When we think about local history, it is perhaps easiest to think about the use of the land; those who made it their own and the changes that use brought. The landscape is constantly changing, season to season; changes in industry, working practices, settlement use and advances in technology from cement to the combine harvester to the motor car.
But what about the impact that art has made on the landscape? Creativity goes hand in hand with inspiration of the landscape, and we often see the results of this creativity in art galleries, museums; in our own homes. The 2014-2019 National Lottery Heritage Funded project Creative Wiltshire has looked at the impact that creativity has made on our county, acquiring items made by creative people on behalf of the county’s participating museums, archive and local studies libraries.
The project also considered public art; the extent, location and condition of works in Wiltshire and the role it plays to enhance the places where we live and work. Public artworks are vulnerable to change, whether it be through environmental damage or vandalism, or through redevelopment of an area in or around it. Before the public art project, very little was known about the whereabouts and extent of public art in the county.
The project was devised by Meril Morgan, former Wiltshire Council’s Arts Lead who was based at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. Volunteers worked to gather data on public art in the community such as the location of the item, its condition, what is known of it and a photograph of it in situ. Data collected as part of the project will be made available in the Local Studies Library at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre with images deposited in the Historic Photograph and Print Collection. The decision was made not to include war memorials in the first phase of the project. A great deal of research has already been completed on these structures, particularly for the World War One centenary. War memorials may feature in a future phase if volunteers are keen to add these to the collection.
A number of workshops were run for volunteers and discussions centred on that quite often very personal idea of what exactly is public art? To some it is an eyesore, to others a show of creativity to inspire others, a display of craftsmanship, perhaps sometimes evoking a sense of community effort or setting a community’s celebration or commemoration in time.
92 images have been pinned to Wiltshire’s Know Your Place website so far to map their location geographically. You can find them by looking at the community layer in your area or searching under the term public art to take a whistle top tour of public art throughout the county!
The response to the Public Art Project has been very positive with great excitement at the prospect of getting out and about and discovering just what type of artwork is out there. We’ve been amazed by the variety of items that are being discovered.
We’ve also been receiving additional information on items from members of the public and also by artists themselves which we’ve passed on to volunteers to help with their recording of areas. We have received many lovely images including the Dewell Mews statue in Swindon and ceramic tiles at Castlefields, Calne. Thanks go to the volunteers who are giving their time freely to help us achieve our aim.
The recent case of the bronze pigs statue in Calne which was removed by thieves and sold on (luckily quickly recovered) is a vivid reminder that our public art is vulnerable. It is also sometimes temporary, sometimes controversial, but without it we would not be a society which strives, which shares, which inspires, which provokes thought in spaces that are open to all. What a richer society we are because of it.
Art is part of who we are. It is an important addition to local history which gives us an insight into the mindset of communities past and present.
There’s still time to take part in the Public Art Project, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
County Local Studies Librarian
Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre