CASE STUDY: Space2 – Many Happy Returns – The NHS At 70

This case study explores a participatory textile making project commissioned by Space2. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.

Title of case study project or workshop

Many Happy Returns – The NHS At 70

Name(s) of practitioner(s) and institution/organisation, if any

Space2 was the commissioning organisation.  Artists include:  Carine Brosse (banners); Marcia Brown (banners); Denise Scott (bunting workshops); Tony Stephenson (chair commission); Charlotte Tweedy (banner workshops/production); Jelena Zindovic (hospital screens; photography); Jane Morland (tea, cakes & conversation workshops; story collection, supporting volunteers, recording oral histories, book editing).

Community groups and partners
 

After Hours Saturdays Social Group / Busy Fingers Group (Feel Good Factor) / Coffee Morning Group (Shantona Women’s Centre) / Dementia Café Group (Feel Good Factor) / Hospital Alert / Keep Our NHS Public Leeds / Many Happy Returns Volunteers / Mustard Seed Café Community Group (Church of the Epiphany, Gipton) / New Testament Church of God Community Group / Seacroft Grange Residential Home / Seacroft Men’s Group (Space 2) / Thackray Medical Museum Volunteers / Threading Tales Group (Space 2) / Dean Bagnall (scientist and artist).

Context for project

Many Happy Returns – The NHS At 70 was an independent socially engaged arts project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and commissioned by Space2, a Leeds-based arts and social change charity with a focus on arts and health. Conceived as a celebratory project the aim was to work closely with local communities in East and North East Leeds to capture memories, personal stories and social history to explore the meaning and value of the NHS for diverse individuals and groups.

The project responded to a perceived lack of documentation of the social impact and cultural history of the NHS, as identified by the University of Warwick’s Centre for the History of Medicine. Many Happy Returns also sought to highlight the contributions of members of the “Windrush Generation,” particularly to the early history of the NHS, building on Space2’s links with Caribbean communities in the Chapeltown area of Leeds.

When did the project take place?

The project started on 5th July 2018 (the exact date of the NHS 70th anniversary), ending precisely one year later with the closure of its culminating exhibition.

Background(s) of the practitioner(s)

Carine Brosse is a multidisciplinary artist who graduated in Fine Arts from Leeds Met Uni. As well as her own personal practice, she creates works in collaboration with other artists and does a lot of community based projects.

Marcia Brown graduated with a Masters degree in Contemporary Fine Art Practices from Leeds Beckett University.  Her artwork is mainly figurative consisting of portrait drawings, digital arts and paintings inspired by the relationship between music and art.

Jane Morland is a freelance arts practitioner working across multiple artforms usually with a focus on community involvement.  She performs with Cusan Theatre, facilitates historical workshops in character for Bradford museums, co-directed Gipton the Musical, sings with Commoners Choir and is the lead oral history facilitator for Space2.

Charlotte Tweedy’s artistic practice is rooted in the craft movement.  In her work she most often produces decorative textile items, taking inspiration from nature and using wool fibres, rovings, furnishing fabrics and suitings.

Denise Scott originally trained as a fashion designer at London College of Fashion and later as a childcare tutor. She has been combining her art practice and teaching in the community to find fun ways for adults to learn new skills.

Tony Stephenson studied textile design at Bradford Art College and has been working as an artist facilitator with people with dementia , mental health issues and special needs for more than 10 years.

Jelena Zindovic is a visual artist with a BA (Hons) Art and Design – Leeds Beckett University/MA Contemporary Fine Art Practice – Leeds Beckett University.  Her area of interest is identity and belonging in contemporary Britain within a globalizing world. All of her practice is done through photography, film, performance and installation.

Aims of project

Many Happy Returns aimed to capture the stories of working class Leeds communities and staff who came from abroad, particularly from the Caribbean, to ensure the implementation of the NHS, plus those with disabilities and illnesses that would have been untreatable, possibly fatal, without NHS treatment. The project documented these stories, focusing on diverse communities and older people in Leeds, to identify memories of life and health pre and post-NHS, what it meant to local people, how their lives have been changed by the NHS and the impact of the NHS within Leeds. In particular, it aimed to capture stories of a generation whose memories will soon be lost and whose lives are rarely adequately or accurately represented in mainstream history. 

These stories culminated in professional artists and local people working together to create three banners, crafted in traditional Trade Union style; four hospital screens printed with collages of stories, memories, quotes and photographs; bunting; an appliquéd chair decorated with the quotes and memories collected and a book documenting 12 of the stories collected, with photographs of the contributors.

