Children in the Archive and the City: Collaborative Practice with Seven Stories

Have you ever considered how the design of spaces can help children learn and explore? In this blog post, Daniel Goodricke provides an overview of the research project, ‘Children in the Archive and the City: Collaborative Practice with Seven Stories’.

The project takes the form of a collaborative, creative practice-based PhD between the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University and Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, and forms part of the Vital North Partnership.

The project investigates how children interact with museum, archive and reading spaces, as well as the broader context of the city, and explores how spaces could be reimagined with and for children and young people. The investigation aims to:

  • identify changes that can be made to the Seven Stories’ spaces to bring children’s books to a broader demographic
  • develop and test a series of possible design scenarios and alternative configurations of museum, archive and reading spaces to further encourage children and young people to interact with Seven Stories’ Collection
  • propose changes that can be made to both physical and digital spaces in order to bring maximum benefit to people of the North East, as well as national and international stakeholders.
Reading sill in the Story Station, Level 4 of Seven Stories’ Visitor Centre. Image source: Daniel Goodricke.

As an architect and educator, I was motivated to undertake this research project following my experience as part of multi-disciplinary teams responsible for the design and delivery of centrally-funded secondary school projects as part of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP). Whilst the programmes were commendably ambitious; tasking school governors, principals, staff, local communities and, even, the pupils themselves with developing an ‘educational vision’, the projects often soon reverted to more normative and routine production modes.

Acknowledging end users as experts in their own experience, this project positions children and young people at the centre of the design process by means of a series of co-design workshops. Employing creative research tools, such as body mapping, illustrated writing and sensory collage, each workshop endeavours to gain a better understanding of children and young people’s current experiences of Seven Stories spaces across a range of scales including their interactions with books, ‘nooks and crannies’, archive, building, and the city. The Finnish-born American architect, Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) admonished designers to:

“[a]lways consider a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

Creative workshop as part of the Sensory Spaces event. Image source: Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books.

The workshops, supported by continued creative dialogue, will also begin to articulate the goals, priorities and values of stakeholders, providing participants with a direct involvement in the decision making of architectural proposals. In respect of the latter, I recently attended a series of three linked seminars on the theme of Architecture and Education – specifically how architecture may be used to express educational aims and values  – held at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. I hope to elaborate on some of the presented ideas with reference to my project in a subsequent blog post.

Professor Sir Christopher Frayling’s highly influential paper, Research in Art and Design (1993), categorised the varying relationships between research and design (or, architecture) as constituting one of either, ‘into’, ‘for’ or ‘through’ the discipline. This project adopts a ‘through’ approach as it utilises the design process as a methodology in order to undertake the research investigation itself. Such as approach also provides participants, particularly children and young people (given how little emphasis is placed on architecture within the National curriculum), with a relatively unique experience, knowledge and understanding of architecture and the built environment around them, as well as the skills and confidence to become involved in debates surrounding it within their own communities. The Ouseburn Trust, including the now amalgamated Ouseburn Futures,  have long engaged residents, workers and visitors to the Valley in influencing what happens there and shaping the regeneration process.

Seven Stories Visitor Centre is located at the heart of the Lower Ouseburn Valley. Image source: Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, photographed by Damien Wootten.

The findings of the project will culminate in the production of a design brief, developed through the close dialogue with representatives of Seven Stories, end users, neighbouring communities and other stakeholders. The brief will assist in articulating Seven Stories’ capital ambition of a new permanent and accessible home in Newcastle, as it aims to establish itself as an international centre of excellence for children’s literature, by defining the scope and outlining the deliverables of any future capital development project.

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council‘s National Productivity Investment Fund and is supervised by Professor Prue Chiles, Professor Adam Sharr and Professor Matthew Grenby, whose collective expertise include the design of learning spaces, architectural phenomenology and children’s literature.

To follow the progress of the project, including research findings and workshop outcomes, please revisit the Vital North Partnership blog from time-to-time, or follow us on social media at @reimagining7s (Twitter) and reimagining7s (Instagram).  If you’re interested in taking part in the research, please feel free to contact Daniel at daniel.goodricke@newcastle.ac.uk or daniel.goodricke@sevenstories.org.uk.

Seven Stories’ first Northern Bridge placement

In this post, Northern Bridge PhD student Amy Burnside reflects on her six-month placement at Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books in 2017. The Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership is formed of Newcastle University, Durham University and Queen’s University Belfast and their strategic partners and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. 

