Saturday, 5 December 2015

Save Lancashire Museums: To Lose Them is to Lose Perspective

Can you remember the first time you felt utterly in awe of something? It’s an incredible sensation. Perhaps it was when you were a child, looking up at something so much bigger? It’s size and scale may have seemed thrilling, or it may have been the exciting element of the unknown, and the inspiration to find out more? Your toes may have tingled with the excitement, your face fizzing with a smile and the want to tell others about it. For me, this awe was inspired by a visit to Whitaker Park Museum in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, looking up at the absurd structure of a ‘Penny Farthing’.  The huge front wheel and spindly structure I had never seen before and was suddenly so keen to know. It also summarises an essential point; museums inspire us not only with awe, but inspire us to learn beyond ourselves, beyond what we first thought possible. They open new worlds. Thus to close them is a great tragedy.
Whitaker Park gardens and museum

The museums of Lancashire made my childhood, as well as my sources of inspiration and information. It’s almost ironic (and horribly so) that the government cuts are seeking to make history of them instead.

Five of the county’s museums are set to close from the 1st April next year, due to proposed local authority savings of £65m over the next two years for Lancashire County Council. The five museums are Fleetwood Museum, Queen Street Mill in Burnley, Helmshore Textile Museum, the Museum of Lancashire and the Judges Lodgings Museum. These are places which share our rich heritage, history and most importantly, knowledge.  To close them is to send the message that the past is disposable and skews the notion of society. We aren’t built online, on social media. We are built in human effort, and hardship, brick and business; something museums regularly remind us through the buildings they inhabit, the exhibitions they offer, the work they do.  Museums give us a real sense of perspective and that this could be lost is an awful concept.

Realise your role as a citizen

And Museums don’t just offer a sense of perspective, but multiple perspectives too. They make you feel included. Rather than a single source, they provide information in many different formats; allowing you to see for yourself as part of a bigger past and in turn, a citizen.  In most of Lancashire’s museums you can currently enjoy free entry and the opportunity to browse as you like, in your own time.
Helmshore Textile Museum
 So in that way, a museum values your individuality too. The freedom to explore knowledge physically is a lot more valuable than you may first think – it allows you to much more actively consider yourself in relation to the artefacts on display, and to appreciate difference. For example, it is hard to have proper awareness of how confined working mill conditions were until you have seen  the intricacy of turning cotton into thread at Helmshore Textile Museum! It is only when you’ve heard the machines in motion at Queen St Mill that you can really consider the impact upon working people, day-in, day out. Museums are mind opening.

Yet  the government cuts seem determined to open peoples wallets instead, including young people. What has been an important aspect about Lancashire’s museums for a long time is that they are largely free (or at least vitally free for children); emphasizing that you cannot put a price on interactive knowledge.  They have long provided an opportunity for immersive learning, opened up to families from all income backgrounds. Of course, financially supporting museums important, but having the opportunity to choose whether you do this has been long-term important to museums’ open-minded ethos. Plus a museum would rather than take an inquisitive mind – a child ready to learn – rather than a closed collection of coins. Yet the factor of finances has led the council to raise the prospect of binging compulsory  raised visitor charges into a number of museums, as well as  uncertainty regarding their future.

Freedom for children - it matters

The Museum of Lancashire, Preston
Turning a free museum into a fee-charging one I believe can become a problem. When a museum is  no longer free, it is no longer ‘free’ by any sense of the word; as by ascribing monetary value to its experience, this can be seen as an attempt to determine the worth of its artefacts, of its experience. When museums are charged for this leads families considering the value for money rather than the actual contents. Things quickly become evaluated by investment (i.e. ‘was it worth the  cost/time/effort?’) rather than the level of interest engaged; and this taints the openness of perspective which museums originally inspire. If a museum charges already and is attracting visitors, then this is less of an issue. But to introduce charges to those which have long been free is a hard task.

