Lesley Walker's Blog

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Voyaging in Unfamilar Territories

“Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilisation.”

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

img_1798Many years ago when I was working in historic houses in Australia, I observed a pre-school group being taken around Vaucluse House, on Sydney’s outer harbour. Bought in 1827 by William Charles Wentworth (of crossing the Blue Mountains fame), and much altered and added to by the family over 50 years, the house and grounds became a museum in 1915. The house’s public rooms were full of Victorian furnishings and decorative objets d’art, particularly the drawing room. This roped-off room was stuffed with burgundy red upholstered chaise longue and low chairs, delicate papier-mâché chairs, occasional tables, piano, every surface filled with aspirational objects – stuffed birds under glass domes, ticking gilt clocks, figurines, brass and silver candelabras, etc, thick woven carpets on the floor and heavy curtains framing French windows looking over an exquisite garden down to the harbour. As the guide encouraged the small children to look and talk about what they could see, one little curly-haired girl whispered, puzzled: “everything’s missing in this house”. She elaborated – no power points, plugs or light switches, no TV or video, no toys, no books, no newspapers or magazines, no electric lights, nothing that she would take for granted in a living room. There was no toilet, bathroom, kitchen as she would understand it, no appliances. There was no sign of habitation or of the people who might have used this room. William and his wife Sarah Morton Cox (isolated all her life from ‘polite’ Sydney society because she was the daughter of convicts and had borne William two children outside wedlock before he married her) had ten children. There was no sign of the servants and convicts who toiled and cleaned. I have always remembered this little girl’s “emperor’s new clothes” view of the recreated world we were gazing at – it was so upside down, so truthful, so looking through different eyes. http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/vaucluse-house

Ten years later, in 2004, I was hesitating outside Kalmar Castle in Sweden, having seen so many cold, draughty castles, empty whitewashed spaces, ammunition, cannons and cannon balls, pikes and staffs and armorial displays or lavish recreations of interiors in UK that yet another castle did not appeal. But what I found inside was so exciting, challenging and provocative that I have never forgotten it. Contemporary artists had created installations using sound, objects, fabrics, light, furniture, voices – in various rooms – the nursery, a dining hall, kitchens and cellars – which engaged and provoked visitors as they moved through the spaces inhabited once more by people and the stories of their lives. Wandering through the castle was a journey of discovery as you never knew what you would find in the next space. In the former 19th century women’s prison, life-sized dramatic and shocking black and white photographs brought the visitor face to face with named women and their stories, with historic cases and punishments from archives from 15th – 19th century. The disturbing and powerful image of one woman fighting with her hands raised, being buried alive after being found guilty of adultery stays with me still as does another of a woman hunched over, forced to carry two huge heavy stones hanging from each shoulder for weeks as a punishment for theft.

I remember these two examples particularly as they each challenged, questioned or explored how visitors perceive what they are presented with in historic houses and buildings. In Vaucluse House the child could find little familiarity or relevance to her life. Watching from a barrier, there was no opportunity for her to directly experience, explore and connect with the house she was visiting. At Kalmar, aspects of Swedish-Danish history and life were suggested or interrogated through creative, momentary art installations which both delighted and surprised visitors. And the terror and resignation captured in photographs of women’s faces remain with me still, providing a direct emotional connection between me and their stories.

The past months I have been thinking a lot about relevance and meaning, value, “truth” and illusion in the way we approach heritage and history, spurred on by two conferences on opposite sides of the world: Re-Imagining Challenging Histories in Cardiff in June and the combined National Trusts and ICOMOS (Aust) People’s Ground conference in Melbourne, Australia in early October. Both offered much food for thought as I prepared a paper for the second one. Speakers in Cardiff reflected on the silences in our historic sites and challenged received ways of interpreting and communicating history. Where was interpretation of the bitter long-running quarry workers strike among all the splendour of Penrhyn Castle, a “19th-century fantasy castle” in Gwynedd? Why did some visitors to Southwell Workhouse leave thinking that treating poverty by reintroducing workhouses for the poor and those on benefits was an acceptable solution now? How were the stories these places were presenting relevant or even “truthful” today? Why are many historic buildings and houses still in the business of creating illusions about the “civilised” past? To what extent are our shared illusions about the past responsible for the uncomfortable places we find ourselves in at the moment?img_1797

