Students stage pop-up exhibition brimming with hat heritage

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Second year art and photography students from the University of Bedfordshire have curated a temporary exhibition in Luton, exploring the heritage of the town’s once booming hat-making trade.

Reflecting the history of the Hat District, ‘Luton: Brimming with History’ is a collaborative student exhibition taking place along Bute Street. The pop-up display is being housed in two locations in partnership with The Culture Trust – in the Departure Lounge Gallery and the Hat Factory Arts Centre.

Due to current lockdown restrictions, the exhibition has been curated to be viewed through the windows with a displayed QR code providing additional information on the artwork and student artists, allowing it to be accessible for passers-by. Online gallery access is also available for those wishing to explore the exhibition further from home.

Working in teams, students from the University’s School of Art & Design investigated the heritage of the local hat industry to help plan their works and exhibition layout.

Part of the initial research process included an interview with renowned Buckinghamshire-based straw plait artist, Veronica Main MBE – a member of the British Hat Guild who has taught straw work across the globe – which helped the students to unearth elements of focus and map out a timeline of Luton’s hat history.

This project forms a part of the BA (Hons) Art & Design and Photography courses, called the Collaborative Enterprise unit, and involves students collaborating to achieve a task, usually with a professional organisation or targeted outcome. In previous years students have turned old shops and offices into pop-up galleries for this unit, however the pandemic prevented last year’s display from going ahead in public and instead the art pieces were displayed on a web platform.

Nigel Grimmer, Senior Lecturer and Curriculum Lead for Art & Design at Bedfordshire, said: “I was determined not to have a digital-only show again this year, as our students aren’t able to learn the communication and professional practice skills they need.

“I reached out to The Culture Trust and asked if we could work in the windows of their closed venues on Bute Street – they were more than happy to be partners and allocated enough space to accommodate a few of our School’s courses, meaning students from multiple courses could exhibit together in one place.

“The chosen theme of heritage perfectly suited the exhibition space too – it was meant to be!”

He continued: “Despite the pandemic necessitating a distanced curatorial practice, it’s been fantastic to see our second year students working together to formulate this fascinating local-interest exhibition.”

Art & Design student, Petronela Citea, explained: “The history of hat-making and hat-wearing revolves around beautiful objects and skilful, passionate people. Many of the students involved in this project were born or live in Luton, so it has been fascinating for us to explore this aspect of the town’s history.

“The students don’t remember their grandparents going anywhere without a hat, much like we can’t truly picture Luton without the hat industry!”

Through physical and digital manipulations of materials and imagery, the collaborative project blends historical research with the mediums of printmaking, textiles, painting, photography and sculpture. All of the pieces were produced by the students at home, as the government’s lockdown measures prevented them from having access to campus facilities.

Some of the artwork featured in ‘Luton: Brimming with History’ include a mechanical model of the original Hat Factory by student Laura Hill, showing straw bundles entering the model building and hats leaving, deconstructed felt by student Anisa Riaz Murshed and monochrome digital drawings by student Shana Callaghan, featuring historic photography of hat makers and the factory.

Veronica Main MBE, who was given a first-look preview of the exhibition, said: “The students’ interest in the subject and depth of exploration has enabled them to create a display that captures a remarkable feeling of empathy. So many of the exhibition’s elements completely delight!”

For more information and to glimpse images from the exhibition which runs until 12th May 2021, visit the Departure Lounge Gallery’s website or the project’s Instagram page.

Further details on BA (Hons) Art and Design or BA (Hons) Photography and other courses within the School of Art & Design, visit: www.beds.ac.uk/howtoapply/departments/ad