In our work exploring Bedford’s identity as a town, in 2017 we invited artist Mike Stubbs to begin an artistic enquiry into Bedford’s 100 year airship history and the local community’s long standing fascination with airships.
Bedford has been the home of the airship since the Shorts Brothers arrived in Bedford in 1915 to manufacture their rigid airships. In 2020 it will be ninety years since the first transatlantic airship flight of the R100 from Cardington, Bedford to Montreal, followed just months later by the fatal crash of the R101 and the demise of the national airship industry.
Though the aeroplane has superceded the airship for distance travel by air, the airship industry has continued to develop through private enterprise. Today, the airship industry continues in Bedford, with Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airlander.
Following an initial period of research from 2017-18, Mike introduced his first project in May 2019, called Airship Dreaming at the Library for Bedford Central Library.
The project was based on the library’s main floor and invited the public to engage in a week of model-making and digital activities, focused on airships past and present. Mike collaborated with artist and inventor Dave Lynch and together they developed a series of making and sharing activities to uncover and explore the local community’s memories and fantasies around Bedford and its airships.
The library’s archive of airship material was provided as a resource for inspiration and participants. Families built physical models of airships and the airship sheds using card, paper and specialist lego; and then introduced their models into augmented reality environments using a ‘snapchat’ lens on smartphones; other participants chose to create their own ‘real’ or ‘fake’ news stories on tablets, using the ‘breakingnews’ app. A wide range of age-groups took part, including inter-generational families, with young and old engaging in the use of new technologies. The programme also included a hackerspace and a talk on airships today by Hybrid Air Vehicles airship engineer Andrew Barber.
Participants commented “fantastic for both airship fans and newcomers alike” and “I feel that remembering and encouraging research of Bedford’s past is very important.”
Many people visited to share their stories and memorabilia, including local airship experts Den Burchmore, the former Airship Heritage Trust curator; Trevor Monk of WelovetheCardingtonSheds; former airship pilots; and modelmakers, stamp and photography collectors and young people sharing their ideas for airships of the future.
On the last day of the project, the artists screened Bedford Airship Breaking News, a 15′ film created from the participants’ news stories, set playfully within a fake news format. The film is available to watch here:
The project was commissioned by Bedford Borough Council, curated and produced by Bedford Creative Arts, and supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. With additional thanks to Hybrid Air Vehicles.