Black Eyes and Lemonade

The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) was delighted to receive an award of £500 from the Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Fund for 51 Voices – different voices.

To mark our 70th year, The MERL are working with people to explore and respond to collection objects from or accessioned in 1951 – relating them to priorities and passions of the past, present and future. Throughout 2021, 51 Voices will be mapped to 51 collections items, enabling reflection on mid-century ideas, preoccupations, and creativity but with contemporary perspectives. By working with different ‘Voices’, including from outside the museum and heritage sector, these items will be re-imagined with surprising, and perhaps challenging responses. We had already reaching out to and starting to work with a diverse range of colleagues, Reading based artists and communities to ensure and enable many and different voices can be heard and shared through this work.

The aims of the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) project as part of the wider 51 voices project were achieved as follows:

  • To work with an artist that self identifies as neurodivergent

We were pleased to work with Jessica Starns. Jess is founder of charity Dyspraxic Me for young dyspraxic adults and is passionate about making the arts and heritage sector accessible and inclusive to all. She has been using art to support museum interpretation through socially engaged and inclusive practice. During her MA Inclusive Arts Practice, she collaborated through arts-based research to answer her research question ‘How should we interpret and curate the history of labelling people with learning difficulties (neurodiversity)?

  • To support the artist to design and deliver creative participatory activity with staff, students and/or a relevant community group

The MERL’s 51 Voices Development Manager Anna Jones worked to support Jess with the design and delivery of the creative participatory delivery. Because of the ongoing Covid restrictions and policy of the University, Jess was required to deliver the first two sessions via Zoom, with a planned third and final session in person at The MERL.

Limitations of Zoom aside, Jess prepared and delivered the creative and participatory sessions, setting opportunities for individual creative follow up between the sessions. The participants were encouraged to explore ‘unsophisticated art’ through photography and projection mapping. This took inspiration from The MERL collection – a catalogue from ‘Black Eyes & Lemonade’ an exhibition held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London during the Festival of Britain in 1951. The exhibition presented everyday objects made in Britain, normally excluded from museums and art galleries. This provided a starting point to consider what and perhaps who continues to be excluded. Participants used phones to take photographs of everyday objects to then project into the eye of a scanned and enlarged exhibition catalogue.
We had three participants involved in each of the sessions, including one young person studying photography, one person who had recently studied folk art, and one of The MERL volunteers.

  • To inspire participants through a Collection object, resulting in a piece of co-created artwork/creative output that will become 1 of the 51 Voices

Participants were inspired by The MERL collection object – a catalogue from 1951 exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, as we discovered, after a Thomas Moore poem Intercepted Letters or The Two-Penny Post Bag (1813). The exhibition presented everyday objects made in Britain, normally excluded from museums and art galleries. The 1951 exhibition was organised by artist, designer and writer Barbara Jones.

All participants contributed a range of photographs inspired by the catalogue listings (A) Transport; B) Toys, Hobbies and Pets; C) The Home; D) Food; E) Birth, Marriage and Death; F) Agriculture; G) Festivity and Entertainment; H) Souvenirs; J) Printing; K) Religion; L) Man’s own image; M) Personal adornment; N) Pictures; O) Commerce and Industry sharing with the group the relevance of these images to their own lives and experiences. Participants decided that the final piece should focus on eyes and typography, as these featured prominently in everyone’s photographs, perhaps subconsciously in reference back to the striking image on the front of the catalogue.

Watch the full collaborative piece below. Please note: the video has no sound.

  • To hear, listen and amplify ‘Voices’ and what they wish to say regarding diversity, inclusion and experiences of neurodiversity

Jess shared that she has expanded her practice and understanding from involvement in this project, using new technology and art form methodology, connecting with different participants, and exploring the history and heritage of the original exhibition. It was the first time she has used LightForm in this way and as a result has been invited by the National Paralympic and Heritage Trust to run a similar set of workshops. The MERL follow up plans to this work include inviting Jess back to the museum to share her work later in the year when, hopefully, there can be more public facing events and a finale celebration of all the 51 Voices.

With thanks to the University of Reading Diversity and Inclusion Initiative Fund.