“Places are good if they connect people to each other and to the preceding generations that have walked that place and left their mark to be absorbed by those who inherit it.”
Archibald, R. The New Town Square: Museums and Communities in Transition. California, 2004
On Sunday 15 October I presented a paper at the International Council for Museums, CECA and DEMHIST conference, Relevance 2017, hosted by Historic Royal Palaces at the Tower of London.
It was a fantastic experience. I met colleagues from museums all over the world and it was great to hear their presentations and share our experiences and passion for museum education.
Here is an extract of the paper I presented.
Echoes of the past
In this paper I’d like to critically explore the ways in which we describe heritage sites as ‘holding’ or ‘containing’ a spirit of place or genius loci. I want to explore and examine the way we talk about spaces and places as being receptacles for past emotions; holding echoes of fear, love, power, greed and pain. Is this just a metaphorical tool we use to connect us with the past or can we talk about emotional heritage (that which is left behind) as an intangible form of heritage?
This talk draws on research I’m preparing in advance of starting a PHD in heritage learning. I’m just starting out with this research so forgive me if I pose lots of questions rather than provide answers at this stage.
I’m interested in stripping back this concept of heritage sites as being vessels of emotion and memory by looking at sites, places and spaces that no longer exist. If no, stones, brickwork, architecture remain, how can we learn of a sites’ past, how can we learn it’s narrative, its story?
For this talk I’m going to focus on London. I love London and am continuously fascinated by its layered nature. The author Peter Ackroyd describes how the magic of London resides in the ‘spirit of place’ or genius loci, with places like markets, pubs and taverns, exhibiting magical presence as the ‘sacred heart’ of the city. This draws on the concept that a heritage site does not necessarily have to be something physical or even tangible, it can be intangible in the sense that it represents an emotional heritage of place, a spiritual connection with the past. For example, we conserve and preserve places like battlefields as places commemorated more for what they have witnessed than for what their physical reality is now. That reality may be mud and grass, but their intangible heritage speaks to the violence of the human experience that took place there.
So how do we navigate between the intangible and authenticity of the real? How do we learn from our lost heritage in a world that’s ever changing, and how do we employ this knowledge and experience to find our place in society today?
Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Alexander Pope, Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, 1731
In classical Roman religion, a genius locus was the protective spirit of a place. It was often depicted in religious iconography as a figure holding attributes such as a cornucopia, patera or a snake. These protective spirits would inhabit certain natural crossroads such as sources of fresh water, woodland groves and places where the landscape converged. When we settled and created our own urban landscapes to live in, it can be argued that we brought these spirits of place with us.
We now use the term genius loci as describing the prevailing character or atmosphere of a place. As a heritage educator, I have used this narrative hook to describe places in the past to groups, young and old, to capture their imagination. I’ve described places as having a certain feeling, a spirit of place, an atmosphere. I’ve asked children and adults to imagine that stories and messages from the past are emitting from the stones, woodwork around them and that all they’ve got to do is listen for them.
We like to see history as something of a veiled world, existing around us, alongside us, waiting for us to notice it. And what is history, if not the account of emotional or human experience over time.
Just a button
It can be argued that objects have always conveyed materially-embedded messages about the experiences, thoughts, and behaviours of their owners. Objects are kept, cosseted and worshipped by people for many different reasons.
This is an example of a token from the Foundling Museum. It is a button from the jacket of a Coldstream Guard’s uniform.
The Foundling Museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, a place which cared for babies at risk of abandonment, who were illegitimate and those whose families were too poor to care for them. In 1741 when the Hospital first opened its doors, mothers, admitting their children were asked to:
‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary’.
