Putting Ourselves Into History

Museum of Marco Polo

I can see it isn’t easy to make a case for my deprivation, but I am putting it out there anyway – that I live in a part of London that has no local museum, and to me this feels like a loss, because where else will I put my story (where does anyone put their story?) except in a local museum?

I can see why no one thought to make a museum here.  We live on a hill overlooking the city and before the houses came – which was late in the 19th century – there was nothing here but fields and tall trees, farm tracks and running streams, plus a hamlet with a few streets and some of those big, but not very grand, houses from which there still comes a whiff of 19th century middle-class living, such as white muslin dresses in summer and ice skating in winter. Girls from one big house married boys from the next.  A single coach and horses ran down the hill each day, taking the patriarchal father to his desk in the City, and brought him back each night.  The barrel organ man came round once a week and the lamplighter came each evening.

And I can also remember that I never wanted to move to this part of London – I thought that living on the hill would be boring – which makes it all the more surprising, my new-found feeling of loyalty to the people who walked these country paths long before I was born.

Local history has a reputation for being small-town and parochial, but for a passionate defence of its role in our lives you should try Joseph Amato’s book, ‘Rethinking Home:  A Case for Writing Local History’ (University of California, 2002).  For Amato, ‘Local history satisfies an innate human desire to be connected to a place.  It feeds our hunger to experience life directly and on intimate terms.  It serves nostalgia, which is arguably as compelling a cultural force as the quest for progress.  It fosters loyalty to a unique climate of feelings and thoughts, and honours the kind of primal attraction one has to one’s own youth – which is unique in the irreversible succession of life.’  Above all, in a globalised world it is about a passion for the local and the particular, and therefore always has at its heart the concept of Home.

Amato is clever.  He lights upon two key qualities of local history.  Firstly it is intimately connected to the feelings we have for a particular time in our lives – usually our childhoods or twenties.

This neatly echoes our own experience in our daytime jobs as museum-makers, that visitors feel most strongly about exhibitions that focus in on that time in their lives when they lived most intensely – usually their childhoods or twenties. It’s a moveable time, this time just before the Present, the time that is Just Past but not yet History, and we care about it and want to be part of its making, because it’s ours.  (My nerdy but romantic reference here is to Helen in Book 3 of the Iliad, who sits at her window weaving the story of the Troyal War even as it is unfolding outside on the plain.)

And Amato makes another point, that local history is intimately bound up with our sense of Home (to which I would add that maybe a local museum is one of those things that make a place feel like home).  Home these days is not a soft concept.  With the housing shortage and now the closing of local museums, Home is becoming highly politicised.  It’s not only that we need somewhere to live;  it’s also that we need somewhere where we can put ourselves into history.

There is a moment along our local high street, between the fish and chip shop and the bank, when the ground suddenly falls away and you can see for miles across east London.  Sometimes in the evenings you can see Canary Wharf touched with gold, and the mirrored river snaking its way across the Essex marshes.  It stops me in my track each time, must have been stopping passers-by for as long as there have been passers-by to stop.

The Image at the top of the page is from Hornsey Historical Society and shows the High Street in Muswell Hill.

‘Rethinking Home:  A Case for Writing Local History’ is by Joseph A. Amato, 2002, University of California Press

History turns on moments.  Sometimes they are seismic and driven by individuals, Picasso and Braque, the Beatles, Miles Davis.  Other moments are driven by a movement like the founding of the NHS;  they are in the ether, and cometh the hour their time is right.  When Assemble won the Turner prize just before Christmas it was one of those moments.  They are not a one-off, they haven’t appeared in a vacuum.  Others have been practising in the same or similar vein for some time.  But they were noticed and nominated for their work by a director of an art museum interested in participation and co-creation.  Architects in Glasgow like Pidgin Perfect and Ice Cream are working in the same vein, and from an older generation Canny Ash has been doing community projects along similar lines for years.  And many of us have been working across a range of media, from graphics to film, where the built environment is just one part.  For years I have, like Assemble, been telling clients the answer may not, often is not, a building, and certainly not a new building. It’s great that they have moved this thinking into the mainstream.

The Assemble moment is also important because the artists are clearly pissed off, especially as Assemble makes no claim to their work being art.  The irony is that they have undermined the whole basis of the high-end, Duchamp-indebted, manufactured, cast and polished aluminium, million-dollar, ‘ready-mades’ world of a Jeff Koon balloon dog, with simple doorknobs that are true ‘readymades’ – made by a Liverpool community threatened with eviction working in collaboration with free-lance designers who aren’t in it for the money.

The doorknob moment is the counterpoint to an art and architecture market that has run out of things to say.

You can see what I mean in three museums built in the Great Boom:  Imperial War Museum (IWM) North by Libeskind, the Riverside by Zaha Hadid and the IWM London by Foster.  They are the polar opposites of Assemble.  In each the architecture has become the story.  In the first you are under a snowdrift, and it is hard (except when the picture show is on) to really get the story.  In the second you feel you are inside a pistachio-coloured meringue that overpowers the objects and the people stories.  And in the third you are inside an egg box where it is unclear what any of the objects are actually saying.  No wonder that many museum designers have struggled with iconic buildings and their response often tends to over-designed, over-elaborate plinths and cases.  It feels like the Bake Off or Masterchef.  The objects seem to be secondary to how they are decorated or plated up.

Now consider the three best museum spaces I know of that all bear more than a passing resemblance to Assembly’s new building spirit, hand-made from simple materials, nailed and screwed together.  The oldest (constructed in 1839) is the covered shipyard no 3 at Chatham.  One hundred years later Portsmouth Dockyard built the Boathouse No 4.  The original hangars at Duxford were built 100 years ago by German prisoners of war.  All of them are stunning spaces, simply made, versatile, forgiving and supportive. They are the future.

Assemble marks the moment when the zeitgeist shifted, or at least divided us into two camps.  One is metropolitan, tending towards a Glyndebourne world of semi-privatised museum spaces, with Friends and Members Views and corporate dinners.  The other is a world of self-help, sharing, bartering, crowdsourcing, volunteering, participating, co-creating.  In the hands of an Assemble and firms like them it is exciting for the users and partners and for those who want to see museums at the heart of a more balanced society.  It is also a shared space where making and creating lead to self-discovery and even to the next generation of angry young men and women producing great art.