Reclaiming history: Dreadnought South West’s The Cause

Michelle Ridings, Remi Oriogun-Williams and Ruth Mitchell in The Cause. Photo: Jim Wileman

How far would you go to win your rights? Break the law? Risk your health? Risk others’ safety? The Cause – the latest production from Dreadnought South West – wrestles with just these questions.

Over the course of 100 intense minutes, The Cause imagines a fractious meeting between two historic figures – Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and Suffragist Millicent Fawcett – each occupying an opposite side of the play’s central dilemma: is peaceful protest or direct action the appropriate response to injustice?

In one corner is law-abiding Millicent Fawcett (Ruth Mitchell): robust, dignified, elegant, fighting her own inner battle with the frustration borne of a lifetime opposing the system from within. In the other, fire-raising, hunger-striking Emmeline Pankhurst (Michelle Ridings): frail, bloodshot, trembling, her white Edwardian dress more like a Bedlam straightjacket so close to psychological breakdown is the actor’s portrayal – indeed the Pankhurst of the play’s promotional photographs is almost unrecognisable from the ghost-like apparition of its winter tour, as if the months of inhabiting this spectral reimagining has physically infused the actor’s body.

Language of war abounds. Suffragettes are ‘soldiers’, ‘warriors’. And yet the most explosive scene sees the peaceable Fawcett refuse to pick up the stone of direct action, unleashing instead a battery of repetitive word-fire that sends the audience discomfited into the interval.

If the play hinges around a single central question – whether it is better to pursue justice through legitimate or non-legitimate means – then it is testament to the writing that The Cause explores argument and counter-argument with no hint of repetition. There are so many subtle shifts in each character’s sense of their own position that I was transfixed, as each fresh nuance was opened up and interrogated from multiple angles – personal, political, rational, emotional.

The focus on these historic figures in their later years feels like a masterstroke. Far beyond youthful militancy, the physical and psychological cost of decades of activism is writ large on these characters’ bodies. If their sacrifices are evident – and they are – their aging bodies ask important questions about what radicalism can mean in later life.

Returning home afterwards, coincidently on the night of the US midterm elections, to news of a ‘wave of women’ winning seats in the House of Representatives, the importance of this play, and this still-young story, was manifest. It seems unthinkable that the fight for universal suffrage is not taught in UK schools. Compelling, intense and personal, The Cause restores this lost history: we should be proud of our foremothers.

 

The Cause is written by Natalie McGrath and directed by Josie Sutcliffe.

Autumn/Winter tour dates for The Cause

Connecting RAMM with its visitors

Artwork from RAMM's membership newsletter, Connect
Artwork image: Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery

Is art and culture part of who you are? Do you jump at the chance to see a big name? Or do you prefer something a little more untested or risky? These are the kinds of questions explored in a new initiative I had the pleasure of project managing for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter recently.

The new project, a free online membership scheme, enables the multi-award-winning museum to get to know its visitors better and to tailor its programmes, activities and communications according different visitors’ interests. It uses a model developed by Morris Hargreaves McIntyre to understand the way different people relate to art and culture.

RAMM commissioned me to provide overarching project management – supporting an interdisciplinary museum team to overcome complex data management and communications challenges and to design new processes from scratch.

I always enjoy working with the RAMM team and this time I had the added pleasure of managing an external design contract, working with an agency to create a compelling visual identity for RAMM Membership.

I was excited then, to see one of the first fruits of our work drop into my inbox this afternoon – the first edition of the new RAMM Membership newsletter, Connect.

An annual report

 

Artist Caitlin Heffernan prepares her installation at the Museum of Somerset as part of Muse: Makers in Museums. Image courtesy: Muse: Makers in Museums. Photo: Christopher Jelley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I won’t lie. It’s been a challenging year personally. But in the best tradition of those who are given lemons I’m delighted to have turned out a stronger business performance this year.

Packaging my income and expenditure records off to the accountant feels like a good moment to take stock.

2017-18 has again been testing for the cultural sector. But I’m pleased to have been able to provide clients with the thoughtful and responsive services that have contributed, in some small way, to ensuring that the best culture and creativity continues to be a reality.

Highlights of the past year include supporting the team at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter to articulate the museum’s growing contribution to Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, as part of a successful bid for National Portfolio Organisation status. I can’t wait to see how their programme develops.

I’m thrilled also to be working on my home patch with the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon, as it embarks on an exciting extension project that will give the town the museum it deserves. Evaluating the accompanying activity plan is a delight.

And in a year when I’ve been happy to reconnect with old friends in Barnstaple, I’ve also been pleased to evaluate Muse: Makers in Museums, a project to engage communities with museums through 8 contemporary artist commissions, initiated by a former colleague now working for South West Heritage Trust.