Artists Jelena Zindovic (left) and Jane Morland (right) at the Thackray Medical Museum exhibition with the printed fabric ‘doctor’s screen’ and the appliqué NHS chair

Description of project

Activities:

  • 5 x hand-made bunting making workshops with 19 participants.
  • 21 x Tea, Cake and Conversation workshops on the theme of “What’s Your NHS Story” involving 137 people.
  • 4 x Banner making workshops, each with 3 community groups & 3 different artists, resulting in 3 Trade Union style banners.
  • Additional exhibition resources including 4 hospital screens printed on fabric and the NHS appliqué chair commission, delivered by participating artists following a community-led creative brief.
Applique chair made by artist Tony Stephenson
  • 300 copies of a 30-page Story Book featuring 12 personal stories drawn from workshops and oral history interviews. 
  • Locally Touring Exhibition – featuring the NHS appliqué chair and an illustrated Vintage Hospital Screen. 
  • Final exhibition and celebration event at Leeds Central Library – estimated 2800 visitors. 
  • In addition to its core outputs the project produced a range of important, if unexpected, legacy outcomes. Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds offered to turn the final show into a permanent exhibit including a commitment to archiving and preserving the materials.  In 2020 the banners, chair, photographs and oral histories became a permanent exhibition at the Museum. Leeds City Library included the stories generated for the book into their own archive. 

Why did you choose to work in this way?

Many Happy Returns utilised several aspects of Space2’s tried and tested approach to community involvement. The project emerged from four months of consultation with Space2’s local community in east/north-east Leeds which established the NHS as an appropriate and valued subject and the willingness to support a celebratory arts and heritage initiative. At the core of the project was a group of 15 volunteers who met regularly and were involved with production of the book and its stories as well as the ‘hospital screen’ artworks. These 15 volunteers included some previous participants from Space2 projects plus individuals connected with other community partners. The success of the project was built on trusted relationships within these communities.

Community consultation also influenced the specific commissioning of the seven professional artists involved in the project. Key to the process was allowing the project to evolve slowly at the pace of the workshop groups, and showing patience with the fluctuating availability of the volunteers, in a way that was consistent both with the painstaking processes of stitching and embroidery integral to several of the artworks and with the gradual revelation of stories which emerged as new people found out about the project and became comfortable with sharing their experiences. An example of this was a number of nurses who took to coming over from Seacroft Hospital in their lunchtimes.

Community participants were also creatively involved through the artist-led workshops on banner making, bunting and story collection. Participants generated materials and shaped the content while the lead artists had final responsibility for producing completed pieces with appropriate production values for inclusion in the exhibition and book. These processes reflect the experience of the artists and co-ordinators in balancing the final quality of the work with maximum community involvement and ownership. One way of achieving this was for community members to produce the brief given to the artists so that they had ownership of the commission, if not ‘hands-on’ involvement with every technical process or creative judgement.

What did you learn from the project?

Workshops did not necessarily emphasise creativity or artistic process, particularly when it came to collecting stories, but concentrated on providing an environment in which people would talk freely and share experiences. The story workshops were presented as “Tea, Cake and Conversation” sessions and involved groups targeting different age ranges and genders at community centres and care homes. Sessions allowed a chance for slow, relaxed, gentle engagement centring on sharing food. People would open up to the group and share very personal moments. It was important to get this initial approach right as all the stories fed into the creation of the textile banners, the bunting, the printed screens, the embroidered chair and the book. 

We learned the importance of adapting a project to the pace and capacity of volunteers, whose attendance levels and abilities may vary, but whose ownership of the project and its outcomes needs to be maintained.  Several features of this project worked well in allowing space for gradual development, including the ability to accommodate later arrivals to workshops and conversation sessions. Alongside this, artists were allowed a certain level of autonomy at the end of the process to make curatorial choices and to finalise the artworks to their own production standards.

Comment

“So poignant. Tears trickling down my face.” – participant

“Very all-encompassing and heartfelt exhibition about a very special subject. This clearly means a lot to a lot of people.” – audience member at exhibition

“So Proud to be included. Space2 as usual, have done a wonderful job.” – participant

Further information

https://space2.org./nhs-70/

For further information on the cultural history of the NHS and further projects about what the NHS means and how it has shaped our lives since its creation: www.https://peopleshistorynhs.org/

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