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Erica Davies in a classroom at The Ragged School Museum
17th February 2017

Interview: Erica Davies, Director of the Ragged School Museum

Much like pivotal cultural institutions around the world, the Ragged School Museum has lived multiple lives and been a transformative destination for those who need it most for more than a century. Perched on the edge of a section of canal navigating Tower Hamlets, the three spaces that make up the building were originally warehouses used for transporting good along Regent’s Canal. In the late 19th century — having given up his medical training to pursue his local missionary works — Thomas Barnardo opened the first “ragged school” on the site, Barnado’s Copperfield Road Free School. For 31 years it educated tens of thousands of poor children, for free, and when it closed in 1908 enough government schools had opened in the area to facilitate the local communities.

Jump forward to 2017 and the building is open to the public again having been saved from demolition in the early 1980s. Now known as the Ragged School Museum, the institution is driven forward by Erica Davies, who is recognised for her proactive work in the arts and culture sector and role as Director of the Freud Museum — a position she was controversially removed from more than a decade ago
Boasting a vast portfolio of experience, and a flawless track record for engaging with artists and creatives to build positive momentum for historically focused institutions, we spoke to Erica ahead of ceramic artist Matthew Raw’s Clad exhibition, which opens at the the Ragged School Museum 4 May 2017

How long have you been at the Ragged School Museum and what were you doing beforehand?

I have been at the Ragged School Museum since the end of 2009, I suppose the job I had for the longest before that was as director of the Freud Museum.
In terms of the Ragged School Museum, what are the objectives you focus on every day?

Save the building! Save the building! It has never been fully restored. It was saved from demolition in the 1980s, but only one bit of it was fully renovated and over 50% of it is not in public use as we speak. The driving force of everything I’ve done is to try to get a heritage lottery fund award.
So you’re working towards the preservation of the building as well as the museum’s educational agenda?

Yes. We actually just got a major heritage lottery fund.
So you’re feeling quite optimistic about the future of the museum?

Well, our plans are to make it financially resilient and self sufficient, because that’s absolutely essential these days.

Matthew Raw at The Ragged School Museum. Photography by Marina Castagna.

So how do people like Matthew Raw and his upcoming exhibition fit into that agenda for you and the museum?

Because it draws in new audiences and it opens up (to a new audience) the possibilities of the the museum and the stories it can tell — and its potential, particularly to engage with new creative activities.
How did you become familiar with Matthew and his work?

He approached us, because  — after quite a lot of thought  and research — he decided as a public body, and having quite a complex history, that his work would fit into this setting, and having met him, looked at his work and read what he’d suggested, it’s really thoughtful and fits in well for the space — it was perfect.
So he came to you with the idea?

He came to us with the idea and we supported him with his Arts Council application.
In terms of him transporting his tiles to the museum on a barge — which is a super cool reference to the history of ceramics and the history of the Ragged School Museum — how important do you think it is for creatives to be knowledgeable about and revisit traditional skills and processes? How is it relevant to the future of design?

I think it’s really, really important. I’ve been round historic buildings for most of my career and in order for many of them to survive and be renovated and work in a contemporary setting you often do need the skills that were developed centuries ago to keep them alive, and it’s very important that we keep these skills alive. It was very engaging to see Matt in his studio and to look at all the various techniques he is going to use to produce work for the show. All too often — and there’s several places I’ve seen, both in my home town in South Wales and in London — places have wonderful tiles and people just smash them down. That’s heartbreaking really. 
Matthew Raw in his studio. Photography by Marina Castagna

When it comes to revisiting old methods, processes and materials that appear obsolete, and bringing them back to life, is that something you think about a lot?

I’m involved in museums because I love objects, they always have a story to tell because of the connection to people. That gets you to contemplate parts of history you might not otherwise encounter. It can be a textile, it can be ceramic. Why was it made? Who made it? Where was it used? These are all the questions. Nothing is obsolete in that way. 
Looking at it from that perspective, what are you hoping people who visit the show will leave with?

Just thinking about these various layers of history — what this building has meant — all the transitions it’s made. It became a school because canal transport was largely coming to its end as a major force, but then it finds a new use and that use is very transformative for very poor children. To think about all those different layers of history, we stand out, we’re the only group of this age of warehouses on this part of the canal in Tower Hamlets, and I just want people to think about this building in a little bit more depth, and why it survived. 
Copperfield Road in 1879
So what else is happening this year?

Well we’re hoping to work with a theatre group — Alarum Theatre. I’ve actually just had an email from them, which is very exciting. They are doing pieces about women who were trained to work on the canals during the second world war. I say canals stopped being used, but they didn’t really, not during the war. They made journeys from London, Birmingham, Coventry with 50 tonnes of cargo, we’re hoping to put that on here. 

Do you find yourself inspired by the history of the canals and the history of the building, it sounds like you’re very passionate about it?

That, and also by ragged schools. That’s a story that isn’t as well known as it should be.

In terms of Matthew Raw, we’re very excited, really excited about this. Matt has some fabulous ideas that are going to make the space look really interesting. It’s great, and funny to think that just last year the space was used by BBC to pretend to be Rio! We had 12 samba drummers playing and colour was coming up off their drums. The footage was used in the run up to the Olympic opening ceremony! We are very versatile!

Matthew Raw with one of his tiles at the museum. Photography by Marina Castagna.
Find 'Clad' at the Ragged School Museum from 4 - 14 May.
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