There has been an interesting little discussion on Twitter today following a post from @viviennestern.
First, I walk past this wall-poem by Andrew Motion so many times a week. I think he was Poet Laureate at the time he wrote it (2007). Second, I was passionate about public art about 20 years ago going as far as to write a PhD proposal. Third, as readers of this blog know well, I am currently intrigued by place and placemaking. Yet I am ashamed to note I have never connected any of these interests to this poem until I read this post and the many replies from people who shared Vivienne’s sentiments!
There is a point to this!
Despite the physical dominance of the poem, or of any landmark or public art, they can become invisible – ‘part of the wallpaper’. That can be a good thing: the landscape is familiar and accepted in the same way that home and family can be taken for granted but are much loved and needed. Or this invisibility can be regarded as a bad thing: we are too preoccupied or ignorant to notice and value art or artefacts in the landscape.
Who makes place?
I am interested in place, learning and belonging. It’s a constant theme here! The idea of Third Place is particularly intriguing and useful for the consideration of fostering student belonging. At the moment I am exploring how Third Place is agnostic when it comes to the physical or digital context and is found in boundary crossing experience such as polycontextual bridging as much in specific static situations (I’ve been writing an article for months on this!). So this question of invisibility or backgrounding of homely symbols is quite important to me as I consider how the conditions of homeliness can be fostered.
Defining ‘we’ as ‘the University’, ‘the lecturer’, ‘the developer’, ‘the member of staff”, ‘people other than students’, etc, there are some questions that are preoccupying me. For example, to what extent do ‘we’ make homely learning spaces for students? To what extent do ‘we’ allow students to ‘take over’ space and make it their own? To what extent do ‘we’ have anything to do with ‘making learning homes’ on campus at all? In answer to the last question here, the learner’s agency as placemaker is as likely to be at least as psychological as it is material – the sense of ownership and belonging that comes from the memories they make compared to, say, the pictures or poems they put up seems to be at least as significant if we are thinking about the learner’s agency as placemaker.
If so, this may explain my ambivalence to the poem on the wall. The following may all be true: its sentiments are good and even inspirational; it is art paid for by the University to say something about the University – the value of the sentiment can be understood as secondary or even minimal; it is important that the University describes itself as such because it is important it introduces itself as welcoming to newcomers and passers-by.
However ambivalent or cynical I may feel about the writing on the wall, my conclusion is that a University is all about creating the conditions for learning and for me this includes it overtly designing-in and signalling that time spent on campus or time spent connected is ultimately a personal experience and one which should be reassuring, challenging and inspiring. Therefore, a university must do whatever it can to create rich ‘other’ spaces that may lead rich experience, strong memories, and students having a sense of place.