Guest Blog: Harriet Warden on Atomic 50

Published Wednesday 23 October 2019 by Callum

In the latest issue of Waltham Forest News, some of the people who’ve made our year as the first-ever London Borough of Culture such an amazing experience explained what it has meant to them.

Here, Harriet Warden, Creative Director of Blackhorse Workshop explains how Atomic 50 – an immersive experience in Leyton attended by 1500 children and families – came to be.

It was an exciting yet challenging moment when we were invited to put forward a project proposal for Waltham Forest’s bid for London Borough of Culture 2019. Where do you begin with designing your dream project? How do you formulate your idea into a reality? How do you use it in a way that can be transformative in your organisation’s thinking?

Fresh from our Sideshow project, building a giant marble run on the site where the first Routemaster was built, we had already developed an interest in Waltham Forest’s industrial past, and were keen to develop a further project to celebrate this. Researching the tin toy manufacturers that had factories in the borough, we felt there was an opportunity here to celebrate tin metalworking further. 

We worked for the first time with a professional script writer to develop a narrative for a new factory – the ‘Atomic 50’. This was a totally new way of working for us – to approach the teaching of skills via the context of a story, and delivering learning within a theatrical set rather than a traditional workshop space. However, bringing to life the factory environment and how to approach what this could look like was challenging. Learning to let go of the original vision and allow the project to be led in new directions by collaborators resulted in the idea developing in ways we would never have considered.

To have the opportunity to work with artist Abigail Conway and professional actors to bring to life the narrative brought a way of engaging children that doesn’t happen in a normal teaching environment.

Seeing the impact of how the space energised their enthusiasm for making was really exciting and as one teacher remarked, ‘they haven’t stopped talking about it since they got back to school’. 

The experience of Atomic 50 demonstrated how significant this kind of approach is on children’s creative development.

Having developed our skills training independently of the national curriculum, it was also invaluable to work with a specialist primary teacher facilitated by the London Borough of Culture team to map out how we could relate the content back across a range of subject areas from History, Science, Art & Design and Literacy - extending the value and legacy potential from the project. The quality of the partners we were able to work with throughout the project has given us the confidence to work again on that scale in the future.

Since the project finished in April (with performances to 1500 children and families), our new education programme has been set in motion back at the workshop. We have been making good use of the machinery purchased for the performance, running a new skills training programme ‘Makers & Shakers’ for 18-25-year olds, and an after-school club for primary children. 

Having witnessed the joy that the project surprised people with, it’s clear that this is only the beginning of our journey in creating transformative making experiences. 

A huge thank you from us to Waltham Forest for the opportunity!