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four things I did not know before going to Leeds

Notes from Winter School. A Deep Dive into Cultural Heritage and Wellbeing: Reflections on my Participation in the International Winter School Cultural Heritage and Wellbeing. 

In this article, I would like to share my experiences and insights from this winter school, hoping to inspire others to explore new paths in the realm of cultural heritage and wellbeing. These reflections offer just a glimpse into the rich and inspiring world that unfolded within the walls of the winter school, where past and future intersect in a meaningful dialogue about humanity and creativity. 

In a collaboration between leading institutions such as the Museum Dr. Guislain in Ghent, Leeds Museums, and Museum Tilburg, a unique opportunity unfolded: the International Winter School Cultural Heritage and Wellbeing in Leeds. For five days, participants were immersed in an environment saturated with cultural heritage and wellbeing, where theoretical underpinnings and practical applications merged into an enriching experience. 


As a participant in this winter school, I was taken on a journey through a range of methodologies and tools already being applied by inspiring examples of practice where cultural heritage is used to promote wellbeing. From this rich context emerged four crucial insights that shaped my perspective. 

 Firstly, my attention was drawn to the resurgence of regional textile fibers in our contemporary lives, implying an intriguing return to our roots. Secondly, the power of museums, libraries, and institutions as sources of connectivity and creativity was emphasized, with these institutions serving as hubs where people come together to share stories and discover new ideas. 

 Another important insight concerned the need to invite diverse voices in shaping programs and exhibitions, thereby fostering an inclusive and representative approach to cultural heritage. Finally, the question arose of how we can transform the current culture of relentless progress into a cyclical process of nurturing regeneration. 


Textile Fibers of this Bioregion

With my ongoing interest and research into regenerative textile fibers in our bioregion, such as wool, flax, and hemp, I found myself in the midst of it all in Leeds. Before the industrial revolution, textiles for household use and clothing were made in households and communities to provide for the communities themselves, and piecework was done in households for manufacturers. With mechanization, these people moved to factories, and the scale became larger, and larger, and larger. The Marshall Mill in Leeds even had the shape of a classical temple. As if within the wonder of progress, the advancing machines could be worshipped. In the city of Leeds, many buildings from that time were present. Beautiful ornaments, artisanal decorations, extravagant colored tiles: Wealth was the yield of progress. 

Amanda Haran and Ema Hayton told me about the rich history of the textile industry in Leeds. Through the invention of the steam engine, cotton and wool could be spun. And later on, also flax. That was very difficult to mechanize, but Matthew Murray continued to experiment and succeeded in building machines that could heckle and card flax, thereby combing the flax fibers into neat straight strands for spinning. The Royal Society of Arts even rewarded his invention to heckle flax with a gold medal in 1809! He developed a way to spin flax (wet), and John Marshall used this in his factories. The coal for the drives was found in the vicinity, and the city of Leeds was located on the river, through Hull flax was imported from the Baltic states and processed into fabrics here. 


During visits to various museums and hearing stories about how the city grew and production changed through the industrial revolution. The production became so fast due to the machines, and the volume could increase so much that new markets had to be sought. Various wars also created a great need for textile products. After that, production also went abroad, but the traces were visible in the buildings and history. 

Shirley also offered her help in my research into linen, hemp, and wool as regenerative textile fibers and looked into how these were processed in her hometown of Shenzhen in China. On a large scale and with modern-looking machines, the fibers were spun and woven. In Leeds, we constantly talked about the heritage of the textile industry in Europe, but she asked, what do you call the textile industry where my friends are part of, the people who are now making our textiles? What is their heritage? And how does heritage arise? So during the week, I kept my ears and eyes open for the role that 'making together', cultural heritage, and regenerative agriculture can play. What if we use textiles to improve our relationship with the planet and with each other? The workshops with Rahhi Tamilselvan, Clare Jolley, and Claire Wellesley-Smit literally put us to work with threads, scraps, and scissors. We learned (from each other) new stitches, discussed meaning, and told old and new stories. 


Museums, libraries, and collections as places of care, connection and belonging.


