Presentation (Topographies)

Ceramic City Stories
Presentation to Topographies of the Obsolete 9.11.2015
  • Proud Potter! Grew up on the edge of The Potteries and have been passionate about the city & its historic ceramic industry from an early age.
  • As a young boy I was particularly influenced and inspired by my surrogate Grandad, Alex Birns. Alex was a very good studio potter and had moved to Stoke-on-Trent from London in the early 1960s. He understood how special this city and its people were - I remember him explaining how this was a unique community of artists and scientists. Alex often referred to it as a 'world heritage site' and talked about the incredible cumulative knowledge base and expert skills as 'living history being played out on a daily basis in the many potbanks and other related industries to be found across the six towns. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he took me on walks & we explored together. Alex told me stories about this magnificent ceramic city.
  • I've been fascinated & obsessed by the city and its citizens ever since. As an artist, historian and activist - I have been exploring various lines of enquiry for the last 25 years. I am obsessed with the city's historic ceramic diaspora to be found in key buildings, museums & private collections across the world.
  • This was a massive creative investment by the skilled & hard-working people of this great city. They paid (& continue to pay) a heavy price - the city has experienced an insidious industrial disaster over more than 250 years affecting health, environment & the whole quality of life.
  • The city & its population have contributed to the 'cultural offer' of so many places near & far. My key driver is to try and find creative ways to re-connect the city with its local and global cultural legacy. In doing so, to identify and unpack contemporary value and future benefits for the city and its community. These explorations and shared stories will also offer potential benefits for our partner communities and organisations of course.

*Click on image for links

Here's a selection of recent and/or current activities that seem to have relevance and connections with Topographies of the Obsolete:
  • There's a unique Minton tile ceiling in the middle of Central Park on Manhattan. 16,000 decorative encaustic tiles were made in Stoke (across the road) and shipped to New York between 1865 and 1867 via Trent & Mersey Canal, across The Atlantic and probably up Broadway.
  • Vaux & Olmstead created the 'Greensward Plan' - a vision that laid out this world famous democratic green lung in the market forced (relative) chaos of downtown Manhattan the harbour, Wall Street/NY Habour etc.
  • Calvert Vaux worked with Jacob Wrey Mould on the detailed designs for the Terrace Bethesda Pool fountain/arcade formal centerpiece Central Park including the Arcade - a palatial space for everyone
  • 15year restoration process resulted in the re-opening of Bethesda Terrace including the Arcade and its ornate ceiling. Nearly 2,000 of the tiles needed to be re-made, so they sourced them from Stoke-on-Trent nearly 150years on from the original commission.
  • According to CPC approximately 42 million people visit Central Park each year. Bethesda Terrace is the most visited part of the park. CPC claim that The Minton Tile Ceiling is the 2nd most photographed architectural ceramic in the world - anyone guess the first? Correct, Taj Mahal!
*Click on image for links

  • The Potteries Tile Trail Community/Crowd-sourced virtual collection of tiles & architectural ceramics to be found 'in situ' across Stoke-on-Trent.
  • TACS. HLF/All Our Stories & Historypin
  • Community research team/ambassadors 6 months, Tile Trail roadshow promoting a wider conversation touring 6 towns
  • Social media esp Twitter @potteriestiles 'Ceramic City Stories')
  • Nearly 500pins posted (250 more to pin), 6 tile trails for 6 towns, specific collections (ceramic street signs, pubs, architectural terra-cotta, tiled residential doorsteps, mosaic door thresholds in commercial properties, etc.)
  • Recognised model of good practice & featured as one of 10 international case studies Shift/Historypin research. Heritage Exchange Jenny Abramsky RSA Heritage Index mention, feature in academic research (next) etc.
  • 16,000 views (2 years) top 25 (23rd) internationally i.e. huge scale/well funded/institution-led initiatives i.e. Smithsonian Institute, Imperial War Museum, US National Archives etc.
  • Ongoing discussions with CPC re: bringing NYC tiles/fragments back to city/community where they were made... hopes boosted by the successful negotiation & return of 14 original Minton-Pugin encaustic tiles from the Palace of Westminster, London. (SoT's 'Elgin Marbles' in buildings, museums & private collections across the globe).
*Click on image for links