Museums are not just capable of opening up perspectives either; it is important to consider the numerous roles they play in Lancashire.  Firstly, their role in conservation. It is through preserving the past that museums are providing educational opportunities for future generations, highlighting  their continued importance in society. And they don’t just teach society,  but take lessons from it too; as the  exhibitions in museums are often shaped by the attitudes of audiences and people who visit. Curators have the role not only then of preservation but presentation; assembling the past to make sense for the present and inspire the future. When you consider such processes, it shows that museums are creating positive relationships and structures at every level.

Museums make communities

Structure is an important point in itself too. Museums provide important local infrastructure as well
Mills in Helmshore
as connecting beyond the county. Take Helmshore Textile Museum, for example; an original Lancashire textile mill.  To add to the roles already listed in this piece, it plays a key community role; with the frequent school trips it facilitates just being one example. The cafe also provides a welcome meeting place for regulars, including some local elderly residents who find great comfort in the place. It certainly goes beyond what you may assume a single museum is capable of; with recent events hosted therefore including a Christmas craft fair and market.  Plus the research carried out by those working there also connects the little village of Helmshore with interest from all over the country; including enthusiasts, academics, writers and journalists.  This kind of networking is important to and is facilitated by museums across the country; they create communities of their own as well as keeping the history of others. As emphasized before, museums provide a place where multiple perspectives can come together in a receiving the gift of knowledge. To close them is to deny the present - both metaphorically and in reality! 

So now it’s time to give something back.

I think that one of the biggest things we can give to museums, is our support.  This doesn’t have to be financial if you cannot manage it – because after all, museums endorse open awareness, and it’s this openness you can use in your favour. Perhaps you could pay a visit, volunteer, donate, or even sign a petition. There is clear support for Lancashire’s museums out there and action already being taken which emphasizes how important these places there for the modern day. People can still walk through the doors and be awe-inspired. And that’s a thing worth saving. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

Tom Martin’s music photography launch at Sandinista: Personalities, performances and INTERVIEW!

Manchester’s bustling bar Sandinista has just launched an exhibition of photography by Tom Martin – a photographer (often known for his work with NME and Kerrang!) whose latest project has been securing shots of our favourite live music artists.  Tom was born in West Yorkshire, but over the last ten years has crossed continents in the quest to capture the stunning live music photographs and portrait-work he is known for. 2015 sees him bring the best to Manchester, with a selection of snaps set to include Jay Z, Metallica and lots of Leeds Fest features as just some options.

Therefore you can really get into a musical mood at Sandinista this December. The non-conformist, cool-feeling bar will provide all you need to enjoy Tom’s photographs – which show contemporary music photography at its finest. Expect energy, enthusiasm and experience a-plenty: here is a photographer who emphasizes that the visuals of music matter, not just the sound.

And it matters that it is taking place in our great city! Tom himself was keen to reflect on why he wanted to make the most of a chance to showcase his skills in Manchester in particular:
Your photographs (especially on your website) show your range of encounters and experiences throughout the world!  Why are you bringing them to Manchester?

I grew up near Sowerby Bridge, which is right in the middle of Leeds and Manchester and I’ve lived around here all my life. Both cities hold significance to me, I endlessly get asked if I’m going to move to London for my career but I’m happy here in the North, it’s where I want to be. When I had the opportunity to show this work across both cities I jumped at the change. I also really wanted to put these photographs up in good lively bars. These are shots from loud messy shows, I want people to be able to have a drink and a chat and see them, rather than being in a quiet, cringy gallery!
The upcoming exhibition is set to showcase live music photography. Why did you decide on this focus in particular?

I’ve done a few exhibitions over the last couple of years with pictures of people, fashion and reportage but I’ve never done a show of my live music images, which is ridiculous really because it’s such a big part of what I do. I realised that it’s been 10 years since I started shooting live and that I’ve built up this big archive of shots that just sit on hard drives. There are lots of photos in this show of pretty huge name bands that no one has ever seen before.

