Tucked away behind the cricket ground in Guildford are the Wey Navigations. Opened in 1653, the site was dominated by two boat building families the Stevens and the Edwards but is now owned by the National Trust. This compact property offers an interesting snapshot of a what traditional barge building yard was like. It has been over a decade since I last visited and much has changed including the addition of the Wey barge Reliance, built at Dapdune between 1931-2 and which sank in the Thames after striking a bridge. It was acquired by the NT it is now moored at the Wharf for visitors to board and sample cramped, dark conditions that made up everyday life for watermen. Various outbuildings and old stores provide an array of information panels and interactive exhibitions including model navigation system and the block and tackle weight lifting exhibit, where three 56lbs weights are attached to different lifting methods to demonstrate how difficult and easy it can be to lift the same weight. The complex is very child friendly and would make an excellent schools visit, with plenty of activities available for families.
The day I visited was the final day of an exhibition by 4 graduate students at UCA Farnham, titled ‘Tumblehome’ it is the result of how these four artists reacted to the surroundings, history and traditions of the wharf. I found out about this exhibition by accident, and being a huge fan of site specific artwork, was curious to see their ideas. There was disappointment from the start as there was no information available at the entry kiosk, now it may be because it was the last day of a month long exhibition, but the reception staff didn’t make any mention of it when they spoke about what there was to see on site.
A couple of inconspicuous ‘A’ frame poster boards signalled where artworks were sited, but I almost missed the largest exhibition area completely as it was so inconspicuous! A quick check on the NT website revealed a short section about the project and the inevitable self-important verbose statements by each artist. Of all the work on show, the digitally printed papers and fabric of Noelle Genevier, I felt were the most engaged and relevant pieces on display. I have to confess that the large piece of canvas and rope suspended from a makeshift wood frame did little to provoke any questions, while the slideshow running in the background opposite was pretty standard stuff, modern photographs interspersed with archive images presumably drawing comparisons to how the use of the wharf has changed from industry to pleasure. The quirkiest piece was the installation of cottage shaped teapots on show in the Smithy and the giant papier mache teapot in the main exhibition area and which apparently draws attention to our relationship with tea and comfort, a comment I am assuming, on the changing nature in use of the site from industrial workplace to leisure attraction.
Unfortunately most of the labelling of the artworks had disappeared and in the absence of any other information I think that most visitors would have found it all very hard to engage with. This is hugely disappointing and a massive missed opportunity. Art is a fantastic way to draw attention to an historical collection or site and to engage a more diverse audience than may usually be expected. Overall I suspect that the students were not given enough time to work on this project alongside their degree show work which is a shame, although I feel that some of the work missed the mark in terms of thinking and display. Still, there is always next time.