ is so vast and diverse that no two residencies can be the same.

I first became aware of the concept of ‘artists in residence’ back in the 1990s, but the phrase it has a long heritage enjoying several waves of popularity and originating over a hundred years ago.

Could the residency be seen as a means by which wealthy organizations can sponsor the arts, giving space and time for the creation of new work? Possibly. As such it looks back to an ancient tradition of patronage. The idea has a somewhat worthy feeling that I do not completely trust. As if by the transfer of money and a place to live and work, the wealthy might buy cultural elevation.

On the other hand, it could be seen as a means by which learned, insightful artists could bestow their understanding on lesser mortals – in exchange for a payment, naturally. But this idea feels even worse. The distain of the artist looking down from on high on a world of lesser mortals.

Perhaps it is a form of education. By bringing in an artist, those working in an organisation might benefit through the transfer of skills or knowledge. Whilst that idea is less objectionable, it feels inadequate. Do we really expect the workers in a government agency to become artists by having an artist amongst them for a few weeks? And even a little knowledge and skill was transferred, how would that impact their work?

Writer in Residence

My experience from being digital writer in residence for MuBu is that, far from arriving as a possessor of knowledge, a person who is able to gift others with precious skills and understanding, I arrived knowing nothing at all. If I wasn’t such a compulsively curious individual, it might have been a distressing experience. I walked into the first museum on my journey without any knowledge of the project they were working on or the history they were interpreting or the economics of museums or the struggles that they face or anything that could have been remotely useful to them.

But it seems to me that this very ignorance, combined with an artist’s ability to see, is one of the most important things about a residency. The artist benefits from the intense stimulation of a steep learning curve. New work flows from this. Inspiration comes. On the other hand, the organisation hosting the artist is given a rare chance to see itself, reflected in the new creative work produced as a result. This is a fresh view, untrammelled by the cynicism that can accumulate among the workers in an organization, however high its vision. Thus, at its best, a residency is a trade from which both parties benefit.


New Walk Museum in the Snow

Miles Travelled = 456
Museums Visited = 8
Mood = Spellbound

I’ve seen many treasures on this journey already. But this visit to New Walk Museum ranks high on my list. I parked half a mile away and walked across the frost encrusted city. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The museum itself looked spectacular. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I had the pleasure of meeting three MuBu scholars inside.

I was able to record a brief interview with the three of them, which I will podcast in a following blog.

New Walk Museum, Leicester, banner.

New Walk Museum, Leicester. Columns


Alford Manor House

Miles Travelled = 451
Museums Visited = 8
Mood = Inspired

My first view of Alford Manor House is a glimpse through a grimy windscreen: a large building of attractively mottled brickwork, capped by an expanse of dark thatch. The drive has taken me longer than I’d planned and I’m running late. I shoot up a side street to park, then sprint around to the front, where I discover that the manor house is only open on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

It is Monday.

In another town, a museum being closed might mean exactly that. Locked. Bolted. Silent. But this is Alford. An elderly couple stroll past me, open the door and step inside. I follow them through and discover a small crowd of volunteers decking out the entrance hall and stairs in tinsel and lights.

‘I’m here for the writing class,’ I say.

They look at each other, brows furrowed. ‘Writing class?’

‘Kerry Featherstone,’ I say. ‘He’s a poet. He should be running it.’

‘Would that be upstairs, then?’ asks one.

‘Upstairs,’ nods another, pointing to the ceiling. ‘Keep climbing till you get to the top.

So I do.

Alford Manor House

Kerry is standing in a dimly lit attic space under the irregular and sinewy timbers that form the apex of the roof. Young people are sitting at tables all around, heads bent low over lined paper. Small lamps on each table give just enough light for them to work by. Pens whisper and scratch, adding to the ghostly atmosphere.

‘We have a visitor!’ Kerry announces, beckoning me inside. ‘Sit down. We’re missing one of our writers. You can fill in.’