The approach, known as the 'Warm Welcome Approach' of the museums of Leeds, is an attitude shared and cultivated by the entire team with the aim of making the well-being of the people in the city an integral part of the programming of the city's museums and libraries. Esther Amis-Hughes was a powerful advocate of this approach, taking the '5 ways of wellbeing' formulated by the NHS as guidance. It was inspiring to see how this attitude had transformed employees and teams and also inspired them to adopt a listening attitude towards visitors and residents of the museums. To think about museums, libraries, and their collections as 'places of care' or as one of the participants, Ema Hayton, continually said: that people see them as 'Assets' as 'Resources' of which they are the owner and user. Which are available to them. How that could work became clear when I went to the Leeds City Library after the workday, which was not far from the Leeds Museum. The library was a magnificent building with endless tiles covering floors, walls, and ceilings. (Google 'Tiled Hall Leeds' to marvel at it). In the staircase, no expense was spared to impress the visitor with woodcarvings, carved stone dogs, wolves, and lions, and detailed stained glasswork, it seemed to go on endlessly. Until you came to a part of the building with offices and found yourself in a 1970s atmosphere of dropped ceilings and fluorescent light fixtures. In the hallway, an impressive series of panels could be seen, the 'Leeds Tapestries', large textile artworks about the neighborhoods, history, and people of Leeds that were collectively made by skilled textile enthusiasts who must have spent endless hours here with needles and threads, patience, and craftsmanship. Hardly describable in words, these works must be admired in person or through the short films and photos I took of them. But it was here, in the art library, where I experienced the 'Warm Welcome Approach' in action. I noticed already when climbing the impressive staircase that in this library people of all kinds were walking around relaxedly. They seemed to feel at home. In the art library, the dropped ceilings and the partition walls were removed. The holes were still visible, but behind them, beautiful ornate walls, columns, and ceilings were preserved. When I took a look in the Drawing Room of the Art Library, we were welcomed by Paisley Boyed, librarian and digital assistant. She enthusiastically showed us the space where all kinds of creative projects could be carried out, with paper, textiles, paint, and drawing materials. It was used a lot. We were also shown the 'Zine corner'. A space with a small table and chair where you could make your own 'zine'. A "zine" is a selfmade, non-commercial printed publication, usually in the form of a small magazine or pamphlet. They are often produced by individuals or small groups and cover a wide range of topics, such as politics, art, music, literature, personal experiences, and subcultural interests. Zines have become popular as a way for people to voice their opinions, independent of traditional publishing platforms, and often have a DIY (do-ityourself) aesthetic. In the cabinets around the zine table, the library had collected all kinds of zines, recent and from long ago. In the cabinet opposite were all sorts of books on typography, comic drawing, and do-ityourself publishing techniques. This created a secluded corner where library visitors were enabled to make something themselves. Facilitating self-making, co-making, self or co-growing, cultivating agency and resilience, and the positive effect thereof on the mental health of individuals and communities turned out to be a theme of the week, and a personal 'take-away' for myself.


The role of museums and collections and the shift in the understanding of 'expert'.


During this gathering, my perspectives on what a museum can be were expanded by representatives from various museums: some had no physical buildings (for example, Museum Tilburg), others had nontraditional collections, while still others had controversial collections (such as Dr. Guishlain in Ghent) or intangible collections (like Red Star Line in Antwerp). We discussed the perspectives offered by the FARO convention, which describes the responsibilities for institutions and policymakers to appropriately manage heritage. There was discussion on how this could be applied to highlight the living, intangible heritage of workers in the textile industry. 


On Wednesday, Gill Crawshaw guided us through the exhibition she had curated at the Leeds Industrial Museum, titled 'Any Work That Wanted Doing'. This exhibition showcased the potential of inviting contemporary artists, in this case artists identifying as 'disabled', to respond to the museum's collections and the textile industry. Gill herself had been active in the disability rights movement for many years and was one of the founders of DISrupt. The works created by contemporary artists in response to the museum collection, archive, and research on textile heritage and the lives of people working in the textile industry were displayed alongside the existing installations in the museum, creating an interaction between historical collections and contemporary works. 


