Unofficial Histories

In May, I attended a conference at the Bishopsgate Institute titled “Unofficial Histories” which set out to discuss “how society produces, presents and consumes history beyond official and elite versions of the past”. Then in June, I went on a visit with Hayley Newman and Slade PhD students to The Mayday Rooms, a new initiative which was set up to work with historical material and make it relevant to today’s social movements.

The conference was opened by Hilda Kean who started out with a quote from Raphael Samuels – of “history as a social form of knowledge”; an ensemble of practices in which a “dialectic of past-present relations is ‘rehearsed’”. She discussed different examples of individuals and groups consciously creating their own history, for example the suffragettes created own museum at time of their campaign, as they saw their own activities as worth commemorating.

She explored family history as a different way of exploring people’s relationship with the past, using material culture as a way into exploring identity, memory and absence, and the importance of recognising the link between emotions and history, as “feelings and analysis are not mutually exclusive”. Finally she described history metaphorically as a house of many rooms – with different inhabitants in different rooms, but said that at the moment academics see themselves as in possession of the house. How this might be changed was addressed through other speakers papers, and as Andrew Flinn began: “history is too important to be left to professional historians” (this was in the first issue of History Workshop Journal). He explained the progress of worker’s history from the first workers libraries in 19th century, through Ruth and Eddie Frow’s collection in their house of materials relating to working class history, to current initiatives, which grew out of the idea of “a usable past” (James D Young, 1990. The Workers City)

In my session I presented a paper titled Market Research (or) Unravelling the Idealized Spectre – artists producing history in the public realm, which discussed issues of the subjective role of the artist in constructing situations in public, breaking down the idea of a united ‘community’ or ‘public’ identity. Kyle-Patrick Hart spoke about the invention of AIDs through the media, and how self-representation localizes production and viewing of work, and Melissa Bliss spoke about reviving memories of hackney radical activism through guided walks. This lead to a discussion about embodied practices of making history, and the risks and responsibilities involved in this type of work. Making spaces for otherness to be heard was vital, but required careful consideration of how material is then processed and used.

I enjoyed Rosa Ainsley’s paper on her book 2 Ennerdale Drive, which explored architectural narrative and its place in the social, excavating family history through a new form of memoir. Her book combined image and text, memory and factual history to explore her own family story through the architecture of the family house. This type of topoanalysis or site writing – which combines poetic practice and theoretical analysis – is as she describes an approach to the “slippery hieroglyphs of family history”, cultivating a lack of certainty and ambivalence, and playing with both the official content and form of history.

The conference prompted me to thinking about who the producers and the consumers of history are, what is fuelling the desire for history, and which versions of history we are told; are consumers fuelling a desire for certain versions or types of historical material/content, or are producers offering certain versions for consumption?

Visiting the Mayday Rooms new headquarters in an old Newspaper Office on Fleet Street offered another perspective on these questions. Their intention is to create an active space for the use of history, processing materials which relate to the ‘unofficial’ histories of social movements, artists networks and education, but rather than holding an archive, to encourage people to come in and use the material in relevance to contemporary concerns. Therefore, history becomes a tool for researchers challenging current power structures. The project grew out an archive which was set up at Central St Martins to rescue material relating to the educational history of the institution, much of which was outside the current ‘image’ the school wanted to portray. Recognising the value of this alternative history in the current struggles of higher education, the instigators of the Mayday Rooms set out to collect and republish/index this material, and now the physical space of the project allows many more possibilities.

Set in a building which is located by the site of England’s first printing press, it offers imaginative approaches to how material culture, technology and research might be combined to creatively use historical materials which relate to those marginalised and untold stories of struggle, and working outside of or against structures of power with their ‘official’ versions of history.

What both the conference and the Mayday Rooms offer is a renewed interest and passion to not only tell marginalised histories, but to re-examine who does this and why it is done. The suggestion is that these histories, and this material, can have power in changing the contemporary, so that past figures are not just spectral but can offer ways to materialise questions that have still not been resolved about power and control of our cities and institutions.


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