Photo: Think City
Students explore the old town of Bagan with their cameras resulting in a heartwarming photo exhibition and a new appreciation for the cultural assets and heritage of their neighbourhoods.
MyButterworth is a community asset mapping project involving students, cameras and the old town of Bagan. This place-based project was a collaborative effort between Think City and Arts-ED Penang, a non-profit organisation running community-based educational programmes on the theme of arts, culture and heritage.
Supported by the Think City Grants Programme, the project culminated in a final presentation and exhibition of the students’ exploration with the camera.
The aim of the project was to encourage the students’ exploration of the cultural assets surrounding their schools such as historical buildings, landmarks or businesses typically found in their vicinity.
Two schools in the Bagan area — Maktab Wan Jah and Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina Chung Hwa Pusat — were identified, and after the initial briefings, 31 students of school-going ages spanning primary and secondary school were selected to participate.
Loo Que Lin, Programmer and Facilitator at Arts-ED, who managed the MyButterworth Mapping Project said, “Even though the schools were in Bagan, we found that a lot of the students were not familiar with the area. We saw a need to create a platform for them to go on-site and learn about the place — to explore cultural assets in the area, and to interact with the local community.”
“Through this place-based learning project, the students were given an opportunity to be on the ground, using their five senses to explore and engage with people,” she added.
Creative Learning Methods
Fun learning methods were deployed to engage the students including a treasure hunt to familiarise themselves with the neighbourhood. The next step was to map the buildings and shophouses in the area, noting who the occupants were and their vocations. When this was completed, the students were then able to fully survey the cultural assets in the area and select the subject matter for their photo essays.
Skill-building was a big part of the project and the students were taught the foundations of photography — working the camera, learning the terminology and how to frame shots, amongst other aspects. They were also taught interviewing skills with role-play exercises before they embarked on the data collection phase where they actively visited the cultural assets of their choice for interviews, photos and information.
From the work accumulated, the students then began creating their photo essays in groups, which resulted in the exhibition at the end of the six months.
“MyButterworth was an opportunity to understand and explore the tangible and intangible cultural heritage that surrounds the students. It was our hope that students would learn to appreciate the importance of preserving culture at a young age so that they can bring this attitude with them and advocate it through life,” said Nicole Thum, Think City Programme Executive.
“The students enjoyed the process very much as they were able to express their creativity through photography and learn about their town, discovering places they had never seen before and even trying some food for the first time,” she said.
Nicole added that the reaction from the students was initially a surprise. Students were puzzled at first as to what the project was all about and why it was important but after they were briefed of the history and the significance of each site, they gained a new perspective.
“We were quite sceptical at the start with the idea of students getting excited about the programme. We expected them to say, ‘It’s heritage – it’s going to be very boring.’ So the level of enthusiasm and commitment shown to the project was surprising and inspiring,” said Nicole.
“The students developed an appreciation and deeper understanding of the history of the place after interviewing some of the old traders in the area, such as the Loh Mee stall, the dry goods supplier at the godowns on Jalan Jeti Lama, and also a mini market on Jalan Pasar.
“They were excited to be out and about, and there were ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ whenever they found out the vendors they interviewed had been running their businesses even before they were born,” Nicole added.
“They learned that there are things out there beyond the classroom – local history that is not taught to them in school or by their parents.”
Many of the students also came away with knowledge of how different businesses were conducted, from running a hardware store to making bamboo blinds or operating a food stall.
Meanwhile, the business owners felt a sense of pride in sharing the history of their businesses and were more than willing to share their knowledge with the students. Some students, having forged new friendships, even went back with their parents to patronise the local stores and coffee shops that they had interviewed.
Feedback from the teachers, parents and students was also encouraging, with schools requesting that the programme be run annually, and to be officially included as an extra-curricular programme.
“On the whole, though it is billed as a cultural mapping exercise, the intangible rewards of this project are not just the sense of pride and appreciation for the cultural assets, but also the new bonds created within the community between the kids, the vendors, the teachers and the parents,” added Nicole.
“It is relationships like these that ultimately give a city soul and make it liveable.”
This article was originally published in Think City Magazine Volume III and has been edited for The Citymaker.