  • Parallel Archives…
  • Exploration of access & authorship in relation to digital archives & digital storytelling
  • Academic & community research partnership led by Simon Popple, University of Leeds, 3 UK community teams (Bute, Manchester & Stoke), Science Museum, University of York & BBC Archives
  • Volunteers, Creative Facilitators, Academic Researchers, Creative Technologists (Carbon Imagineering)
  • Interesting collaborative process exploring opportunities & issues about conducting research, identifying & using archives
  • It also focussed on digital & online archives & how to tell & share your own (digital) stories
  • Co-design process in relation to 'Yarn' an online digital storytelling platform
  • Science Museum Community in Residence (SSN+) was a spin out project involving a 48hour archive access challenge. Community research from Stoke-on-Trent were invited to access, capture & share their individual & group experience working 'in residence' in The Science Museum's Blythe House (250,000 small objects store)
  • Participants captured & recorded the items & their experiences throughout. They shared this 'live' using social media & blog posts during & after the weekend
  • 'Ceramic City Stories' & Stoke-on-Trent items or connections provided the focus & 'way in' to the collections... medical ceramics, ceramic electrical insulators (Bullers), The Potteries involvement in archive material about The Great Exhibition, etc.
  • Individuals curated an online exhibition by selecting 3 specific items & a related story & commentary.
  • Connected Communities' newspaper to all
*Click on image for links

  • Research provocation: How Should Heritage Decisions Be Made? An exploration of decision making processes & experiences in relation to heritage & the heritage sector
  • Co-Desgn/AHRC Connected Communities
  • Academic & community research partnership led by Helen Graham, University of Leeds, Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, University of Leicester, Science Museum, Bede's World, National Coordination Centre for Public Engagement & Ceramic City Stories (Stoke-on-Trent)
  • Key CCS foci: Creating a 'coalition of the willing', humanizing & democratising decision making, recognising, supporting & encouraging individual activism within & without Institutions, activism & 'small change'.
  • Specific research strand about The Potteries Tile Trail/All Our Stories DC/KB/HG
  • Heritage activists - acting (often without permission), guerilla heritage/conservation (i.e. shop doorway tiles, Minton Hollins tileworks geometrics)
  • Cultural offer - whose narrative? The city needs plural voices & different perspectives as it shapes and evolves its contemporary & future narrative
  • In honour of my surrogate Grandad Alex Birns (previously mentioned)... I hereby declare The Potteries a World Heritage Site! (UNESCO will catch up at some point!)
  • Heritage Decisions book to all
*Click on image for links

  • The Minton Free Public Library & Shakspere (sic) opened 1879
  • Reference Library & Museum
  • School of Art & Public Baths
  • Minton China Works opposite
  • 'The Canteen' (healthy body, healthy mind)
  • Tiled for hygene & practicality
  • Showcase of late 1860/70s tiles block print feature tiles (copper plate/Paul H), transfer and plain).
  • 3 artists known: John Moyr Smith, C.O. Murray & Thomas Allen
  • 6 months pilot (uncover, document - conservation audit and condition survey, to be published online)
  • Public access & awareness (including managed participatory conservation activities i.e. part of the process: wallpaper removal, photo-bombing/promoting wider interaction via social media/awareness)
  • Conservation covenant/extended & enhanced listed status including specific reference to/protection for basement tiles.
*Click on image for links

  • '6 Towns | 1 City' newspaper to all
  • Non profit, Community Interest Company moving to next step development
Information & contact details:

  • Present from The Potteries - a little 'thank you' for caring about Stoke-on-Trent.
  • Please open the envelopes now - found ceramic fragments (local & further afield).
  • Online virtual archive & Historypin collection (incl. reference numbers)
  • In the first instance I would like to invite each one of you to:
    • Make contact once you get home & please share the new location of your fragment (home, work, garden etc) - we will then amend/re-pin archive image & add to details online.
    • If you wish - you can do this yourself by signing up to Historypin (free) and amending/adding to the details. Alternatively, you can simply contact me directly with the information and I will amend/add the details to the online collection.
    • Once you let me have a new location - I will interact further & share more information about your fragment - this might be where it was found originally (in Stoke-on-Trent or further afield) or some more background information.
    • It would also be wonderful to hear any further comments, thoughts, ideas, conversations, shared stories you might have online.
  • If it works out, we have a little distributed collection or potential DIY museum/archive & related online resource. We could simply leave it at that or keep track of any further moves, developments, we could even arrange to bring the collection together again and exhibit next time you are in The Potteries or when you get together elsewhere, maybe even by post (all tracked & 'reported' online in a light touch way.
  • Finally, it's meant to be a bit of fun & a way of hopefully keeping in touch!
*Click on image for links