I won’t forget, either, taking my first steps back into creative writing with the Arvon Foundation and securing an Arts Council funded TLC free read.

Moving into 2018-19, I’m looking forward to evaluating visitor experience in RAMM’s redeveloped Africa Galleries, which open in May. And I’m pleased to continue my Artistic and Quality Assessor work for Arts Council England for a fourth year. Having reported on some exciting exhibitions at galleries including Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry and Ikon in Birmingham in 2017-18, my first task for the coming year is to assess an exhibition by current Turner Prize winning artist Lubaina Himid at Harris Art Gallery in Preston. I can’t wait.

So here’s to another year of resilience, rebuilding and imagination.

An Easter Story

“I’m combining Easter and April Fools Day this year: I’m sending kids out to look for eggs I haven’t hidden”, tweeted writer Louis Leung today.
“Mean but funny,” said a friend.
“Not mean at all,” I replied. “They’ll enjoy the exercise and it’ll prepare them for life’s disappointments”.
“That’s very profound for April Fools Day,” said my friend, who’s no fool either.
“And when they can’t find any eggs, tell them they’re not looking hard enough, or don’t have the right egg-hunting skills, or need to go on an egg-hunting course (loans offered), or perhaps to do more voluntary egg-hunting. Or simply improve their attitude to egg-hunting.”
This continues for four or five decades. And then one day, all the kids finally turn around and say: “But you haven’t hidden any fucking eggs!”
Until that day, Happy Easter!

Evaluating impact

I have a couple of interesting evaluation contracts on the go at present – for South West Heritage Trust and the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon. It’s great to be able to support these two organisations in capturing the impact of their projects.

Artist Jacky Oliver with her commission for Muse: Makers in Museums. Inspired by Teign Heritage Centre’s boatbuilding collections. Photo: Gillian Taylor

New Union Flag by Gil Mualem Doron

New Union Flag (2017) by Gil Mualem-Doron. Part of ‘Who Are We?’ project with Tate Exchange and Counterpoint Arts

Nothing to do with what I’m working on, but I had to share this wonderful work by Gil Mualem Doron as part of the Tate Exchange Who Are We? project with Counterpoint Arts. The project website says that it ‘includes designs of former colonised communities and of various ethnic and national groups that live in the Uk today.’

Counterpoint Arts seems to be doing some inspiring work.

More about Who Are We?

More about Gil Mualem Doron

How diverse is MA’s ‘Manifesto for Tolerance and Inclusion’?

Image courtesy The Museums Association

21st-century museums use the material culture of the past and present to encourage discussion and debate, right? To share ideas and open up conversations. So why then, does the new Museums Association ‘Manifesto for Tolerance and Inclusion’ (February 2017) respond to the US Travel Ban by adopting an unequivocally pro-immigration stance?

Bear with me…

If museums and other cultural organisations are serious about inclusion, we have to recognise that last year 52% of our potential UK audience voted to sever ties with our European neighbours in order (so the argument went) to halt inward migration. The seismic shock of discovering that progressives are suddenly in a minority cannot be assuaged by simply shouting our liberal values ever louder above the voices of those who have genuine, if to us misdirected, concerns. Of course we need to do this too, now more than ever. But culture has a deeper and more powerful role as well.

It’s of all our responsibility to challenge prejudice and ignorance – and it matters how we do this. If we become organisations that promote a particular, liberal viewpoint only, we’ll do little to include the 52% of people that felt so ignored that they voted to overturn decades of progress, however flawed.

Perhaps we should invite contemporary rightwing populist viewpoints, hateful as they are to many of us, into museums, galleries, theatres. Explore with empathy. Look objectively, in the same way that we now talk about the origins rather than the causes of Europe’s lurch to the political right in the 1930s. Or perhaps even in the same way that psychology brings thoughts into the open, where they can be comprehended, challenged, addressed. If museums seek to understand history, including the history that is happening now, surely we have to open up and not close down debate?

And yet there remains a tension between head and heart, between intellectual ideal and lived experience. The challenge is how to admit these conversations safely and without causing harm. No-one entering a cultural space (or indeed any public space) should feel less valued, attacked or afraid as a person. In our pursuit of knowledge and understanding we have to remain true to our most humane values.

And on a personal note, as someone who grew up amid 1980s Section 28-sanctioned hatred, I wish just one trusted person or authority, perhaps at school, or even at sixth form college, had declared themselves against the dominant bigotry and ignorance, as the Museums Association has now done. Only when we feel safe and valued – all of us – can we begin the process of understanding, let alone creating, a diverse and exciting culture.