Crowning Glories (2000-2009)


Our society has come a long way in its understanding of mental illness, yet misinformation, apprehension and stigma still persist despite best efforts. Crowning Glories tackles the theme of perceptions of mental illness head on. The exhibition explores images and experiences of mental illness, and offers personal stories of change and recovery to help the public better understand mental health issues.

Start students found that working on this exhibition theme was a very meaningful experience, resulting in some people speaking for the first time, in public, about their health experiences.

The success of Crowning Glories as a vehicle for learning and as a public health message resulted in its winning the international UCL Arts and Health Award (jointly awarded by the University College London Centre for Medical Humanities, and the Slade School of  Fine Art, in partnership with Arts Council England, the Royal College of Physicians, and the National Network for the Arts in Health).

What is the exhibition?

A collection of sumptuous hats and headwear of various extraordinary shapes and sizes, each hat was designed and made by a Start student, taking inspiration for form and texture from cacti and succulents. There are soft squishy velvet hats, spiky beaded hats, fantastical sculptural clay hats, mosaiced and glass hats, hats a foot tall, wobbly hats, and even a wooden hat.

Why pick this theme?

Crowning Glories’ exhibition co-ordinator Wendy Teall explains:

“The artists and students at Start used cacti as their theme because they see these plants representing the way that mental illness is viewed in society. In a cactus, a formidable, prickly exterior hides the tender inside. In the same way, people with mental ill health may sometimes be seen only in terms of their illness. Others may be intimidated by this exterior, perhaps seeing threat instead of perceiving the ordinary humanity lying within each of us, whether ill or well.”

Senior manager in Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust, Nick Metcalfe, comments:

“Art is a major part of Start students’ lives, and is central to their recovery. So it makes sense to use art as the main means of communicating our philosophy to the public, as well as a great way of celebrating and showcasing the talents and achievements of Start’s students. This exhibition literally shows one of the ‘Crowning Glories’ of the Start experience – its capacity to offer the circumstances where personal change can take place for each individual coming here.”

Where has the exhibition toured to?

Crowning Glories has successfully toured to eight venues across the North West Region, and been viewed by over 100,000 people. By exhibiting in traditional settings such as galleries, as well as more unusual venues such as colleges and the Royal Horticultural Show at Tatton Park, we have managed to reach a diverse and non-traditional art audience.

Audience reactions to the show have been wonderful, and the venues exhibiting the work have been amazed by the strength of response.

Royal Horticultural Show organisers described Crowning Glories as ‘..fantastic…a real showstopper…’ whilst Norton Priory Gallery and Museum felt that it was ‘attitude-changing – very moving…created a lot of discussion amongst visitors.’ Local MP Tony Lloyd, who opened the show in Manchester Craft and Design Centre in 2004, expressed his real pleasure in being asked to promote the work of an organisation at the forefront of mainstream mental health thinking, whilst the Manchester Craft and Design Centre itself found the work fascinating and inspiring.

What the critics say

The show began its touring life at the Shire Gallery, Stafford, where it received an enthusiastic response from the public. Arts correspondent Gabriel Gregory, in praising the show, writes:

“Start is evidently massively successful at teaching the skills and outlooks necessary for the practicing of art, and for recovery from illness. All the exhibition pieces are beautifully constructed and portray a great depth of talent, sensitivity and insight. The experience is indeed one of discovery, for viewer as much as for maker.”

Some of the outcomes for Start students

Around 90% of those involved in the exhibition have achieved positive changes to their lives, including accessing mainstream education, commencing voluntary work, undertaking workshop leader training placements at a local gallery and college, and experimenting with the renting of independent art studios.


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