Artist : Ruth Ewan
Title : The Glasgow Schools
Date(s) : 2012
Material : Installation shot
Website : www.glasgowinternational.org
Credit : Image and material courtesy of Ruth Ewan. Photo by Alan Dimmick.
Ruth Ewan, The Glasgow Schools, review by Amy Budd
Bolstered by the city’s history as a Labour Party stronghold, Glasgow became a prominent centre for Proletariat, Socialist Sunday and Socialist Fellowship Schools from the late Victorian period to the early 1980s, teaching a spectrum of left-wing ideologies to children and young adults on a weekly basis. Established in protest to the middle-class values and politically anodyne teachings of Christian Sunday Schools, these radical, yet largely unknown alternative educational organisations provide Ruth Ewan with the basis of her exhibition The Glasgow Schools, in which the artist brings together ephemera from this political pedagogical movement for the first time.
Housed in the Scotland Street School Museum on Glasgow’s industrial South Side, curators Kitty Anderson and Siobhan Carroll succeed in bringing Ewan’s recuperative archival project into the wider context of the city’s educational history. Here, Ewan recounts the story of The Glasgow Schools through archival material relating to the movement displayed across a series of vitrines. Promotional paper flyers ask in bold typeface ‘Have you Children? Do you want them to Love Peace - Hate War?’ adjacent to wobbly felt-tip pen drawings of animals on children’s Socialist Greeting Cards. Elsewhere yellowing books of handwritten minutes attest to “the serious business of the adult movement” rehearsed by adolescent members at weekly meetings, while jolly photographs of children and adults on day trips to local attractions and marching at May Day rallies speak of leisurely activity mixed with political militancy.
Documenting both social activity and Socialist governance, these ephemeral archival fragments hold more weight as well-loved mementos of remembrance than objects of crucial historical importance. Yet the overall exhibition tone and archival content remains consistently political, absorbed by the Socialist Sunday School doctrine to supply the Socialist movement with “fearless, capable, and conscientious thinkers”, emphasised by Edwardian copies of The Child’s Socialist Reader and a version of the Socialist Fellowship Precepts and Declaration Card encased under glass. Ewan hints towards her own interest in the social-political influence of music through the inclusion of Socialist Sunday School songbooks, folding open a piano score of The Internationale, one of many ‘hymns’ sung by members. However, rather than operating as material for revival and re-enactment, music in this instance is presented as a curious item for display.
Indeed, Ewan treads lightly on the history revealed through The Glasgow Schools, relying primarily upon academic modes of display than her own slight aesthetic interventions to convey the narrative and impact of these alternative organisations. Like previous projects, Ewan’s own engagement materialises through a predominantly print-based output, with the artist producing a pamphlet on The Glasgow Schools in addition to posters appropriating Socialist slogans. Imitating the graphic design of the period, one reads ‘Ours is the World Despite All’, with a texture so authentic it risks becoming indistinguishable from original documents exhibited in the room. Her final contribution is a documentary film screened on a monitor within the space. Hastily edited with jump cuts and shaky camera work, Ewan interviews former members of the movement to introduce a subjective voice to the project. First-hand accounts are spliced with archival footage, enabling testimonials of the legacy of a proletariat public education to emerge.
Having never experienced the “imagining of an alternative society” through receiving a Socialist Sunday School education, as conceded in her pamphlet preface, Ewan recedes from view in order to allow other voices to be heard. Yet while previous projects have touched on similarly sensitive political histories with a greater revivalist sprit, The Glasgow Schools in general, although relatively objective, speaks of an urgency to re-evaluate significant moments in British political history by recalling Olivia Plender’s recuperation of the Kindred Kibbo Kift in her piece for the Tate Triennial 2009, Machine Shall Be the Slave of Man, but We Will Not Slave for the Machine (2008). As a similar attempt to restore interest in an anti-militaristic and non-denominational youth movement, Plender’s installation resonates here. Yet in spite of waning interest in the Socialist movement, these ‘Glasgow Schools’ foregrounded a type of secular, anti-militaristic pedagogy in culture was totally embedded - an aspect which Ewan recognises as unique, and continues to tease out through both her interviews with former members and the paper-trail of archival documents detailing painting classes, field trips, music recitals and theatrical staging. Above all, it is this progressive objective, supported by Socialist educational guidelines outlining gender equality and inciting youth to ‘resist oppression’, that makes this radical political movement a compelling subject for retrospective review.