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Behind the Scenes at the Museums

Can school students produce new knowledge about the Romantic period?

This is the question which motivates our twinned exhibitions in the Lake District, with one focusing on ‘Ridiculous Romantic Portraits’ at Wordsworth Grasmere, in collaboration with students from St Mary’s Catholic High School in Astley, and the other turning its attention to ‘Ridiculous Romantic Landscapes’ at Windermere Jetty, in collaboration with students from Rainford High School in St Helens. If ‘new knowledge’ includes ‘new artworks’ then the answer is a resounding yes as students either directly created or inspired displays which think afresh about what nature and culture meant in the Romantic period and the continuing legacies of Romanticism today.

This week, the two exhibitions opened to the public. On Monday, I helped install them – Paul Greenwood from Norwyn Photography even said he would employ me… on a zero hours contract – you have to take your side hustle where you can!

Here are some behind the scenes glimpses at the installation of the exhibition, with some thoughts on how the students have produced new knowledge about Romanticism.

We started work at Windermere Jetty before it was open. Here are the town and country mice designed by Sarah McIntyre (the town mouse is a sort of self portrait of the artist!):

These were the first pieces of the display that we carried into the exhibition and they already looked amazing!

The mice are so cute! And will probably gather the most interest from visitors to the exhibition but they were originally a bonus. I got in touch with Sarah to see if she would make us some mermaids because students had – for reasons known more to them than me – thought of mermaids as part of their plans for the exhibition, as in these notes:

Sarah turned these suggestive stick figures into William and Dorothy Wordsworth as mermaids (or Merdsworths, if you will):

She threw the mice in as a bit of a bonus – and I thought I could use them to bring another part of the students’ plans to life. They were very interested in texts I’d given them which gave a positive spin to city life which contrasted both with their expectations of Romantic literature and with some comic grumbling about country living I’d also included. The students came up with a town vs country display, as in these notes here:

I combined this with a suggestion from other groups of students to create a kind of pop up book to show the shift from the sublime to the ridiculous we had been discussing:

In this Windermere Jetty exhibition, we took the students ideas and made them into these beautiful displays. I wanted to make sure we included some words from the students themselves so asked them all to fill in a questionnaire like so:

We then took these words and turned them into a ridiculous word wall for museum visitors to manipulate as they wished (though I now recognise I could have made this more clear in the display itself):

Anyway, I’m over the moon with the exhibition as it is. Here’s Sophie Terrett, a curator with Lakeland Arts, and Paul from Norwyn paired with the mice:

Thanks to both of them for all their help and support with the exhibition!

Next, Paul kindly taxied me over to Wordsworth Grasmere to install the next exhibition. For a heartstopping moment I thought this was doomed when the museum was closed on a Monday. But after a moment of blind panic, we made contact with museum staff and met Jeff Cowton, the lead curator there. Phew!

This exhibition centres on the artwork students made themselves in response to a workshop pack each group had on a particular figure from the Romantic period. Here are some close ups of the students work (though for full effect you’ll have to go to see it yourself):

The students’ work is innovative, original, surprising, politically engaged, and moving. I’m delighted by the depth of insight and engagement it demonstrates with the project. A particular highlight for me is the woven portrait of Dorothy and William Wordsworth – a creative testament to their collaborative relationship!

I also love the students’ satirical embrace of James Gillray’s caricaturing, explained here in relation to modern celebrities and villains:

Jeff and the staff at Wordsworth Grasmere were super helpful – raiding the cafe to rustle us up some lunch and even recording a time lapse film of our installation (which I’ll upload when I see it!). I was very taken with this coffee cup:

Finally, I wanted to include an interactive element to the exhibition, so made a ‘Take a Ridiculous Selfie’ board. Here it is and here am I, being ridiculous:

You can visit the Windermere exhibition from now until 5th September, details here:

You can visit the Wordsworth exhibition from now until 17th July, details here:

One thought on “Behind the Scenes at the Museums

  1. The Merworths are the best thing I’ve seen all week. In fact, I think they’re in the running for the best thing I’ve seen all year.

    I recently found out that Walter Scott had a mermaid on his coat of arms. Maybe the MerRomantics will be the next big scholarly trend!


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