They are writing about ghosts, their poems anchored to a regular pattern of repeated lines. And what better place could there be to hold such a workshop than the attic of an early 17th Century manor house?  This is the fourth in a series of workshops. The participants are students from two local schools. Happily I’m not expected to write anything. Instead I have the chance to see some of the new poems while the ink is still wet.

<Kerry Orange Alford Manor House

The work I see is of exceptional quality. Hard to believe the writers are just 12 years old. At that age I could barely read a whole book, let alone write such arresting poetry.

‘They volunteered for this,’ Kerry tells me.

I ask why.

‘To get away from school,” says one.

‘For the biscuits,’ says another.

They all laugh at that. It is an easy answer, but not true. There is too much animation for that. Too much focus. They are writers finding their voices. And by ‘writer’ I mean not the job. I mean the person who writes because they have no choice, because that is what they are.  A state of being that comes from inside and radiates out rather than being conferred by a publisher.

This project, The Ghosts of Alford Manor, is generating writing to reinterpret a heritage site for new audiences. That’s what MuBu projects all around the region have set out to do. But what impresses me most about this project is the transformative effect Kerry’s workshops seem to be having on the participants themselves. Though intangible, that must surely be the greatest outcome.

In these days when all public spending is attached to targets and measurable outcomes, it is refreshing to see work like this taking place. Though personal transformation can’t be measured, it is infinitely precious.

What about the people of the small town of Alford? I’d already gathered the impression that the Manor House was very much ‘owned’ by its community. Would they mind that the MuBu money being spent in their town might not leave much of a physical trace? I don’t think so. What trace could be more significant on such a community than the empowerment of its young people.

I’m still musing over these questions after the workshop, as Kerry shows me around the site. When the young people of Alford grow up, will they leave, taking all that empowerment with them? Will they abandon this community and become the bright young things of London?

<Antique Bottles

We’re walking around a barn-like outhouse, which is stuffed with the hundreds of museum artefacts that don’t fit into the Manor itself. Everything from antique bottles to farm machinery and pharmaceutical scales from the town chemist shop.

‘My grandfather used to work in that pharmacy,’ Kerry tells me. ‘That’s why I really wanted to do this project. I remember coming here as a child. It’s a personal journey for me.’


Travelling in Hope

Miles Travelled = 311
Museums Visited = 7
Mood = Travelling in Hope

Though the name ‘the East Midlands’ implies a position close to the centre of things, the region stretches all the way to the coast. My destination today is the small town of Alford in Lincolnshire, only a couple of miles from the sea.

It’s going to be a long journey up the A46 and beyond. I’ll be spending far more time travelling than I will at my destination. So perhaps this is a day to travel in hope. And to think.

The A46 from Leicester to Lincoln is also known as the ‘Fosse Way’. It lies along a two thousand year old artery that extends south west all the way to Exeter. The name ‘Fosse’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘ditch’ and perhaps echoes its origin as a line of defence. In the years after the Roman invasion in AD 43 it marked the northwest frontier of the empire.

There is no ‘Fosse Way Museum’ that I am aware of, which seems strange considering its scale, significance and antiquity. But then, the landscape of the East Midlands is steeped in history. The fingerprints of our ancient ancestors are everywhere in the place names and field patterns. It is said that some boundary hedges have existed for over a thousand years.

This is the thought that drifts through my mind as I approach Lincoln, speeding past the ghosts of Roman and Romano-British travellers:

The artefacts displayed in museums may sometimes be less spectacular and less ancient than the landscape that surrounds us. Perhaps then, the role of the museum is less about holding objects and more about helping us to bring all this ambient antiquity into focus. Less about objective physicality and more about the subjective experience.

Strange that travelling such an arrow-straight highway has triggered this rambling path of thought.

The ancient landscape of the East Midlands

I’m on the road between Lincoln and Alford when a storm rolls through. Brilliant low sunshine illuminates the underside of the slate blue clouds. A rainbow appears in the sky, more luminous than any I can remember seeing before. Somehow it seems appropriate.