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Behind the scenes at the 2014 Homecoming Diaspora Tapestry Exhibitions ...

"Beautiful embroidery, beautifully displayed" .. but how?

As the second in the five Homecoming 2014 exhibition series for the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry opens today at The MacRobert Gallery in Stirling, it's a good moment to say Tapadh leibh uile / Thank you all to those who make the exhibition look so fine and to be as enjoyable as World Premiere feedback suggests.

Blocking and stretching the panels has been going on for over a year now and still is for the next wave of 100 or more panels that will be added to the exhibitions by summer 2015! It happens in a small studio close by Andrew Crummy's Design Studio, in Cockenzie House led by Gillian Hart and Yvonne Murphy with support from a dozen volunteers.

Backing the panels and adding the Velcro and a channel for poles - for exhibition alternatives - hears the daily hum of sewing machines in the hands of volunteers so that the now elegantly squared artworks [540mm x 540mm] will hang just right - and the reference numbers stitched on the back prefaced with country car codes are vital.

Transporting and storing the panels was a challenge that saw custom designed cardboard boxes from Musselburgh with Velcro topped dividers. Each box can take a dozen. And it should be added that they require warehousing and a decaled white van for their transportation along with the exhibition boards. These responsibilities fall on Arran Johnston.

Exhibition stands, Velcro receptive, sound obvious but again they were custom built from Eastern Displays of Musselburgh where Janet Lee Adam was an unerring source of wisdom. Two panels 540mm square wont quite fit, will they, onto a square metre board either way. So the boards commissioned are 650mm x 1300mm and can nicely accommodate two vertically. And atop these boards Eastern Displays kindly donated the headers for each of the Regional Clusters.

Failte gu Greis-bhrat Diaspora na h-Alba / Welcome to the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry is in the current idiom a PopUp Display created by Eastern Displays. And it's complemented by a short 3 minute DVD from Fable Vision in which Arran Johnston repeats the PopUp Welcome with Gaelic sub-titles. Quite simply the combined purpose is to orient the visitor to the very large selection of panels on display. Seven Regional Clusters is the structure chosen and one could suggest an evolutionary timeline journey from The Baltic to Western Europe, Southern Asia, Canada, The Americas, Southern Africa and Australasia before returning to Ireland and England. But the final words of introduction simply suggested where the best starting point for any visitor should be: Where would you have gone?

Auld Lang Syne had early on in the tapestry's evolution been identified as the final moment for the exhibition. And here Eastern Displays has excelled with the sounds of that anthem of the Scottish Diaspora emerging from the screen itself. Iain Green of Greentrax has kindly gathered several versions together. He's done much more than that too. He's collated a Double CD of Music from the Diaspora available from Greentrax.

Putting Up ... and Taking Down takes longer than the earlier Battle of Prestonpans Tapestry. There are more poles to screw together and into their bases because they are 650mm rather than 1000mm wide. And each diaspora panel hangs alone whereas the 104 metres of the Prestonpans Tapestry is stitched together as 20 x 5 metres + 1 x 4 metres and a Title metre. With luck - and good taking down - the panels come out of their cardboard boxes in the right country/ regional sequence! The task takes a good day including loading the decaled white van and unloading which Arran Johnston with support from Sharon Beck and local volunteers undertake.

Regional Cluster leaflets gratis bring the tales alive because, although Andrew Crummy is adamant that panel design is indeed 'story illustration', it's not always possible to appreciate it all. So thumbnail images of each panel taken from Gillian Hart's camera have written storylines kept to 150 words with Gaelic translations by Beathag Mhoireasdan on the reverse side. John Unwin did the graphic design and Arran Johnston the final edited text.

The Official Guide @ 15 +p&p contains Gillian Hart's larger images of all the panels, with the English and Gaelic text as found in the Cluster leaflets and additionally the stitchers names. It also includes chapters by Andrew Crummy, Gillian Hart and Yvonne Murphy, Fiona and Arran Johnston, and Gordon Prestoungrange - the team members from Prestoungrange Arts Festival 'managing' the whole project, each writing of their particular roles. Designing and printing the Guide in less than 2 weeks from final copy was a publishing miracle wrought once again by John Unwin - the 'talent of Chat Noir' at Feuillade in France who did precisely the same for the Prestonpans Tapestry in 2010.

Staffing the exhibitions and attending to the merchandise stall over several weeks in each location is always going to be a challenge. It was to help Arran Johnston and Sharon Beck address this that the volunteers group known as Friends of the Tapestries [both the Tapestries] was formally established in April. The merchandise on offer from the Double CD, teapots and mugs, jigsaws and tea towels, pens and notelets was all secured from the suppliers who have over the past four years worked so successfully with the Prestonpans Tapestry. And beautiful Stitchers' Kits are also available, assembled by Gillian Hart and Yvonne Murphy.

Finally, evaluating who visits and their comments and suggestions is being conducted throughout the year at all five exhibitions by Arran Johnston and Sharon Beck. Of course the Arts Festival is keen to gather feedback but it is also a condition of the support received from Homecoming Scotland 2014 that such data is collated and interpreted.

.... so, that's a brief answer to the Question posed. Just how were/ are the 2014 exhibitions organised. And once again, from all who have visited, the phrase has been 'Thank you all' / 'Tapadh leibh uile'

Ed: This entire tapestry project was and remains enormously ambitious, and has been/ remains accordingly mind-blowing fun! That it has come all the way from the dawn of an idea in 2011 to the acclaimed artwork being exhibited this year of Homecoming 2014, is a triumph. It's a triumph for the designer, the stitchers and all those behind the scenes who have brought it to public view.

... and it's still not done. When the doors officially close on still arriving embroidered tales at March 31st 2015 the exhibition will be grander yet with 100 or more additional panels.

We are calling that Diaspora Tapestry BenchMark II. But who's to say we can ever really close the doors .....?

Published Date: June 24th 2014

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