Archives: Wigan and Leigh

Summary of activity

Art in the Archives formed part of a National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) and Wigan Council funded capital project. It consisted of a series of six weekly art classes each highlighting artists whose work is held in Archives: Wigan & Leigh. The classes were led by Wigan based artists Anna FC Smith and Klaire Doyle – founders and leads at TERM Art Classes. Anna and Klaire delivered lectures about the life and work of an artist each week and then followed up with a practical art activity. The events provided people with an opportunity to learn about artists connected to Wigan Borough and to explore their creative practice. It was open to people of all ages and artistic abilities.  

Image credit: TERM Art Classes

Challenges and opportunities

Art in the Archives was delivered as part of a NLHF-funded major refurbishment project. Within the activity plan for the project there was a stated ambition to offer engaging arts activities which could encourage new audiences to engage with local history and the archives. Archives: Wigan & Leigh approached local artists Anna and Klaire as they were already delivering art history-based workshops in the area.  

Anna and Klaire were commissioned to deliver six weekly evening sessions in Summer 2021. Each weekly session was based on a local artist, they included Mary Pownall, a sculptor from Leigh, and Tadek Beutlich, a Polish textile artist and printmaker who has numerous works in Wigan’s Drumcroon collection (held in the council run Museum collection). The sessions included an introduction to the history of the artist and was followed by practical activity such as printing, painting, and sculpting. 

The project was designed to take place on site at the archives in Leigh Town Hall and a key challenge which emerged was in building public trust post Covid-19, getting people back in the building and ensuring everyone felt safe. The sessions had between 4-6 people attending which was lower than originally anticipated. However, the small number gave participants more 1-1 time with the artists.  

Hands on art history sessions were a new area for Archives: Wigan & Leigh, therefore there was a challenge in convincing people who had not previously engaged with the archive to participate. It was stressed that the sessions were practical and not a lecture.  

Internally the project had a lot of support – everyone was keen to present the archive in an engaging way which would potentially appeal to people who had not previously visited or used the archive.

Outcomes for service users

Participants who attended the classes gained a greater knowledge of artists who had lived, worked, and been inspired by Wigan and the surrounding areas. They also gained new creative skills in painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture.  

There was a strong social element to the project and bringing people together to engage in a collective practical class. The sessions provided participants with space, time and a focused activity which helped in their return to social settings as Covid-19 restrictions were lifting. It was noted that people were a little hesitant to talk during the first sessions but by the end of the programme there was a relaxed atmosphere amongst the group. The participants had built up a good rapport between themselves.  

The key outcome for Archives: Wigan & Leigh was that it provided an opportunity to expand the reach of the archive. Some of the participants on the course had not previously visited or engaged with the archive and the collection. It was the first time the archive service had worked this way with artists. In addition to the artists running the sessions they found new material in the archive and brought a new perspective to some of the more artistic elements in the collection. 

What was learned from the process?

“It was the first time Archives: Wigan & Leigh had worked in this way of inspiring and gathering creative responses. We learned to think outside the box.”

It made staff think differently about how art items from the archive collection could be used for inspiration and how spaces housing archives could be repurposed for creative activity. The sessions took place in the learning room during the evening, and they created a different atmosphere in this space which is usually used for more formal daytime activities.  

The work with the artists went really well and Archives: Wigan & Leigh are planning to commission artists to deliver future activities.

Before the project, staff had limited contextual knowledge of some of the art in the collection and the artists expanded their understanding. The archive can now use what they found for other projects. 

The sessions went beyond being practical sessions, they focused on personal stories, the lives of the artists. These personal stories were a great way of bringing people together around local history.  

The turnout for the sessions was quite low, especially at the beginning and the Archives would have liked more people attending. A key reflection for Archives: Wigan & Leigh was the timing of the project in relation to the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. They recognise in hindsight that while the archive was open and ready to welcome people not everyone was ready to return and take part in communal practical experiences.

Key advice

There are two key pieces of advice Archives: Wigan & Leigh would give to anyone else thinking about taking on a similar project. One is to commission professional artists and two is to provide access and time to the artists to develop content.  

  1. Commissioning: Archives: Wigan & Leigh believe the project worked well because it was delivered by professional artists who had a track record of developing and delivering workshops in the local area. They had an approach which already worked, and they were engaged and enthusiastic about the art history of the area. The artists were commissioned by Archives: Wigan & Leigh making a direct approach. This worked for them as the artists had a unique offer. It would not have been possible to run the sessions without the input of the artists. In addition, give the artists time to work through the archive.  
  2.  Access and time: Archives: Wigan & Leigh gave the artists full access and a generous amount of time in the archive. There was a strong desire to deliver the project within the first year of the archives re-opening after the refurbishment and this was met. The artists allowed themselves enough time to delve into the archives and explore collections with limited restrictions. They threw themselves into researching all the collections and in doing so they found new material which provided a greater depth and insight into the history of art in Wigan. This is now a valuable resource for Archives: Wigan & Leigh. 

How will this work be developed in the future?

TERM art classes plan to incorporate what they found in the archive into the art history sessions they regularly run. This will help to further raise awareness of and promote the stories of artists who lived and worked in Wigan. Alongside this, Archives: Wigan & Leigh are planning on using the new material found to showcase their work in other activities including talks, blogs, signposting for researchers.  

Archives: Wigan & Leigh have continued to work with artists to deliver projects such as ‘Stitch in time – sustainable art sessions’ and ‘Really Rubbish Weaving’. Stitch in time was a series of make do and mend sessions which took place in early 2022. Through the sessions participants created up-cycled art using old material and clothes, using photos from the archives as inspiration. Really Rubbish Weaving took place in August 2021. Artist Liz Chapman led the workshop in which participants used waste materials to create a hanging piece of art. 


Find out more about this case study by contacting Archives: Wigan & Leigh