When we think of music, we often think of sound. Why is photography important here too?

Ooh good question! I’m not ever sure that it is really that important?! I think there is a place and a demand for quality images of live music because people want a record of that gig or event. The right image can tell the story of a performance and capture the atmosphere so it can be remembered and seen by people who weren’t there.

Who/what was your favourite musician/act to photograph? Why was this?

I don’t think I could choose just one band but I did love shooting the Live from Jodrell Bank shows. It’s a very special venue for live music, The Flaming Lips, Elbow, New Order and loads more bands played there whilst there were projections onto the satellite dish and lasers and all sorts. There was so much going on at those shows that I didn’t know where to look and what to shoot.

 If you could photograph any musical artist, dead or alive, who would it be?

Maybe Notorious BIG when he was younger rapping on street corners in Brooklyn, I always thought that would have been so cool to photograph.

What are your future photography plans? Do you have any other projects?

I guess just to try and keep evolving what I’m shooting really. I get bored I want my work to be interesting, especially to me, so I just keep trying to say yes to shooting new things and going to new places. Nope no projects at the moment, although I’ve always got a wish list of schemes on the go and I’m quite spur of the moment with it so who knows what’s around the corner!

So get yourself down to Sandinista for Tom’s fine photography, as well as their tempting cocktail and dining offers. You are sure to leave with so much more than just food for thought. There are photographs fit for every course. Sandinista, 2 Old Bank St, City Centre, Manchester M2 7PF

You can also visit Tom’s website for more information and photographs:

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Primary school play equipment is failing our children… and what we can do to address it

Primary schools are still getting the sums wrong when it comes to children's play. How so?  A key issue is that Playtimes are often subject to too many restrictions, cuts and compromises, typically judged as little more than ‘cooling off’ periods between lessons. This equates to sending children the message that their playtime is neither valued or valuable. Yet numerous studies (and common sense) show that outdoor play is an essential part of productive, positive learning. But as long as the message sent by schools is that playtime still lacks value, the more a slippery slope builds. The restricted nature of playtime leads children to feel frustrated, even misbehaving. This misbehaviour becomes falsely associated with playtime, and so the negativity continues. What clearly needs to be re-evaluated is the value placed on play in primary schools. Already at the forefront of helping  with this is OPAL (Outdoor Play and Learning), a programme which seeks to  work with schools to show that investment in play can lead to greater positivity, reduced misbehaviour and does not have to be expensive. 

The value of outdoor play is getting more attention in mainstream media (like my last article), and this is good, but the reaction of schools can be the opposite – acting as quickly as they can by impulsively choosing play equipment they assume ‘looks good’.  Equipment can facilitate, but it does not create good play. Plus, this equipment is often expensive, seemingly bought under the assumption that a greater cost will bring bigger value to children. To assume this is to misjudge the free, exploratory nature of play itself.  Another sad thing is that many companies appear to be capitalising on unsuspecting schools, selling equipment which has very limited play value and only very short term benefits – at big prices. It looks valuable, but does not bring value : and this needs to be addressed. This is where programmes such as OPAL come in. OPAL supports a much more carefully considered approach to schools investment in play by helping them avoid spending money on expensive capital items which have very little long term play value.  It reinforces positivity. Plus it
works to make schools consider what ‘value’ is in relation to play really is, as Director Michael Follett reflects:

“Children play with difference of any sort, so even a hole in the ground will provide play value. Schools should be able to make much better informed judgements about why they are spending so much when their money could provide much greater value if spent differently.”

Properly selected play equipment can bring out the best play opportunities for children, can help with behaviour problems and is not necessarily expensive.  Schools need to stop looking to high prices and fancy appearances for reassurance.

