In 2006, the Serpentine Gallery’s Skills Exchange brought together an architect and a design collective to work with the residents of a care home.
Architect Markus Miessen led the discussions at Westmead Care Home in Westminster with staff and residents, thinking of ways to improve their lives and to guard against the risk of isolation. He made a number of propositions, including signage systems and other means of communication, in a short text entitled Sound of Home: A Manual for Action. He handed these ideas over to design collective Åbäke to interpret and develop with Westmead participants.
Taking the title of Skills Exchange literally, Åbäke spent time with Westmead staff and residents discussing their interests and vocational skills. With the combined age of the residents totalling 3,500 years, they reasoned that staff and residents offered a tremendous learning resource to each other and to the outside world.
The Serpentine Gallery and Westmead Care Home embarked on a more ambitious exchange via an installation at the Gallery’s Serpentine Sackler Centre for Arts Education (21st January–7th February 2010), swapping furniture and artwork, as well as interests and expertise. The Gallery’s staff toured Westmead’s limited editions print collection, while residents and staff shared their experiences of the past century and of living and working in residential care. To help illuminate the realities of old age and to help the younger participants imagine their futures, portraits of the project organisers were taken and aged 40 years by photographer Kees de Klein and Åbäke. This process of exchange was a starting point for discussion of future possibilities at Westmead.
Other events have taken place as part of this exchange: a bus trip and birthday celebrations in honour of a 93 year old resident of Westmead; cake and decoration workshops with staff, school students and community members; and a series of Skype exchanges between residents and visitors to the Serpentine Gallery. The aged portraits provided context for a Serpentine Gallery Family Day in which people of all ages visualised and imagined their futures in discussion with Yan-Ki Lee, Research Fellow with the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art.