Since babies were renamed on admission, a system had to be created whereby a returning mother was able to be reunited with the baby she had handed over to the care of the Hospital. This button or token can be seen as an emblematic example of how we might use objects to find emotional significance. Sociologically the button could represent the mother’s social status, too poor to choose something precious as a token to leave to identify her baby. Or perhaps, this button was precious, could it have been from the jacket of the baby’s father? from a great love now lost? We can’t know these things from just analysing the button in its material form. The button engenders all these thoughts in our head, activating our imaginations. But the only real, authentic thing we know about it is that it is a button and it was left as a marker in the place of a baby.
To be able to use our imaginations to access the emotional heritage of an object, building, or place we have to rely on tangible sources. For example, to find the ‘story’ we may need additional sources such as letters, maps, reports, human remains, sword marks on bone and photographs for example. However, I’m interested in what can be learnt without these additional sources, the ‘essential spirit’ of an object, space or place.
The layers of London
Imagine, as an experiment, I took you to this traffic island in central London and asked you to stand in the middle to try and see if you could find any resonance of past events, feelings, emotions. I’m not going to give you any secondary information about the place, I’m asking you to experience it in its reality. I’m asking you to unleash your subconscious mind to tap into the psychogeography of the site. You can hear the noise of the traffic, the beep of the pedestrian crossing, the odd aeroplane passing overhead. But what can you pick up from this as a site of lost or emotional heritage?
There is a plaque in the middle of the traffic island which tells you that this was the site of the ‘Tyburn Tree’. This was the spot where, between 1196 and 1783 criminals were executed on the famous portable gallows, known colloquially as the ‘Tyburn Tree’.
Tyburn, meaning ‘place of the elms’, was a village close to the current location of Marble Arch and so-called for its position adjacent to the Tyburn Brook, a tributary of the lost Westbourne River. A place of genius loci perhaps? Was this the reason it was chosen as a sacred place for enacting justice?
This was a place where intense emotions must have been experienced by not just those about to die but also their family and friends, those watching in the crowds and including the hangman with his unenviable task. Can we pick up any of this from simply standing on the same site 200 years later?
If you walk a hundred yards towards Queensway you will come to Tyburn Convent, the home of the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre. Here nuns pray for the souls of more than 100 catholic martyrs executed for their beliefs on the ‘Tyburn Tree’. The psychogeography of the immediate surrounding area, does therefore give us a clue as to the emotional heritage of this seemingly normal traffic island. But does the pavement under foot, the concrete, the mud and soil under that, hold and retain any of the emotional significance of this as a place of such pain and suffering? It is difficult to tell.
Next, I’d like to look at some other examples of places of lost heritage that illustrate some of the other ideas I’ve been discussing.
First, I want to look at this seemingly unexceptional fenced off area near Mansion House in the City of London.
This is actually the site of the London Mithraeum, also known as the Temple of Mithras. It was discovered in Walbrook, a street in the City of London, during construction on a building in 1954. This Roman temple, when it was originally built, would have stood on the east bank of the now covered-over River Walbrook, a key freshwater source in Roman London. A place of genius loci? Does it have any resonance today? Is there an ancient religious undertone to the area? Do office workers walking past on their way to jobs in the city experience a sense of this sacred space subconsciously as they pass by?
Next, let’s look at this public park by the river in Vauxhall.
This was once the site of the famous Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. A temporary piece of London’s heritage, now lost. The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (also known as Spring Gardens) were opened by the Tyers family in 1661. It was a place highly significant in Georgian society. For over 200 years from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century it was one of the leading venues of public entertainment in London. Here the latest fashions were premiered in taffeta and silk, dukes and duchesses could go incognito and daughters could escape the watchful eyes of their mothers and chaperones. It was a place renowned for fun, fireworks, al-fresco dining and frivolity.
Thomas Brown in his “Works Serious and Comical in Prose and Verse” from 1760 explains how the landscaping of the gardens provided excellent opportunities for illicit goings on.
“The ladies that have an inclination to be private, take delight in the close walks of Spring-Gardens, where both sexes meet, and mutually serve one another as guides to lose their way; and the windings and turnings in the little wildernesses are so intricate, that the most experienced mothers have often lost themselves in looking for their daughters.”
