Report by Simon Bramley, MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies
As strange as it sounds, I have often found myself taking simple pleasures in train journeys. Of course they operate as an enclosed vessel that transports you from one locale to another; yet at the same time, I often find the time spent contained within them to be quite productive. My journey from Leeds to Manchester and then onwards to Stoke-on-Trent, was much the same. Between trying to catch up on some much needed reading (for my impending dissertation deadline) and gazing upon the distinct Pennine landscape that hurtled past the train’s windows, I was left to contemplate on the final destination of my travels, the Minton Public Free Library and the Ceramic City Stories- DIY Heritage Day.
Knowing very little about the actual event I was heading towards, sparks of curiosity began to erupt as the journey progressed. Perhaps encouraged by the very landscapes I was traveling through and their pronounced industrial heritage, I was left to think how Stoke-on-Trent’s history may differ and manifest itself in comparison to that of Leeds, Halifax (and the Standedge Tunnels) and Manchester.
Arriving at Stoke-on-Trent, we left the station and followed the detailed directions (in which we were also reminded to keep an eye out for tiles, terracotta, etc.) on how to reach the Minton Public Free Library…
As you leave main station entrance, turn right. Take first right under railway. You’ll cross over the ‘D Road’ (dual carriage way below). You will see the current council building (80s monstrosity) cross over to pavement in front, turning left following the road down + keeping it to your right of you. You will soon see The Glebe pub + original Victorian Stoke Town Hall, on your right + attached to the back of the 80s building. Keep walking down road (Stoke Minster) is seen on left. Get to end of terraced shops/curry house etc. and then turn right on to ‘Church Street’. You’ll see the old Market facade and tower further up on your left. Keep walking to the main junction ahead (which is called Campbell Place. Here you turn left and walk up London Road. You will see Sainsbury’s ahead on left (+ across a road) – on Minton China Works site and historical Stoke School of Art building on right and next door the Library.
The short walk from the station to the event, on which we did pass many of Stoke-on-Trent’s famous exports; tiles, terracotta and of course one of its most famous sons, Josiah Wedgwood, only sought to build excitement in the rare British summer sun. As we approached the Minton Public Free Library, it seemed to stand defiant to the architecture that surrounded it. The building stood face-to-face with a Sainsbury’s, flanked by an innocuous car park and a former-petrol-station-cum-carwash. Although highly decorative, the red bricked and tiled façade only alluded to what was in its underbelly and it was not until we walked down into ‘The Canteen’ (Basement) from the roadside, did it truly reveal its hand.
The cool space of the basement, in contrast to the warm summer sun, was a hive of activity. Instantly upon entering you could sense this room had a history, perhaps it was the drop in temperature, perhaps it was the smell of the room (certainly not unpleasant but alluding to age), or perhaps it was the buzz of noise generated and echoing around the space as pockets of activity and discussion erupted around the room. Although at first, perhaps seeming quite sporadic or even chaotic (with multiple conversations, tiles and pottery scattered around the floor, people removing wallpaper and tea, coffee and cake being offered around) the energy circulating around the room prompted me to join in and get my hands dirty. It was here, through my own interaction with the building and its materiality that I better understood the event and its DIY ethos. Peeling back the wallpaper to reveal the building’s former splendour, a patchwork of blue and white tiles depicting different virtues, stories and Shakespeare’s plays not only revealed the fabric of the building and its subsequent layers of history, but also offered an interaction that no public, or (in this space) community, could achieve in say a conventional museum situation. What was unfolding within this basement space was a coherent community-led effort to interact, understand and discuss Stoke-on-Trent’s unique heritage.
With real emphasis on ‘Doing’ in the here-and-now and united by a common interaction (revealing the blue and white tiles, wallpaper creeping behind the fingernails ‘n’ all), community ownership of the space could be seen around the room. Genuine excitement, care and ownership could be seen on many people’s faces, with many taking time to reveal specific tiles or ‘that last bit over there’. In many cases the room was just the starting point, serving purely as a backdrop for spoken interactions and the exchange of oral histories. Bearing witness to a variety of people and their interaction to the event, including a tiler by trade, student and former security guard, it was the statement of a 7 year old that really made me smile…
‘100 years later and people are still looking at ‘em!’