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Discover Medieval Chester: Engaging through public art

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University of Southampton

This project engages the local community and visitors to Chester with the city’s medieval heritage, through a major new permanent public artwork at St John’s Ruins. This dynamic, light-based artwork projects fragments of medieval text in English, Latin and Welsh across the ruins, representing Chester’s rich and complex multi-lingual, multi-cultural history.

In particular, the artwork aimed to share specific new research on the literature of medieval Chester with the wider public. At the same time, the art project also aimed to transform and regenerate a neglected site close to Chester city centre. The public art was part of a larger engagement project, ‘Discover Medieval Chester’, funded by an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship (2012-13), which also delivered a website with city tour materials and a major exhibition at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester.

The St John’s art project is a collaboration between Catherine Clarke and the commissioned artist Nayan Kulkarni, with the Grosvenor Museum and Cheshire West and Chester Unitary Authority (CWAC). It was funded jointly by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and CWAC. Project partners and stakeholders had a range of aims and objectives, including sharing new research on Chester’s medieval history with new audiences; regenerating the neglected site around St John’s Church; and tapping the under-exploited cultural and economic asset of Chester’s medieval heritage. The artwork was launched in phases in 2011 and 2012, with the accompanying online resources completed in 2013. The St John’s art project has had major benefits for local communities in Chester, and has also helped to drive and transform new academic research.

The project was based on detailed discussion of partner needs and objectives and a written memorandum of understanding between them. The ideas and feedback of a range of individuals and partners were fed into the project and the final artwork. This was achieved partly by the decision to have a temporary initial artwork phase in early 2011, which gave local people the opportunity to respond (e.g. via text message feedback facility, or via a photography competition on Flickr), and provided a mid-project evaluation opportunity. Workshops were also run in a primary school where pupils were given the opportunity to create text projections for their school building. The participants who took part in public workshops (2011-12) helped to inform the final artwork by discussing and exploring the possible texts for inclusion in the artwork.