One example of this was the silent film 'Trouble at Mill', made by Janet Alexander, featuring Katie Redstar. During her research, Janet discovered that people with disabilities had always worked alongside those without disabilities. Additionally, the dangerous work in the textile industry had caused many disabilities, such as limb injuries, brain injuries, and hearing impairments. The silent film told the story of a deaf woman who knew and used sign language during her work in the mills, where there was a lot of noise. Sign language was a safe and effective way to communicate, even over long distances. Although the use of sign language was often prohibited in schools and workplaces, this woman convinced the factory manager that deaf and young workers actually benefited from its use, improving the safety and effectiveness of the work process. She was given permission to teach sign language lessons, and its use was accepted in the workplace, playing an emancipatory role for this group of people. The scenes of the silent film were filmed in the museum's spaces where the film was now being shown, with the people who worked in the museum daily acting as extras in the historical film. This created a comedic effect, as the same individuals who appeared in the film also gave demonstrations of the spinning machine in the same space where the film was being screened. The film can be viewed online: This was one of many examples this week where the choice was made to have an exhibition, selection process, or topic determined by members of the group itself. 


A letter of progress.


I took an early morning train to Manchester. At the station, Micah was waiting for me; we had met at a festival in Belfast where we were both artists in residence. Proud and well-informed, he welcomed me to the city where he grew up, lives, and works. He showed me the places where he had posted his work. His graphic work is characterized by giving a unique twist to the commercial messages that bombard us in the public space. He flips those advertisements that leave us dissatisfied and encourage consumption by fostering contentment and community spirit. Not saccharine but in clean typography. He showed me a huge canvas in a passage with drawings of various buildings surrounded by flowers and vibrant colors. He had also made a plan for this place, but it wasn't chosen. That's okay too, and he was happy for his colleague. On our way to his studio, he pointed out the work of others and talked about the strategies of collaboration and the thin line between showing your work to the world with and without permission. In conversation with Micah, metaphors and reality continuously intertwine. Life, work, the creative process, world politics, philosophy, and theology; he experiences them as interconnected with similar dynamics. We grab coffee on the street, go through a metal door, he hoists his bike onto his shoulder, and we ascend three flights of stairs. In the hallway, there's still the exhibition 'Street Eyes' he did in the fall, a retrospective of 10 years. In his studio, we look at the books he designed, posters, beer coasters, and discuss collaboration plans. The hour and a half we have together is lively, energetic, and filled with humor. As I rush to catch my train to be back in Leeds on time, he hands me a yellow envelope. 


In the train, I open the yellow envelope. Is was a letter addressed to progress. The content was brief and to the point; Put down your phone and talk to me. It was signed by Micah.  



In light of my participation in the International Winterschool Cultural Heritage and Wellbeing in Leeds, the four key insights of inspiration and direction remain in my further exploration of the relationship between cultural heritage and well-being. The revival of regional textile fibers, such as wool and flax, has sharpened my awareness of the rich traditions and sustainable opportunities inherent in our local bio-region. At the same time, the museums, libraries, and institutes I visited as sources of connectivity and creativity have shown me how these institutions can play a central role in promoting well-being and community spirit. The importance of inclusive programming and inviting diverse voices in shaping cultural initiatives has become an essential lesson for me, urging me to strive for a more inclusive and representative approach within my own work. Finally, the quest for a culture of nurturing regeneration has strengthened my conviction that we can evolve away from a culture of relentless progress towards a cyclical process of sustainable regeneration, where cultural heritage and well-being go hand in hand to create a resilient and flourishing society. As I reflect on my experiences during this winter school, I feel inspired and motivated to further explore and integrate these insights into my own practice, with the ultimate goal of contributing to a more inclusive, sustainable, and well-being-focused future. 


Thank you, Chris Sharp, Linda Boyles, Clare Jolley, Rathi Tamilselvan, Stephanie Davies, Bart Marius, Claire

Wellesley-Smith, Thomas Kador, Adam Jaffer, Bart de Nil, Miyuki Kerkhof, Tamira Waszink, Jessica Scharing, Janet Wilkinson, Shirley Yiqing Wu, Nadia Babazia, Augusta Philippou, Celien Stevens and Diederick Neyttens. 


My participation in this project, International Winterschool Cultural Heritage and Wellbeing, Textile Cities, was made possible (in part) with the support of DutchCulture. 




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