In many ways the Coupar Burn running through the centre of Coupar Angus could be considered a museum in its own right. Carrying meaning and memory within its waters, the Coupar Burn has its own history, intrinsically linked to the town.
The Coupar Burn embodies a collection of material which has found its way into its waters over the years, either by the town’s inhabitants disposing of matter; or losing items to the flow; or by acts of nature. In whichever way the treasure has found its way to the bed of the Burn the material remnants of the past provide a mirror which reflects a particular chronological, cultural and social history of the town.
On a sunny weekend in May 2016 a ‘field tent’ stood in the Town Square by the Burn as an invitation to the local community of Coupar Angus to come and explore the remnants from their past. A ladder dropping from a back garden into the burn enticed a group of young girl photographers from CAYAG (Coupar Angus Youth Activities Group). Stepping with trepidation down the rungs, bucket in one hand and a litter picker in the other the girls quietly plunged waist deep into the cloudless water, encumbered by their waders. The embarrassment of adorning these antiquated outfits was surpassed by the clear water and the darting fish. They had come with photographer Ashleigh Mustard to record the events of the day and reluctantly gave over their cameras in exchange for a Perspex bottomed bucket and the playful promise of finding hidden treasure.
I had been in the Burn the month before with local resident Joe Richards. We made a preliminary examination of the bed of the Burn during an unexpected thunderous hail storm. Within 20 minutes we had amassed a mishmash of intriguing finds, enough to convince us that the project would hang together. I discovered that Joe was an antique collector and had years of experience in identifying and classifying. His help and enthusiasm proved invaluable throughout the project.
In addition a team of volunteers from the Strathmore Arts Group (stART) arrived on the day ready to support in whatever capacity they could. stART had generously supplied the ‘field tent’ in the form of a gazebo, some tables, buckets and litter pickers as well as their enthusiasm and expertise.
Coupar Angus is a small town situated in Eastern Perthshire with a population of around 2,500. As well as the indigenous population, Coupar Angus supports a number of migrant workers and their families many coming from Central and Eastern Europe, some of whom are employed in the large chicken factory or in the local farms. The environs of the town are rich in history. Bronze Age sites, stone circles, the ruins of Iron Age forts, and Pictish cup marked stones and burials are spread around the region.
Offering new perspectives to people within a community, and actively promoting and informing what is individual and particular can bring alternative ways of seeing the world. The aim of the project was to challenge assumptions and provide new and different forms of experience. This kind of interaction brings art to the everyday awareness of the observer, highlighting numerous interpretations of place. The intention of the Burn Project was to show some of the cultural and historical layers existing within the community providing links for people to connect to each other and their place through their stories, experience and memories. Operating in this way, the location was as fundamental to the work’s meaning as the work is itself. Without this correlation the work would be defined by what it is, as opposed to what it does.
The idea was not to produce a piece of art that was meaningful in itself but to support the role that art can play in bridging the division between art and life.
Reaching back through time our creative insights enable us to engage with history in imaginative, poetic and artistic ways. Found objects convey messages telling stories about people and different moments in time. They speak of events and interactions; they tell stories of human experience and how we have shaped the world in which we live. Considering objects can inform us of who we are and awaken within us new ways of seeing our lives and our community by promoting inquisitive and enquiring minds.
Artists of the Renaissance and Gothic periods created hidden symbolic meaning in their work by the use of everyday household objects; a knife, a loaf of bread, a candle, an hourglass. Through the language of Art objects can be interpreted not only visually but with deeper significance. Beneath the water of the Coupar Burn a plethora of random objects was unearthed. Among the finds were Victorian spoons, knives and clay pipes, plastic toys, glass bottles, mobile phones, bolts and fixings from railway sleepers, tins and jewellery from a hundred years ago to the fairly recent past. Once cleaned and on display these objects captured the imagination of members of the local community unveiling something forgotten, a memory, a link to the past, a trigger stirring an emotion from another place, another time.
Local people came to observe, fascinated by what was emerging from their Burn. Discussions developed amongst individuals and groups about what some of the more obscure items might be and suppositions were made of how they might have ended up in the Burn. The conversations were captivating and often hilarious. A kitchen knife became a murder weapon, a string of beads tossed into the burn after a lovers tiff.
It was interesting to observe what some of the items meant to people and to see how memory and identity are often inextricably linked. In every object there was a story, a collage of history, with different meanings for different people at different times, but there was also a commonality, one which spoke of the same preoccupations which characterise and define who we are.
“It was great to go into the burn and to see what has been thrown in over the years. It was a good experience and I am glad I took part”
“The pottery reminds me of digging in my gran’s garden and searching middens for glass bottles, a throwback to another time”
In June 2016 I returned to Coupar Angus with a Pop-up Museum and displayed the objects collected from the burn in an exhibition entitled the “Anthropocene Museum.” People were invited to interact with and browse two tables of items found in the burn which were laid out with no labelling, chronology or text. This allowed those viewing to interpret and consider what they saw without being influenced in any way. The purpose of my work as an artist is to build interest, connections and cooperation within my local community. The notion of Art as Science has provided a vehicle in which to cultivate new dialogues around art, ecology, and environmental issues. The display of the artefacts raised many questions about comparisons between the scientific classification of objects and their authenticity, value and purpose. The interest generated throughout the project demonstrated the value of creative, expressive and educational art projects and how they can have a fundamental impact on individual members of the community.