Works Serious and Comical in Prose and Verse, Vol III, Thomas Brown, 1760
I wanted to use this example of lost heritage, as when we talk about emotional heritage it doesn’t always have to mean negative or traumatic events and experiences. This is an example of a place where we might pick up on the echoes of passion, love or lust, joy and excitement. Do these emotional experiences leave a mark on the landscape as much as pain and sorrow?
And finally, I want to take you to this SAAB garage, located on the Highway in Wapping.
This garage is located on a road once known as the Ratcliffe Highway and was the site of the house of Thomas Marr and his family. The house now no longer exists but the gruesome events that took place there are not lost in our popular consciousness. In late 1811, decades before Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim, London’s East End was gripped by a series of murders that caused panic amongst the local population. The apparent motiveless and brutal murders of Timothy Marr, his wife, their servant boy and young child shocked and ghoulishly enthralled Georgian society.
In the Ratcliffe Highway murders, seven people were killed, and though a suspect was eventually apprehended, he died before he could be properly questioned, and the murders were never conclusively solved. They induced a sense of panic and unease in the people of the East End and across Britain, tapping into a growing anxiety in late Georgian society to do with a rapidly growing population – did you really know your neighbours if something like this could happen.
I can’t help but think about this site in relation to dark tourism and dark heritage. Does this sense of unease still permeate the urban landscape of this spot in contemporary Wapping? There’s a real market for murder tourism, you just have to stand outside Tower Hill station or by Spitalfields Market any evening and you’ll be able to join one of the Jack the Ripper walking tours, led by ghoulishly joyful guides. They’re taking advantage of the idea that spaces and places like the Ratcliffe Highway and Ten Bells pub (where one of Jack the Ripper’s victims was last seen) still retain an atmosphere of the tragic events that took place there.
Anatomy of emotions
Emotions, like spaces and places can be seen to have a history of their own. Dr Thomas Dixon, Director of the Centre for History of Emotions at Queen Mary University, proposes the idea that ‘emotions have an anatomy and a genealogy’. He says that emotions like any other cultural phenomenon such as marriage, our relationship with death, birth, love, sex etc have changed and shifted over time – essentially, they have a family history. This is brilliantly exhibited in Dixon’s work on the history of public weeping. ‘Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears’ talks about how the way in which people have expressed their emotions, in the form of tears and public weeping, has changed over time. The emotion, even if highly personal, is still subject to the social norms of the time in which the person crying is living. He explores the times when it was and wasn’t acceptable to cry in public and how tears were interpreted and employed. From the tears of medieval mystic Margery Kemp to Paul Gascoigne’s crying at the world cup semi-final in 1990 to the mass mourning over the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, crying and where and when you cry is an act of historical social commentary.
I like the idea of writing a history of how an emotion has changed over time in connection to a heritage site or space. For example, choosing an emotional experience such as love and tracking it through a space and place of lost heritage. The challenge will be however, in how I can track its intangible development in connection with the physicality of the space? This is something I plan on investigating.
To conclude, another challenge for me is bringing all these ideas and explorations together and forming a piece of research that is useful and relevant to the museum, galleries and heritage sector. How do we learn from spaces and places that no longer exist, and what role does genius loci, psychogeography and the heritage or history of emotions play in the way in which we interpret them?
The built environment, lost or otherwise, provides us with numerous physical artefacts of our national and local heritage, identified as such or not. As we journey to work, go shopping or visit friends we will pass a whole array of buildings, parks, squares, monuments and open spaces from different decades and centuries. I would argue that it is about developing and practising the skill of finding relevance and tapping into the emotional heritage of places around us, rather than the relevance of specific content or narratives. Developing the skill of emotional awareness to the past can lead to creative and wonderful experiences and ultimately to a more connected society.
I am going to continue my research and will keep you posted with more blog posts as I go.
Thank you for reading.