Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
For some of us who garden regularly, collecting bits of pottery found while digging can become something of an addiction. I have long hoarded the things I find in the soil, loading them into jam jars to store on a shelf, with no particular purpose in mind. Occasionally I’m stopped in my tracks by a colourful chipped-off corner of something, and find myself daydreaming, pondering its origin, wondering who and what might have been here before me. So when a kindred spirit from the horticulture team here at the Botanic Garden handed me several boxes of their own finds, in an attempt to go ‘cold turkey’, we decided to find a way to use them creatively in a project.
We wanted to do three things. Find out more about the material we had collected. Use it to create something in the Garden. Work with a community group – to share what we discovered, and then invite them to add a new layer of history to our Garden.
So we set about gathering a team and working out how to deliver a meaningful project. First on the list was the British sculptor and artist Anne Schwegmann-Fielding, who I met some years ago while I was working as a volunteer gardener on a restoration project at the Gardens of Easton Lodge in Essex. Anne too has a passion for the lost and found, her mosaic sculpture at Easton Lodge took what was left behind, hidden in the soil, and used it to beautifully tell the story of the garden and the people who lived there through its history.
Next on the list was Sarah-Jane Harknett from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology here in Cambridge. We wanted to know more about the material we found and have an archaeologist to work with our group and help them understand the processes and excitement of reading history from what we had found in the soil.
Finally our group – we chose to offer the project to Centre 33’s Young Carers Group. This local charity supports young people who care for a relative – by providing somebody to talk to, giving support in schools, and offering fun activities where children can take a break from their home situation and make new friends. This year is the sixth year we have worked with this group, and we knew, from having developed this long-term relationship, that the project would suit the way they work, and provide the young people with a project that they would enjoy.
We decided to run sessions over several of the school holidays in 2016, to give everyone plenty of time to get to know the Garden and Anne, Sarah-Jane and our team. This longer time-frame also gave us plenty of time for the children to design and make mosaics with all the pottery pieces we had stashed in our office.
We began in the Easter holidays of 2016 by learning mosaic techniques from Anne and working on designs for two permanent mosaic artworks in our Schools’ Garden. Sarah-Jane helped us all look through the finds and work out what things were. There were a huge number of clay pipe fragments – she explained that these were part of smoking pipes that varied in length from 15 to 60 cm long – used for ‘leisure smoking’! We discovered that the reason that they are so often found in pieces is because their owners would have broken off and discarded the ends as they got clogged up with tobacco and spit. Everyone was fascinated with this and wanted to make sure they had plenty of the ‘old cigarettes’ in their mosaics. Sarah-Jane also brought along handling collection material from the museum for us all to look at. There were beautiful fragments of a Roman mosaic, pottery that showed the finger marks of the children who had made them and Roman Key rings – keys that were part of a ring. We learned that Romans invented these to carry their keys, because they didn’t have pockets, and this is where we get the word key ring from. By the end of this first session we had made mosaic pots and coasters to take home, and drawings that went on to become the designs for a raised planter and central floor mosaic in the Schools’ Garden.
Two further sessions, one in the May half-term and another in the summer holidays, followed with the children transferring their designs from paper into mosaic, using a combination of new mosaic tiles and the found pottery. We broke up the days with walks and pizza picnics in the Garden and time spent looking at more materials and objects which Sarah-Jane brought over from the Museum. As we worked we continued to find stories to unravel in the pottery – a small piece with an image of a bear and what looked like the words ‘bear grease’ was of particular interest. This fragment was from the lid of a pot of hair product ‘Bear Grease’ which claimed to reduce male hair-loss. It was first used by men in the 1800s – made of bear fat and beef marrow, with lavender and thyme used to camouflage the meaty fragrance.
After the sessions Anne took the mosaic works back to her studio to grout and prepare them for installation in the Garden. By the autumn we were ready to put them back into the Garden and just before Christmas we invited the children and their families back to the Garden to celebrate and unveil the mosaic in the centre of the Schools’ Garden.
I asked Anne and the Centre 33 group leaders to reflect on the project.
‘It was a joy to watch the children grow in confidence, gaining practical skills whilst bonding and working together as a group. Using materials which quite literally came out of the Garden made the mosaics more meaningful as they were then incorporated into artworks placed back into the Garden. It felt like part of the planting process, completing a cycle. Creating a personal piece to take home was also crucial, giving the children a constant memory of the project as well as providing a conversation piece for family and friends. The hope is that they will continue to visit the Garden to see the works they created here and have pride in what they have achieved.’
‘Centre 33 was once again delighted to work in partnership with the Botanic Garden on this Mosaic Project. It was fantastic that our young carers were able to make something that is now a permanent fixture in the garden and is there for members of the public to enjoy. The project gave our young carers the opportunity to have time out from their caring responsibilities, have some fun and learn new skills and being able to invite their families along to the opening event was the perfect ending to the project’. Helen Eves, Centre 33
Historic gardens and plant collections are never static; they grow but also die and sometimes start all over again on another site. Our collections are rooted in history, carried here on the backs of explorers, nursed from valuable seeds and shared between generations of plant collection custodians from across the world. The soil they grow in here at our Garden holds the histories of the people who care for our collection, those who have learned from them and those who have visited them. Working with Anne and our colleagues at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on this project has given us a new respect for this ground beneath our feet.
Felicity Plent, Head of Education, Botanic Garden