In June of last year, I packed up my books and my notes and closed the door to my office at Queen’s University Belfast for six months. As a Northern Bridge doctoral student I was given the opportunity to take up a placement with one of the consortium’s partner organisations and naturally, I jumped at the chance! I chose to work with Seven Stories for several reasons – firstly, books were foundational to my childhood, and my love of literature has seen me through two (and a half) degrees in the field. The thought of seeing some original material up close was exciting! Secondly, I liked the idea of working with an organisation that has strengths in public engagement, both through the visitor centre and at the archive. As the final year of my PhD roared into view, I was also aware of the need to plan for the next stage in my career, and I was keen to develop some skills beyond those which writing a thesis can offer.

So what have I been up to? The simple answer is LOTS of things!

The Comics exhibition at Seven Stories. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, photography by Rich Kenworthy

When I first arrived in Newcastle, the team at Seven Stories were gearing up for a changeover in one of their gallery spaces. During these times they need all-hands-on-deck to get things ready for a new exhibition, and so I was kitted out in steel-toed boots and put to work! I was able to assist with de-installing the Michael Morpurgo exhibition (by taking artwork off the walls, scraping off vinyl lettering, changing light-bulbs and dismantling built props) and installing the Comics exhibition (almost the same in reverse!). It was great to start my time at the visitor centre, getting some very hands-on experience in the public-facing side of museum work. Later on, I had a chance to do some audience research in the Comics gallery, and it was lovely to see families and children engaging with the space and the objects on display.

Ruth Gervis, RG/01/01/03,13,31. Selection of finished pencil drawings for Ballet Shoes, circa 1936. © Estate of Ruth Gervis
Ruth Gervis, RG/01/01/03,13,31. Selection of finished pencil drawings for Ballet Shoes, circa 1936. © Estate of Ruth Gervis

After things had calmed down a bit, it was time to learn how to use CALM, the management system used by the archive to record their holdings. Once I had got to grips with this, I was able to tackle my first collection – Noel Streatfeild’s – which included original manuscripts, correspondence, and personal diaries. This was exciting for me as a life-long fan of Ballet Shoes, and the collection granted me a much better insight into Streatfeild’s writing practices, and the personal experiences which shaped her stories. It was incredibly satisfying to take charge of the collection, ensuring it was organised, repackaged and catalogued in an accessible way, while respecting as much of the original order as possible. Even more satisfying was getting to see the material in use before I left. You can read more about the collection in my post for the Seven Stories blog.

After completing work on the Streatfeild collection, I spent a bit of time in the world of the Wombles sorting through some of Elisabeth Beresford’s huge collection. The Wombles material had been worked on by several volunteers before me, and will probably require the attentions of a few more before it is complete. I realised just how lengthy the cataloguing process can be in a collection of that scale, and I was better prepared for the final collection I worked on, which ran to almost 50 boxes! Working on this was especially exciting as I knew the material would be used extensively – I was given the chance to select items and write some copy for the collection highlights page, as well as liaising with senior curator, Gill Rennie, and presenting some of the material to various teams in the organisation. Unfortunately I can’t say much more about this mystery collection yet, but keep your eyes peeled for an exciting new exhibition this summer!

Amy helping at the Living Books party. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books

Although work at the archive took up the majority of my time, the team gave me the chance to get involved with lots of varied activities in the organisation, from working at white glove handling sessions (at a wedding, a conference and a schools project) to helping at a celebration event for the Living Books project. There was never a dull moment, and I’m really thankful to all the wonderful members of staff for their patience in showing me the ropes and sharing their fantastic knowledge of children’s literature, as well as making me feel right at home in the office.

I’m now back to normality in Belfast, finishing my thesis and missing the Seven Stories tea breaks. I learned so much during my placement, and would highly recommend applying for Northern Bridge funding – it’s a fantastic opportunity to test the waters of research-adjacent careers, while completing your thesis. I would come back to Seven Stories tomorrow if I could, so here’s hoping it won’t be the last you’ll see of me!

Amy Burnside

Thanks Amy! Everyone at Seven Stories really appreciated all your hard work. This was a really successful first Northern Bridge placement experience for Seven Stories, so much so that we’ve just welcomed our second placement student!