Personal Stories: Collective Meanings


A reflective blog post by Matt Wardle (Gallery Educator)

James Collinson’s Answering the Emigrant’s Letter is probably the kind of painting that our school visitors would overlook, in favour of more dramatic and bold images. How would they engage with what appeared to be a family sitting around the table, not doing very much at all? In the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite Experiment, this was a question that I was keen to investigate. What did the painting mean to Mancunians today?

My own practice is very much rooted in the notion of storytelling, and I’ve had the opportunity to explore the painting’s possible narratives with hundreds of young people, families and adults during the “Experiment”. Even the youngest participants have  astounded me with their insights. As one 6 year observed

“That Dad had better watch out: the Mum isn’t very happy with him!

Emigrants letter public responses








The strength of personal connections to the painting meant that this was an obvious idea to develop further during my Artists in Schools sessions; the objects depicted in the family’s home were a constant discussion point, and so I asked those taking part to bring in their own treasured possessions to inspire their own personal narratives. We explored the themes that the objects evoked, as this “Word Cloud” illustrates:

Word map








But how should we record our stories in a new and visually engaging way? Taking inspiration from the Victorian fashion of collecting, we created “curiosity boxes”; experimenting with layering colour, text and images.

The ideas of ‘family’, ‘friendship’ and ‘the past’ are not historical concepts. The medium of communication isn’t what makes them resonate so strongly. They are OUR stories, and if they are honestly expressed, they connect us all in a profound and unquestionable way.


One Response to “Personal Stories: Collective Meanings”

  1. great work… love that “the dad better watch out” comment!

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