Capturing the Stories of Kettle’s Yard

When writing about museum learning and creativity, I’m aware that theory must be paired with practice to be meaningful. Consequently, I’ve been thinking about my own experience and how this might relate to the ideas I’ve been exploring. As a case study, I’ve chosen the project I’m most proud of – creating ReCollection, an oral history archive, for Kettle’s Yard. Two elements were vital to its success – the input of many people and the lengthy gestation period for ideas to take shape. Both of these aspects are well-documented in creativity theory, which I’ll explore in more detail below.

I was Education Officer at Kettle’s Yard (University of Cambridge) for seven years. Kettle’s Yard had been the home of Jim and Helen Ede. They bought four derelict cottages in 1956 and knocked them together to create one space, which they filled with art, music, furniture, ceramics, and natural objects such as shells, pebbles and plants. Everything was presented in relation to, and in harmony with, everything else. A pebble was just as precious and worthy of contemplation as a Hepworth or Gaudier Brzeska. From 1957, they opened their home to undergraduates who found it a haven of peace and tranquility. The Edes moved to Edinburgh in 1973 and a live-in curator, Paul Clough, in his first job, inherited the all-consuming task of presenting the house. Over the following decades, many artists, educators and curators have passed through its doors as staff and visitors. Currently closed for a site development project, Kettle’s Yard remains a very special place.

I joined Kettle’s Yard in 2006, when its upcoming 50th anniversary year (2007) was the subject of much discussion. I was keen to learn ‘the Kettle’s Yard way’ and met many people who had known the Edes and visited as students, or were visiting for the first time and were blown away by the experience. When I started, the house invigilators were mostly women in their retirement; they were amazingly knowledgeable on both the Edes and the collection, and they used to share anecdotes with me, told to them by the thousands of visitors we had every year. It’s a place of stories, conversations and shared memories – all temporal and ephemeral. I thought about the 50 years that had passed and wondered what the house would be like in 50 years’ time. I can’t remember exactly when an oral history archive occurred to me, but it was the result of wanting to capture and preserve the experience of the house as it had been, and how it was at that time, to create a record for those future generations to come. Once the idea appeared, it took root and then took over – little did I know what a massive project I had taken on.

My initial aims were very modest. I wanted to interview perhaps a dozen key people and I thought it might take six months. I had never done an oral history project before so my first job was to meet oral historians to find out what’s involved. The more meetings I had, the more the project grew. I wanted to document the history of Kettle’s Yard, as told by those who’d been there in the early days, but I also wanted a contemporary snapshot from first-time visitors. I wanted children’s voices as a counterpoint to adult voices; I loved the idea of a four-year-old participating in a 50th anniversary project and potentially coming back as a 54-year-old to celebrate Kettle’s Yard’s centenary in 2057. With some of the key players already in their eighties, I was also aware that aspects of the Kettle’s Yard story would be lost if we didn’t take action and record their memories.

Before I could apply for serious money from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), I had to prove the project’s viability; seed-funding was provided by Renaissance East of England Community Learning and Outreach Fund. This enabled us to spend a couple of weekends capturing visitors’ responses to Kettle’s Yard and their views on the creation of an oral history archive. I then spent an intensive three weeks writing an HLF application. By then the project had mushroomed into a two-year process, including a part-time oral historian post, a series of workshops with a school and children’s centre, and a website with photos and clips from the archive. We were awarded £45,000 and, with some additional support from the Cambridgeshire County Council, we were underway – we launched in January 2008 and the project was completed in January 2010.

On completion, we had worked with a team of 15 volunteers and collected in-depth interviews with 42 people who knew Kettle’s Yard well. We had delivered art workshops and recorded interviews with two primary school classes and a group of four-year-olds and their parents from a local Children’s Centre, many of whom had never visited before. We recorded over 100 hours of interviews. I’m particularly happy that we managed to interview both of Jim and Helen’s daughters – Elisabeth Swan and Mary Adams.

So, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the input of others and a long development period were both crucial elements and there are a number of theories on creativity that chime with this observation. If I’d stuck to my first idea and delivered it alone, it would have been a bit pants. The final result was so much richer than I could have hoped or imagined.

The phrase ‘collective creativity’ is a nice way of describing the benefits of working with others. Linda Hill gives a great TED talk on How to Manage for Collective Creativity and examines the push-pull of innovation when you have a number of chefs in the kitchen. She identifies three forms of collective creativity: creative abrasion (‘creating a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse’); creative agility (‘discovery-driven learning where you act, as opposed to plan, your way to the future’) and creative resolution (‘decision making in a way that you can actually combine even opposing ideas to reconfigure then in new combinations to produce a solution that is new and useful’).

The Journal of Business Anthropology devoted an entire ‘Opinions’ section (Fall 2015) to creativity and innovation, including articles on the benefits of working with others. I found some articles to be more relevant than others; the introduction by Brian Moeran (pp.1-8 pdf, pp.228-235 journal) and Keith Sawyer’s article, The Zig-Zag Path to Toy Story (pp.25-32 pdf, pp.252-259 journal), were both particularly inspiring. Moeran writes about ‘collaborative engagements’, whether that’s between agents (ie. people), institutions, materials, tools & technologies, or cultural genres, such as a brand identity. Sawyer argues that the creative process is unpredictable and non-linear and is better described as a zig-zag towards something new. An important component for Sawyer is ‘cognitive diversity’, which he describes as follows:

Creativity research has found that when teams and organisations are composed of people with different backgrounds, they are more innovative. The type of diversity that works best is cognitive diversity: people who come with different intellectual backgrounds, and who have mastered different bodies of facts and conceptual material. Having a diversity of skin colour or nationality or ethnic background won’t work as well, if everyone has the same degree from the same university.

Sawyer summarised the traditional approach to creativity, based on Graham Wallas’s 1926 publication, The Art of Thought. Some aspects do feel a bit clichéd now – especially the view that creativity is solely an individual, reflective pursuit – but one key aspect of Wallas’s theory does still hold, incubation. It’s common advice to step back from a problem and change one’s focus to allow the solution to reveal itself. Steve Johnson, in his TED talk, Where Good Ideas Come From, refers to the incubation process as the ‘slow hunch’. He argues that our accumulated experiences, sometimes dating back decades, all feed into our ability to generate new ideas. He illustrates this with the story of Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection – apparently all the components were in Darwin’s notebooks, hiding in plain sight, many months before everything slotted into place. In Johnson’s words: “that is actually how great ideas often happen; they fade into view over a long period of time”.

While I’m not going to attempt to put my oral history project on the same footing as Darwin’s theory of natural selection (!!), I like Johnson’s approach to ideas generation and the slow hunch. As with the other authors I’ve mentioned, Johnson also talks about the importance of working collectively to make creative breakthroughs. By moving outside my comfort zone and taking on an oral history project, I had to work with people who brought different areas of expertise and knowledge. As a result, the project far exceeded my original idea and benefited greatly from our cognitive diversity.

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