Stop being tricked by Trim Trails

A particular issue lies in outdoor play equipment which ‘looks fun’ for the first few days; but beyond the illusion of its ‘bright’ appearance it is often bland and lacks actual sustained benefits.  The most guilty culprit is the ‘Trim Trail’. These trails are typically low-level wooden or metal obstacle courses, like those you usually see in a public playground. This type of equipment expects children to complete a ‘circuit’ of obstacles, moving on from one piece to the next piece in line like items that move steadily along a conveyor belt. Inevitably, children don’t opt for this approach – and instead use the trail at various points when they feel like it – often blocking it or interrupting it for others.  The second problem is the Trim Trail is designed to be physically challenging play equipment, yet actually comes with very little risk or challenge. In order to assure complete safety the physical challenge has been minimised meaning that children master it within days, hours or often minutes! 

This raises the key issue: surely play should be constructive, rather than reductive: not reducing a child’s task to going round in minimally challenging circles? The beauty of good play is that it can lift children out of the pressure of routines and offers freedom of expression and self-direction.
It’s an interesting thought then that the play equipment assumed to be ‘fun’ by schools could be actually limiting to children. Why? Because the play offer is both limited and fixed, there is no opportunity to alter, change or be creative or imaginative. It could even be the case that children are coming home feeling frustrated because their play equipment, and the way adults manage it, has  again been a source of obstruction rather than construction.

Because school play equipment like this is often present in school playgrounds but not serving the needs of children, this can lead teachers and parents alike to draw the unhelpful assumption that outdoor play is disruptive. Surely if outdoor play was a benefit to children then they would be enjoying such equipment to its full extent? There is an importance here, however, of looking beyond the Trim Trail  and at the detail. Outdoor play is well documented as being is highly advantageous to children of all ages. This is supported by  the national organisation Learning Outside the Class Room (LOtC)  which argues that ‘Children need an outdoor environment that can provide them with space, both upwards and outwards, and places to explore, experiment, discover, be active and healthy, and to develop their physical capabilities’ –  with play a part of this. Now consider equipment like the Trim Trail. With its typically very low level structures and set circular course, it is hardly a structure which supports development ‘upwards and outwards’.

Skeletons in the playground

Action research by OPAL shows that when trim Trim Trail equipment is introduced to schools, there is an initial flurry of children using it (after all, children will be excited to play on anything new) but after the first six weeks, usage falls to levels as low as 5-10% of playtime involving the equipment, used only by 5-8% of the school population. This suggests such equipment is not bringing big benefits to children and under-usage again causes unhelpful assumptions to be drawn – teachers and parents conclude that play equipment is not a worthwhile investment.

OPAL however is working to highlight  that investment in play can be worthwhile and manageable. It does not equate expense with success.  Instead it works with schools to adopt a clear set of principles and policies  so all involved can understand how good play is resourced, staffed and evaluated. Schools create their own unique improvement plans and with OPAL offering ongoing support over the 12-24 month period it takes for a primary school to completely change its culture and behaviour, transforming playtimes into a highly beneficial part of the school day.  Already running programmes in over 120 primaries across the country, it is well endorsed by headteachers and in October 2015 was cited four times asgood innovative practice in the All Party Parliamentary Report called 'PLAY'.

Rather than dwelling over play practice of the past, OPAL provides a bright promise for the future. And this does not involve enormous expenses and investments in technology as some might assume. Instead OPAL promotes changes which support children's natural playfulness. For example, in Slimbridge School, where an OPAL programme has been running, children have been offered a range of activities including role playing games, climbing in the bushes, digging and den building, an outdoor office space and even a ‘Messy Kitchen’. The range of scenarios this play provides is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face; so imagine the impact on the children themselves! Rather than the expense of one big item like a Trim Trail, OPAL’s resources prove that play opportunities can be provided inexpensively across a number of areas.

OPAL aims not just to change the equipment available for play, but attitudes too. For more information you can visit their website: . They re-inforce the vital value of freedom in play which goes far beyond monetary value or a piece of equipment. Play, when well-supported, upholds that it is children themselves who are truly valuable.