It happened this week when Sheffield University held their second, amazing Storying Sheffield exhibition. Storying Sheffield is a groundbreaking project which brings university students together with the people of Sheffield to create a living portrait of life in the city.
Half the participants in the project are second-year undergraduates studying English Literature at the University of Sheffield. Storying Sheffield is an optional module which they can take as part of their degree. The other participants are people from the city who generally have no background in higher education and who come from groups which tend to be socially excluded – mainly long-term users of the mental health services, and people with physical disabilities.
The course is a mix of academic sessions and workshops in which participants work together on creating representations of contemporary life in Sheffield.
At its heart, Storying Sheffield is about giving a platform to stories that are rarely heard. In the process, it challenges all kinds of boundaries to create a unique and multi-faceted portrait of the city. As undergraduate Josephine wrote in the catalogue for the project’s exhibition last week: ‘Storying Sheffield allows you to break the rigid boundaries that society imposes upon you – when else would I work with an actual adult (as opposed to a fake one) in a real (not student) house representing stories that are so often ignored?’
The blend of techniques used by the participants challenges more boundaries by promoting the telling of stories through a huge range of media. Film, textiles, photography, maps, drama and cardboard boxes all formed part of the final exhibition, alongside written material.
The result, to quote course director Dr Brendan Stone, is ‘a web of fragments, stories, and representations, or, to use a phrase from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, “a cloth woven of stories told”’.
What is evident from the exhibition is that this phenomenal explosion of creativity is the result of a genuine two-way exchange between the university and people from other parts of the city. Undergraduate Charlie wrote that the best thing about the project was ‘being given the opportunity to work with Peter who has showed me so many wonderful things and taught me so much’. Peter himself wrote: ‘I’ve learnt more about myself through this course than with any doctors or shrinks.’
It’s an exchange that also inspires participants with a fresh perspective on Sheffield and deepens their sense of belonging. Kate worked with two undergraduates to explore her Christian faith and her role as a mother. Afterwards she wrote: ‘For years I have wanted to run away from Sheffield. Watching the students make short films of different places in the city has inspired me to make friends with my home town and in a matter of months, I have grown to love Sheffield, warts an’all!!! It’s made me realise that how I view Sheffield is not necessarily a matter of reality, but of perception.’
When people are given space to tell their stories, there seems no end to what can change.