As part of the Melbourne conference, I attended a workshop run by Franklin Vagnone, from New York. As I had worked in house museums in NSW from 1989-1997, the title of his recent book, The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, intrigued me. Anarchy and historic house museums? The workshop at the National Trust’s Rippon Lea did not disappoint and again the ideas of value and relevance came to the fore in Franklin’s discussion and inspired some radical questions. What happens if you open all the doors, take down the ropes and barriers and let people go where they will? What happens when you invite people to communicate what they like and don’t like about the way a house is presented and say what they would do if they were in charge? What happens if you have tea and sandwiches in the drawing room, sitting on the furniture and let people inhabit spaces as they were meant to be inhabited?

As workshop participants we were given labels and invited to write down our responses to spaces, objects, furnishings, rooms etc and leave the labels in situ. Part of the fun was reading other labels that had already been left by earlier workshop participants. I wandered along corridors, opening closed doors, discovering narrow back stairs, cluttered attics, broom cupboards, storage under stairs, empty rooms and staff spaces and opened drawers and doors, trunks and wardrobes. I wandered into what appeared to be the Sargood family’s former nursery, silent and cold, the toys displayed in glass cases like so many Victorian children’s corpses all dressed up for display. I felt nothing but a sense of dread.

Later as we sat in the drawing room sipping tea and eating sandwiches, we discussed the experience and our responses. Given NT’s and other historic house organisations’ usually reverential approach to house museums and the families (but not the servants) who inhabited them, and the sacrosanct nature of the interiors and furnishings, this was brave of the National Trust and I hope that it found Franklin’s approach as refreshing as I did, offering new opportunities for future directions.

I am left with many unanswered questions – Do we just accept unquestioningly a curatorial view that these interiors are worth keeping, pickled in aspic, soaked in formaldehyde, frozen in time, telling stories that are so far removed from our experiences now? Are visitors doomed to be always voyeurs, traipsing around with guides, guide books or audio, through a static landscape, or could they become active participants in creating relevance for themselves and others? Could they become part of a conversation between the house and its caretakers and the public? How could these places begin to move beyond the illusions they create and support about life and people in the past and start to explore the at times uncomfortable truths about these pasts?

To be continued


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Decay and Resurrection? Voyaging in Hull 3

Fresh from an extraordinary two day conference in Cardiff, “Re-imagining Challenging Histories”, a stimulating conversation between academics and heritage professionals about spaces and silences, I headed again to Hull. I have been grappling with Brexit and its implications and I know Hull voted overwhelmingly to leave, possibly a modern incarnation of its historical tendency to defiance. For those who don’t know, in 1642 the Governor of Hull, Sir James Hotham, refused to open the Beverley Gate to Charles 1. This is widely regarded as one of the trigger points of the English Civil War. More on Beverley Gate later. William Wilberforce, the parliamentary abolitionist, was born and lived in Hull and the Cod Wars are part of its story. Hull has its own Daily Mail, and its own white telephone booths. It also has its own City of Culture 2017, the reason for my journey.

On Saturday night 2 July a French performance group were to close the Yorkshire Festival and open the first Amy Johnson Festival with Plas des Anges, promised to be a spectacle Hull would never forget. As part of the HLF team working with the Hull 2017 team, I was invited to participate and a spectacle it truly was. As night softly descended on Queens Gardens, activity on top of various tall buildings surrounding the gardens indicated something was about to begin. For over an hour we were spellbound watching white-clad “angels” moving along very high wires strung between buildings, showering us with a snow storm of white feathers as ethereal music filled the night. A huge white zeppelin of a cherub, guided by tall poles, loomed slowly over our heads, coloured spotlights changing it from bright white to electric blue and back. Breathtaking yet sinister, its slow pace in contrast to the flying angels who moved and danced and dangled from the overhead wires. As the performance came to a climax, a blizzard of feathers covered the ground all around us and children and adults alike scooped up armfuls and tossed them over their heads with delight. Hull was littered with feathers for days and we kept finding them in clothes and bags and along the footpaths and river where we walked. Such beauty momentarily transformed Hull and a transitory magic brought smiles and laughter to its people. That this beauty came from Europe seemed not to be noticed.

