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RIP Dorothy Heathcote MBE

Dorothy Heathcote was a giant in the development of classroom drama, and in my previous career I was lucky enough to use her ideas often and work with her occasionally. She passed away on Saturday 8th October. I have found her ideas transferable to so many other contexts, and just about everything I do owes a big debt to her.

Dorothy Heathcote

Here is a brief handful of her inspirations:

Dorothy’s work stemmed from observing the rules children use when playing freely. This is the heart of all inclusion work – learning and using the cultural reference points your audience already has, rather than imposing your own. Our summer exhibitions strongly rely on this approach, closely observing how the space is used, then finding ways of deepening the ways children chose to play.

Trusting to the drama. This boils down to trusting the children. Dorothy would often let children explore a theme they wanted, but made sure they did it ‘her way’, so Batman became an exploration of how children could grow up to be heroes. She advocated lessons being planned like a military operation, but all that work is happily thrown out of the window when the children think up something better.

So often, children’s play, whether it is set in ancient Greece or deep space, turns out to be a metaphor for issues that they are facing here and now. Our summer exhibition has developed a more and more open structure over the years, so that the children are free to re-interpret the space and the materials in it however they wish. This means they are free to play their games, not ours, and to consciously or unconsciously explore whatever they choose.

Profligacy / parsimony. Like many of Dorothy’s concepts, the language sounds daunting, but the core of the idea makes complete simple sense. When people work together, there is a natural rhythm alternating between “profligacy” – creating lots of ideas, widening the field, then “parsimony” – filtering the range of ideas to find the best ones. This repeats, so the best ideas are developed into many possibilities, which are refined again and so on. One really important lesson from this is to end any session with the parsimonious stage – if you are in a meeting and have agreed a small number of outcomes, you can pick up from there and continue later. If, however, you stop with dozens of ideas in the air, when you re-convene, everybody will have mentally distilled their own choice of those points and the process either needs restarting or becomes competitive.

“Signing”: the art of communicating things indirectly is an important skill for a friendly exhibition. We welcome so many visitors who have never been to museums, or not to museums like this one, and we don’t want to face them with a book of rules, so the careful placing of things to sign the rules that operate is a critical design consideration. Along with signs and signifiers, Dorothy also talked about lures, gems which spark the curiosity and draw the children in. Like so many of her concepts, creating ‘lures’ is obvious common sense, but by naming and pointing these things out she enabled us to analyse our craft, share knowledge and improve.

There are a thousand more and above that a humane and no-nonsense sensibility. Her work lives on in the thousands she’s inspired.

For more about Dorothy Heathcote, visit


Patchwork Weather – a poem by Fraser


 (Click on the images to see Fraser’s handwritten original)

Patchwork Weather

It’s a strange mixture
It’s all stitched together
Patchwork like spectrums
Of opposite weather

It’s rainy one moment
It’s sunny the next
(Hexagonal sunbursts
on a lonely, dark bed)

It’s foggy, it’s breezy
Its wadding is dull
Then, hemmed at the edges,
Bright blocks of the quilt!

This rushes over
The yellowing sky
Spikes of new daybreak
As the new layers tied

Then, it changes.

It goes crazy
It goes like crazy patchwork
It’s like this….








(not Amish…)

It’s sleety, it’s hailing
It’s blizzards, it’s bad
A cyclone of colour
The deadliest patch

It’s sunny one moment
It’s rainy the next
(The cyclone drifts over
a lonely, lost thread)

Yes, it’s a mixture
All forming together
Patchwork constellations
Of opposite weather

With no real pattern
Of wet and dry
I think I’d rather
Stay inside.



What a talented bunch of Knitwits!!

Not many of us would wear something our Grans Knitted for us any more. I used to enjoy wearing creations that my mother used to knit for me and my sister (I distinctly remember a blue jumper with a grey dog on) but this stopped when knitting, and wearing knitted items, seemed to become distinctly ‘un-cool’. Fast forward to the noughties however and knitting is enjoying an unexpected revival and is now not only a widely enjoyed hobby, but also the inspiration for events and exhibitions gracing museums all around the UK.

The Herbert has a well established knitting club that runs on Thursday lunchtimes. ‘Knitwits’. This is an opportunity for staff to get together, have a chat and a cuppa, knit, craft and share creative expertise. Recently, some members of the knitting group joined in with a national initiative run by Innocent Smoothies. This involved knitting tiny winter hats for the smoothie bottles and for each one sold, money was donated to Age UK  (formally Help the Aged) to support older people in staying warm during those cold winter months. We have some very talented knitters in the group, knitting anything from gloves to children’s teddy bear outfits. We hope to use this blog to keep you updated on any future projects we become involved with.

 Museums are also hosting knitting events. Such is the revived popularity of the craft, BBC Radio Wales appealed for people to knit sections of a huge red scarf, displayed at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, in order to support the Welsh Rugby Team in the 2010 Six Nations Competition. There was 1.25 miles of scarf! A huge achievement.

 To celebrate ‘Worldwide Knit in Public Day’ the Herbert played host to the ‘Yarn Gatherings’ event to knit Lady Godiva a scarf. It was a successful event, and the museum provided the perfect setting for it. The Hunterian Museum in London was a host for a StitchandBitch London ‘Knit Crawl 2010’ event, also for Worldwide Knit in Public Day. Maybe museums provide the ultimate serene backdrop for an old favourite hobby!

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