ESSHC 2012, Glasgow

European Social Science History Conference, April 2012, Glasgow

Papers and presentations

Painted, Sculpted, Stitched, Tiled, Metallic, Glazed and Landscaped Schools as Learning Topoi: A Glance at the Range, Chronology, Functionality and Interpretation of European Decorated Schools (1870-2012)
Putting the Decorated School in its Place

Jeremy Howard


Painted, Sculpted, Stitched, Tiled, Metallic, Glazed and Landscaped Schools as Learning Topoi: A Glance at the Range, Chronology, Functionality and Interpretation of European Decorated Schools (1870-2012). The creation of the school environment as a transmitting, visual and aestheticized locus of cultural values has a long and chequered history in Europe. It has long been understood that the children who spend long hours of their formative years within decorated school spaces can have, for better or worse, their minds and senses stimulated and directed by their surroundings. Among those who have sought to forge a vital, edifying relationship between the students and their learning spaces via art we find, for instance, a range of educationalists, education officers, sociologists, architects, designers, artists, parents and children themselves. Via small sets of case studies drawn from schools in diverse parts of the continent this paper evaluates the evolution of the decorated school from the onset of mass public education to today. It proposes that, for all the remarkable and unique qualities of the individual schools, there are distinct pan-European periods and styles that can be discerned and that these coincide with eras of what seems to be intensified concern with issues of identity, nationhood, regeneration, creative value and pedagogy. The ultimate intention of the paper is to raise the profile of, and question, the articulation of artistic value in children’s learning complexes usually alternatively appraised (if at all) for their architectural and/or academic functionality.

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Asger Jorn’s School Decoration in Aarhus Statsgymnasium, Denmark, 1959-61

Shona Kallestrup


This paper will examine the two important interior decoration commissions designed by Asger Jorn for Århus Statsgymnasium (State Grammar School) in Denmark between 1959-61 Comprising a great ceramic relief (27x3m) and a wall tapestry (‘The Long Journey’, 14x1.8 m, woven with Pierre Wemaëres), these works were designed for a purpose-built new school that epitomised the classical spirit of Nordic architectural modernism. Jorn’s Århus works are usually discussed within the context of the artist’s own artistic development: they were created at a time of intense international activity shortly after he had helped found the Situationist International in 1957. This paper, on the other hand, proposes to examine them within the rather different context of school building in Denmark. Danish (and more widely Scandinavian) educational theory, with its roots in the reform movement of the great educationalist N.F.S. Grundtvig in the 19th century, played an important role in the birth of Nordic social democracy and in ideas of pan-Scandinavianism that were key to national development in the 20th. Jorn himself had been influenced by Grundtvig’s ideas in his youth and had even graduated from teacher training college in Silkeborg before deciding to work as an artist. Perhaps this partly explains why he was willing to accept a major commission in a school built in the International Style from which (despite early years under Léger and Le Corbusier) he had by this stage distanced himself. In discussing the educational context of Jorn’s commission, therefore, this paper intends to assess the impact of his work from both a school-building and artistic perspective, thereby shedding fresh light on one of the most remarkable and monumental examples of school decoration in Denmark.

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Public art and the primary school 1920-1960

Peter Cunningham


Public elementary schooling evolved in the latter half of the nineteenth century, to skill the labour force, to educate young citizens for democracy and to civilise the working classes.  These multiple and overlapping purposes, modulated to changing social and political contexts, continued through the passage of two world wars, to emerge as a sophisticated and elaborate contribution to social reconstruction after 1945.

Over the same period public art also evolved and flourished as a medium of popular education.  The murals at the Palace of Westminster and the Albert Memorial in London were emulated in towns and cities around the country, celebrating political heritage, imperial history and cultural achievement.