The next day we walked through the building site that is Hull’s central streets at the moment and were brought face to face with the site of the Defiance – the remains of Beverley Gate, uncovered by archaeologists in 1986. You might think that the site would have been cherished, a symbol of how Hull has regarded itself as standing apart, as different. But behind temporary wire barricades, the steps and remaining footings and structures of the gate and the Victorian bridge which crossed the link between the former Queens Dock to the Princes Dock and thence to the Humber, was a site of decay and neglect – rubbish, bottles, filthy peeling interpretation panels, a veritable ‘skip’.

Further research showed that it had been like this for at least four years, possibly more. A local councillor quoted in Hull Daily Mail said it was a disgrace in 2014 and declared, “If this was in any other continental European city, they would be having King’s Head Days or Defiance Days with bands marching, flags flying and people in historical costumes. As it is, we’ve just got a big hole in the ground”. So at some point Hull was regarded as a European city by its inhabitants, even if holding a King’s Head Day was seen as a good idea for a celebration!


A walk around the city and along the River Hull towards the oddly-named quiet and deserted High Street enroute to the Museum Quarter (see my earlier blogs on Hull) was interrupted by another wire barricade blocking off the path. A man in a vicar’s dog collar and his lady companion lifted up the barricade and encouraged us to crawl through and we then repeated the favour for another group of people trapped by the wire. Our small act of defiance! IMG_0677We explored the interestingly engineered Drypool Bridge, and discovered a rather rusty iron plaque which obviously once marked something that Hull wanted to remember but is now only forgotten.


In 1888 something to remember, in 2016 forgotten

Visiting Wilberforce House where William was born told us much about him but I looked in vain on the ground floor for a mention of any other abolitionists. IMG_0699I did finally find Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Hannah More and others upstairs along with a rather oversized rendition of Clarkson’s famous chest. In this he collected and carried the wealth and skills and natural products of the African continent throughout England for years trying to convince British citizens and politicians that Africa offered far more attractive (and moral) opportunities than the slave trade.


Model of Clarkson’s chest. Smaller, original one is in Wisbech Museum.

Clarkson was an East Anglian, born in Wisbech, educated at Cambridge. He carried out the major research into the evils of the trade, risking his life to get the evidence needed to provide Wilberforce with credibility in parliament. Clarkson lived and died in Playford near Woodbridge, Suffolk. His brother John was responsible for bringing the free former enslaved Africans from North America to Freetown, the first governor of Sierra Leone and is buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Woodbridge where I currently live. The idea that Wilberforce singlehandedly ended the British slave trade is one of those enduring myths of British history which the Wilberforce House, despite its refurbishment and new exhibitions for 2007, does not actively dispel. A futile search for a cafe on Sunday in the Museum Quarter was another disappointment. The Museum Quarter consists of three museums side by side and a beautiful park-like garden and backs onto the River Hull. It was a shock to discover there was no cafe and the attendant apologised for the lack of a vending room which had existed but was no longer in operation. A room with vending machines wasn’t quite what I had in mind so I was not dismayed by its closure. Thinking that Hull needed to hurry up and think about meeting the needs of the anticipated thousands who were going to arrive in 2017, and presumably would require cafes and non-pub food on a Sunday, we repaired to the nearby Sailmakers Arms for a cold drink. IMG_0698

We walked north of the High Street and found Blaydes, yet another impressive former merchant’s house and office, alongside another derelict dock, white feathers settling among red poppies on the wasteland. There is something very sad about all this dereliction. Many of the empty sites are car parks but none of them that we saw had become community gardens or parks or even temporary allotments or wild green spaces.


The white spots are feathers!

The people have not reclaimed their city. I was struck by the evidence of how wealthy Hull had been and how poor it is now in so many ways. What happened in between? Wars, depression, loss of industry, declining fish stocks, containerisation, urban planning disasters, Thatcherism, banking disasters, and finally Austerity. This is the austerity agenda in action, piled onto decades of urban decay and industrial decline. I thought of Westminster, George Osborne and Brexit and the famous lines from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias,Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Can Hull City of Culture 2017 in some small way compensate Hull for the last 100 years? Could some of these small white feathers among the red poppies symbolise a possible future where beauty and magic, dreams and prosperity, make “Hullness” possible once more?