The Feast and Fast exhibition and Rowan 

Rowan is an established Cambridge based arts centre and charity for adults with learning disabilities, which is now in its 36th year. Rowan’s student artists live in Cambridgeshire and the surrounding area.  

Using the arts, Rowan seeks to provide a safe, creative and enriching environment where the student artists can grow, raising their abilities, confidence and self-esteem. We believe these to be vital ingredients for independent living, health and wellbeing.

Over the last few years we have been frequent visitors at the Fitzwilliam Museum keeping a wonderful relationship going through events, projects and exhibitions for student artists to be involved in. Alison Ayres, who is the museum’s Education Assistant, is now a regular Rowan visitor as well and we see her at all of our events! This led to our involvement in the museum’s Feast and Fast Exhibition with our ceramic tutors Abi and Sarah along with a number of Rowan students. We thought now would be a great time to hear from Abi, Sarah and Alison about the project and how Rowan were involved in such a fantastic exhibition.

Abi: ‘Over the past few years Rowan has been frequently visiting various exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam and linking up with Alison who has given great insight to our students about all sorts of exhibitions and pieces of work. The Rowan student artists have enjoyed this and made artwork inspired by what they have seen. So when we were asked if we would like to be involved with helping and being much more involved with the Feast and Fast exhibition, we were all delighted and enthusiastically said yes please!’ 

Alison: ‘The Feast and Fast exhibition was co curated by Dr. Vicky Avery, the keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum and Dr. Melissa Calaresu, lecturer in history at Gonville and Caius college. The exhibition explored through approximately 300 objects and paintings, the compelling and complex, local and global, story of food in Cambridge, Britain and Europe between 1500 and 1800. Exploring the production, preparation and presentation of food, and its comparisons to today, hoping to stimulate visitors to think about how we engage with food now.’

‘Vicky and Melissa decided that they wanted to invite people from the local community to share their own thoughts and experiences around food and how it is an important part of their family and social and fabric. They wanted these voices to be heard and for visitors to the exhibition, to have a space where they could reflect and respond to what they had seen and share their own ideas on the themes presented. Consequently, the exhibition was designed to have a gallery space at the end where a film of the community engagement could be seen, creative responses could be displayed and visitor comments could be collected, this area became known as the creative zone.’

‘Before the exhibition was even installed, Rowan students were invited behind the scenes into the Applied Arts department, to get up close and handle some of the objects that would later be on display. Vicky Avery chose ceramic objects, including a harvest jug dated 1724, a tea pot in the shape of a pineapple, and playful objects such as tureens in the shape of a rabbit and hen and plates of fake fruit and vegetables dating from 1750-1800. The students got to handle and draw these historic museum objects, ask questions and voice their own thoughts and ideas about how they were made and used. They thought the idea of people putting plates of fake food out on their dining tables was hilarious and this planted a seed for their own making back at Rowan.’

‘They were filmed at the museum handling and talking about the museum objects and were invited to bring an item of their choice relating to food. These had important connections and memories for the students about making and sharing food with family and friends. The students had previously made large platters which visually recorded these ideas, for example, Emma told us that her mum is Polish and she loves making Polish food with her. Jenny had decorated her platter with a childhood memory of going on holiday with her family to the Isle of Wight and picking blackberries and eating ice cream.’

Abi: ‘The film crew and Alison then came to Rowan for our very own feast. We bought all the food in inspired by the platters they had made and spent the morning, preparing and filming. The dishes included, Polish specialities brought in by Emma, blackberry crumble prepared by Jenny, fish fingers and chips which are Marks favourite, burgers for Frank and of course profiteroles!!’

Alison: ‘Peter had made and decorated a ceramic vase with a farmland scene, which he had drawn beautifully from a dairy jug at the museum. Towards the end of filming a second large platter of profiteroles, piled high on a plate and covered in a thick glossy layer of chocolate sauce, were brought to the table, to the sounds of much laughter and delight, when Des (Rowan’s Operation’s Manager), reached over to take one he was in for a surprise. The students had been so taken with and amused by the plates of fake food they had seen at the museum, on returning to the ceramic studio they decided to make their own 21st century trompe l’oeil version.’    

Abi: ‘The idea for the fake profiteroles came from our student Chris who remembered making a clay Easter egg and filling it with clay chocolates as a trick! So an idea began, one of Chris’s favourite jokes is to bring profiteroles in to Rowan and tempt staff members with them, so as a group we thought it would be fun to make a ceramic plate piled high of profiteroles for our trick! We all ate and were merry and the students were thrilled when even Des was tricked! We all had a great time and were looking forward to seeing the show.’

Alison ‘The food inspired platters which the students made were on display and the community film could be seen in the final gallery of the exhibition, this gallery also included a display case containing the museum’s collection of fake food, fruit and vegetable tureens dating from the mid-1700s. The last object on display as you left the exhibition was the student’s fantastic plate of ceramic profiteroles, the glossy coating of chocolate shining under the light in the museum display case. The visual continuity between this artwork, the sense of humour and the creative skills need to make it, is a bridge between the historic museum objects and what inspires the students creative practice today.’

‘The students were invited to attend the private view of the exhibition along with their families. It was a celebratory evening and heart-warming to see how genuinely overjoyed they were to see their artwork on display alongside museum objects in a major exhibition.’

Sarah: ‘We were delighted to receive invitations to the private view of the exhibition and visit the exhibition before everyone else. It was exciting going round the space finding all the pieces we had learned about and share our enthusiasm with our friends and families. As we made our way through to the final room, the students work came into view. It was wonderful to see our work displayed in a museum alongside all the other amazing pieces of artwork on display.’

‘Many of the sudents returned, a number of times to continue their experience of the exhibition and of course to take time to stop look and draw.’

Sarah: ‘We decided to make everyone a gift inspired by food. We made some lucky lemon pigs to thank everyone involved in the project. Below you can see Alison’s lemon pig is enjoying life on the river!’

Dr. Vicky Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts at The Fitzwilliam Museum.

‘The creativity of the Rowan students and the desire to let other Feast & Fast visitors be equally inspired by the art of food, led directly to the inclusion of the experimental Creative Zone. This was designed as a neutral space at the very end of the show in which visitors could ‘relax, reflect and respond’ critically and creatively to what they had seen. This dedicated visitor-feedback space within the floor plan of an exhibition is an innovation for the Fitzwilliam Museum.’ 

 ‘I was delighted that many visitors appreciated the presence of the Creative Zone, and the inclusion in it of the Rowan ceramics and the community film. Lily Stancliffe, our Impact Evaluation Coordinator, confirmed my observations saying that she, too, had noted ‘a lot of smiles and excited discussion in groups around the Rowan ‘food memory’ plates and profiteroles’. Lily shared with me many written comments on the public feedback forms, which recorded positive remarks about the film and Rowan ceramics, for example: ‘It was lovely to see the artists from Rowan interacting with the Museum objects in the film.’

‘Working with Rowan and the other community groups in the planning stages of Feast & Fast has been a privilege and pleasure. Listening to different perspectives and ideas about the objects, how to display them in the exhibition, and what to say about them on the labels was really helpful. We are keen to build on this to include diverse voices in future displays and exhibitions, from the earliest stages in planning, to ensure relevance and maximum impact.’

‘A lasting legacy between Rowan and the museum culminated in the Fitzwilliam purchasing the ceramic artwork, plate of profiteroles, made by Rowans students, for the museum’s collection.’

To find out more about The Fitzwilliam and activities to do at home during lockdown visit their website here.