Northern Lights: Cultural experiences can shape who we become as human beings

Grayson Perry, Comfort Blanket 2014 � The Artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo Andy Brown.
Grayson Perry, Comfort Blanket 2014 � The Artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo Andy Brown.

Investing in cultural education is investing in our future. There are lots of important things to learn at school and sometimes it feels a real struggle to fit everything in. Understanding our shared history and how we relate to each other is a basic skill like any other; without some knowledge of what shapes us, it’s difficult to find our place in the world.

Three years ago, Museums Sheffield partnered with teachers at Bankwood, Gleadless and Woodhouse West primary schools to embark on a creative adventure inspired by arts and culture.

My grandmother used to make blankets out of squares of knitting using up all her left over wool, a habit I suppose she picked up during world war two.

The Start project, funded by Children and the Arts, focussed on building relationships between schools and museums and explored how collections can enhance learning in and out of the classroom.

The project has really positioned young people at the heart of Museums Sheffield’s work. The children have taught us a lot: three years on and they use the museums confidently – they’re comfortable, creative, and engaged – it’s their space and they know it.

This year the children worked with Grayson Perry’s large scale tapestry Comfort Blanket (2014) as a starting point to explore their ideas. On display at the Graves Gallery, Comfort Blanket explores ideas around British identity – from pie and mash and Eric & Ernie to the pillars of social justice; asylum, liberty, tolerance and decency. Perry says; “My grandmother used to make blankets out of squares of knitting using up all her left over wool, a habit I suppose she picked up during world war two. For my tapestry ‘comfort blanket’ I imagined the Queen as grandmother of the nation knitting a giant blanket featuring all the things we most cherish in Britain. The piece also looks like a giant banknote but its denoted value is cultural, communal and emotional.”

Comfort Blanket inspired a stream of activity in school which encouraged the children to think about the concepts of identity and Britishness. This weekend, their work goes on display in a new pop-up exhibition at the Millennium Gallery. All About Us demonstrates their capacity for self-reflection and their amazing ability to think creatively. Comfort Blanket is a challenging work of art; it’s funny, political and very British. To see it through the eyes of children truly brings it to life. Opportunities for discovery like this are vitally important for our young people as they begin to take an active part in building a culturally diverse, cohesive society.

All About Us is just one example of how access to art and culture makes a big difference in the lives of children and young people. The museums aspire to be places where they can find things out for themselves – after a school visit many children bring their families back to the museum, giving them a guided tour, pointing out their favourite objects, making it their own. Rather than telling them what to think, cultural experiences encourage young people to develop their own opinion.

Our city is rich with inspiring cultural activities, much of it designed with children, young people and families in mind. Growing up in Sheffield makes it possible to explore theatres, museums, galleries and parks, to attend festivals, city farms and gardens. While much of this provision remains free, it isn’t always accessible to everyone – sometimes it’s a long journey across the city, or the challenge of feeding a whole family out for the day. That’s why the school visit remains so important.

Adults will often say that they can’t remember where they’ve parked their car, yet they can remember, with great emotion and detail, their school trips and those hot sunny afternoons where the teacher took them outside to sit on the grass and draw. These indelible memories are part of what make us who we are.

Our schools need the resources to make these memories. Currently, Sheffield schools have the lowest funding among England’s core cities – about £155 less than Manchester per pupil. How can that be right? And how can we give our children and young people the tools they need to think differently and to embrace the World starting from such an unfair position?

So this summer, if you can, why not take your children or grandchildren to Pitsmoor Adventure Playground, roll-up to the circus activities at Weston Park, or explore Love Among the Ruins at Park Hill? While you’re there – think about what culture means to you and to your family and support Sheffield’s schools by signing the online petition: https://www.change.org/p/fair-fund-for-sheffield-schools

All About Us – a free exhibition - is at Millennium Gallery from the 1st – 3rd August, 10am-4pm.