Complicating the structure of education was the dual system of church and state provision.  Churches, especially the established Church of England the Roman Catholic Church had their own long traditions of employing art as a medium of teaching.  Secular images also adorned classrooms, conveying the values of monarchy and empire.  In the first half of the twentieth century schooling was elaborated as understanding of the learning process were changed by researches in psychology, which opened up pedagogy to the creative and affective development of young children.  So visual imagery was increasingly adopted in teaching.  At the same time architects, artists and educationists took opportunities to adorn the public space of the school with images appropriate to the school curriculum, particularly in the primary school where art could instruct and delight young children.

During the decades before and after the Second World War significant changes took place in public art and in the primary school curriculum. The didactic and propagandist role played by earlier public mural painting passed increasingly to posters and films, so that mural painting began to serve a more decorative function. The Festival of Britain in 1951, marks a more decorative turn in public art, but its prominence there perhaps inspired Hertfordshire County Council to commission art work for the new schools they were building.  With the rise of Functionalism in architecture, the role of mural painting was challenged.  But as the muralist Hans Feibusch noted, once we had accommodated to the uninterrupted planes of modern architecture, painting became an acceptably way of embellishing them.  In primary schools especially they could play a key part in the building’s larger educational and social purpose.

This paper will discuss examples of painted murals and permanent sculpture selected from a new database currently being compiled under an AHRC funded project.  It will consider the works of art, the intentions of artists and patrons, and how these can contribute to our understanding of public primary education.  Whether the totemic qualities of sculpture or the more narrative character of most murals, both become, like the inner space and exterior environment of the school, an integral part of the curriculum, and need appreciation and analysis as such.


The Decorated School:  ‘Habitation – the golden method’ ?

Catherine Burke


This paper will outline the intentions of the research initiative 'The Decorated School' and report on some of its findings to date. For our purposes, 'the decorated school' means those aspects of the school building and surrounds that were worked on by artists and sculptors to integrate art works intended to project ideas about education in relation to notions of local or national identities. Mural decoration has been characteristic in school design in the past and is often a feature in the present design of new schools and today is frequently used as a vehicle for pupil or community participation. But in the past there was a deep appreciation of how the best design and art might act as a kind of educator and in England regional education officers such as Henry Morris in Cambridgeshire, Stuart Mason in Leicestershire and John Newsom in Hertfordshire ensured that new school buildings would contain works of beauty and excellent design. The post-war period was a time when the renewal of school buildings led to artists working collaboratively with architects and educators to decorate school interiors and grounds. These items were carefully considered to project a particular image of childhood, adolescence or education to a specific local audience. The research network has met at several school sites in England and Scotland where there are existing examples that have survived to date. Additionally, the research has documented what has existed, and what remains, making this data publicly available through a website and proposed publication. The Decorated School can serve as a model for the efforts of scholars in the UK, USA, Canada and Europe to contextualize and preserve cultural heritage in schools and other public buildings. Academic discussion of public art in general and artifacts in particular will be enhanced by a focus on the neglected and overlooked school building as a site of visual culture. This is urgent work as many school buildings that were built in the past are threatened with demolition as the renewal of the building stock progresses. By the end of the project, there will be an enhanced understanding that the decoration of the school environment has a long and remarkable history, that it has been neglected as a subject, that it has hitherto poorly researched consequences for child development, that it is pertinent to today, that it is of inter-disciplinary concern to art historians, educationalists, sociologists, architects, curators, planners and policy makers. In addition, there will be generated a method of working and a multi-disciplinary theorisation of the subject that can be applied elsewhere in the world. The activities and their outcomes will stimulate new research agendas for historians of education, designers of new school buildings, heritage and cultural industries professionals, art historians and architectural historians as well as those involved in networks of multi-disciplinary groups considering how the communications and information technology revolution is transforming learning and the visual culture of schools as spaces for learning.

A version of this paper was also presented at the Boston conference:

Defining the Decorated School:
A Little History, A Few Functions
2nd April 2012
Northeastern University College of Arts, Media and Design
Boston, MA


Reinventing New York City Public Schools in the Post WWII Years

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