Earlier this year we opened our exhibition The Bluecoat’s Looked After Children. The exhibition highlighted the history of the Bluecoat as a residential school for orphaned and destitute children, and was accompanied by a programme of events which further explored the experiences of looked after children.
The Bluecoat's Looked After Children was the second strand of the Echoes and Origins project. Echoes and Origins aimed to re-evaluate the building’s history as a boarding school for orphaned and fatherless children, as well as its origins in connection to the transatlantic slave trade.
Our aim was to engage with this history alongside participants who have modern experience of these themes, including looked after children. We commissioned Liverpool dance artist Paula Hampson to lead a series of workshops, using different artist practices, to engage with the history of Victorian Bluecoat children. Paula has many years’ experience of engaging with local communities through art, including previous projects with looked after children and their carers through Liverpool organisation Kinship Carers.
We attended one of Kinship Carers coffee mornings at the Ellergreen Community Centre in Norris Green, to discuss the project with their service users and see if any young people would be interested in taking part. As some families had worked with the Bluecoat and with Paula previously, this was very successful and two weeks later we had 8 young people who were interested in starting the project.
Every Saturday, for a total of 18 weeks, the group of children aged between 8 and 15 attended workshops at the Bluecoat. Using archive images and documents, as well as the opportunity to immerse themselves in the environment of the building, the children explored the history of Bluecoat children and created visual and performance art inspired by what they learned. Led by Paula, these experiences were to culminate in a final public presentation to be performed at the Bluecoat at the end of July.
Some of the children were familiar to each other from Kinship Carers so the group formed an easy bond. Paula, supported by therapist Holly Barton and myself, welcomed the children each week, with the intention of allowing them to explore and express their creativity. Within a few sessions the children felt 'at home' in the space and relished the opportunity to wander around the building and garden, moving in the LIC studio, painting in the Makin Room, playing piano in the Sandon Room and exploring all of the Bluecoat's nooks and crannies.
At the Vide exhibition launch of The Bluecoat’s Looked After Children on the 17th July the children had the opportunity to perform a sneak peek of their upcoming performance (what they called a trailer), which was scheduled to take place in full on the 29th July.
By the time of the performance on the 29th the children and the team had a very strong bond and worked seamlessly as a team to present a movement performance to the public, which was their interpretation of the history of the Bluecoat children. The children did two showings of their performance during the day and both were very well attended. We had great feedback, to what was a very thoughtful and moving presentation, with an accompanying film directed by Paula and wonderful tech support from Rob Hack and Phil Saunders.
The children were excited about the performance and very proud of their achievement but also emotional that our workshops had come to an end.
Evie, aged 9, said she felt that she had "been part of something good and great".
Erin, aged 11, relished the opportunity to be "creative and learn about the children's history".
Alani, aged 12: "enjoyed coming every week, playing and making new friends".
Molly, aged 11 was "excited about the performance, I'm a bit sad that we won't see each other [at the workshops] again".
Ebony, aged 10, loved "being in the different parts of the building ... the painting and meeting artists".
Paula Hampson said:
"The project was a great opportunity to work with the young people over the 4 months. It allowed us time to really get to know one another and for each child to thrive and find their voice. Their ability to express their thoughts and creative ideas grew each week, as we explored different aspects of the Bluecoat School history. To create a public performance with a group of young people requires dedication and support from all sides. We had a great team, and the young people gained new skills and experiences from working together and sharing their hard work. It was wonderful to witness their confidence grow after each performance.”