“Excuse me, can I have a slice of your Fatberg?” The Weird and Wonderful things that make a Museum.

I can still vividly remember the early hours trawling of the internet that was caused by a combination of insomnia and an unusual BBC News Article. The headline is as follows “Monster Fatberg found blocking east London sewer.” and I’ll be honest dear reader, the minute I opened the article I should have turned back. I didn’t, and it got pretty vile from that point onward. I best begin with the definition of what a Fatberg actually is (for the sake of clarity and context) –

“A fatberg is a congealed lump of fat, sanitary napkins, wet wipes, condoms, nappies and similar items found in sewer systems, which do not break down like toilet paper. “

So there you have it, it’s only taken a few weeks of blogging here for me to reach the point that I am talking about about the above revolting topics. The question is, why? Why is someone who seeks to champion heritage, talking about such a revolting subject? Well it all comes from a follow up article, upon the eventual defeat of the Fatburg of the East End. I will never ever forget, i’m sure, reading the following headline. “Monster fatberg to go on display in museum.” I don’t think my heart has jumped at such a disgusting prospect before, and perhaps never again will it reach such heady heights. I honestly think this is absolutely and utterly wonderful.

The Museum of London has announced that a slice of the Fatberg is going to be displayed at the Museum for people to consider and inspect, the focus of the exhibition will be how modern life and archaic infrastructures created by our forebears are meeting and coping with each other, or not as the case may be. The very idea that someone has had the forethought to take this disgusting entity and utilise it in a Heritage setting is utterly remarkable. I have often argued amongst friends and colleagues that the more revolting aspects of one’s heritage are the easiest route for people to access it.

English Heritage posted a tweet about the “Top 10 Toilets in History” – Why is that important? Why should English Heritage be talking about toilets? I did read someone asking “Is this what I pay my membership for?” to which I wanted to respond – Yes! You want to preserve our shared heritage, you want to see the continued maintenance of these fine buildings, sites and items – That’s great but, to quote the marvellous Freeman Tilden –

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

If we simply preserve the sites etc without finding that common ground (NB – Different common ground!) we are failing. A large stately home, full of portraits and Georgian decor are very nice to look at, but what connection do they have to the average home? All homes have a toilet however, where not all have a vaulted ceiling or a library stuffed with leather bound books. The toilet is a universally understood concept and item, be it the European porcelain bowl or the variations further afield, we all… poo! So when it comes to bringing the story of Lord A Nnoymous of Somewhere-upon-Such back to life for a visitor, remember that despite his social class, despite his breeding and his diet, his vaulted ceilings, he also had to use the lavatory!

Does the idea of someone using the toilet disturb you? Well how about the food they ate? Perhaps the idea of eating is the one that will bring you round to interacting with the interpretation? I know from a recent event at my work place that food has a galvanising impact on engagement. If not food, then what aspect of your life, your hobby, your family would you most like to engage with?

I know that the lavatory for some is a deeply personal thing and for some people, it is not a topic for discussion. That is perfectly fine, but we must accept that there are subjects we would traditionally believe have no place in a serious museum, that are now the perfect launching point for further discussion and conversation about our shared heritage.

So from a Magpie, to the Museum of London – Thank you! Thank you for taking in a fatberg and using it to open the way for consideration of the subterranean London.

Be brave, for without bravery we will never challenge that which went before.

“Do you have an appointment?” – Shared Heritage and access to it.

First off, I’m sorry – I’m about to do something that my friends would tell you, I do often in private, but this time I’m doing it publicly. I’m going to misquote a song lyric. The whole reason why I’m doing it is because it amuses me deeply and because I know that the inspiration for this article is well known for meddling with songs to amuse people (or exasperate them…) so here goes. (For the original wonderful piece of music check here for my preferred version)

“At 16:49
Close to St George’s Hill
A long haired man they called M Ward
Came to trace the people’s will
He tried to defy the landlords
He chose not to deny the laws
He was most displeased
And intend to reclaim what was lost!”

Before I go on Dear Reader, I best quickly make two points – Politically I am left wing and one of my greatest passions is folk music. 

So where did this post come from? What is the kernel which it formed around? As with most things I’ve ever written it came from a fairly common conversation with a friend/colleague. I believe we had been discussing the follow up to another project that I had got my friends involved with and the narrative drifted and zig zagged as it tends to, until we came to discuss a moment in the life of the marvellous Matthew Ward of History Needs You.

 

Having been doing a talk about a mile away and on route to another engagement, Matthew decided to visit a site of great importance to himself personally and of equal importance to the Meta Narrative of English History, Left Wing Political History and to Global history – St George’s Hill, Weybridge. I’m going to dart off in to the history of the site, to give some needed context to the story. Bare with me reader, passions may be about to be inflamed.

A fairly clear explanation of what occurred is provided by The Surrey Digger’s Trail – “The Diggers first broke the ground on St George’s Hill on 1st April 1649 as they set out to make the earth a ‘common treasury for all’. The Hill is the place usually associated with their project and ideas, and it is from here that their influence, and the practice of Digging, spread to many parts of England.” The route of this movement however requires some deeper exploration. “The Diggers”, a Gerald Winstanley and his followers would quickly be known, were a group of working class individuals (technically labouring classes) who chose, in defiance of “The Masters”, to begin to plant and grow crops on common ground, the intention being to become self sufficient and to retain control of the produce they toiled over. After 5 months however, a court case would force the Diggers from St George’s Hill – the idea and the dream they had however wouldn’t be so easily crushed. They had come with one aim – “to make the land a common treasury for all” (I encourage you all to read more in to The Diggers and the Wigan born Cow Herd (Gerald Winstanley) who would lead them.)

It comes now to the modern day and to the story we previously mentioned that inspired this post. Matthew Ward, between appointments, felt the understandable urge to stand on the site where The Diggers had made their stand back in 1649. Now alas, we get to the crux of the issue – St George’s Hill is now occupied by…. a golf course. Not to be deterred and expecting it to be quite a common occurrence for the owners, to be presented with curious individuals or groups wishing to see the site, feel the earth beneath them and bask in the knowledge of what went before. Alas, Matthew was to be confronted with an entirely different greeting. The greeting came from a robustly built gentleman, in a dark suit.

“Hello Sir how can we help?”

“I’d like to pop in and have a look at the site The Diggers claimed, on St George’s Hill.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Well no, I’m on my way between appointments and as I was close I thought I’d pop by.”

“Unless you are a member or you have appointment you can’t come in.”

“Why?”

“Because those are the rules.”

Matthew relayed that he asked if he could make an appointment and was told he needed to call or email, when he asked if he could have the details he was told to check the website. Returning to his car, Matthew began to check the website as instructed, only to be hailed by the Gentleman in a Dark Suit with a tapping on the car window.

“I’m just checking the website.”

“You can’t do that here. You need to leave!”

“What, why?”

“You haven’t got an appointment”

“I’m just….”

“Can you please leave sir….”

“I’m just setting my satnav up if you don’t mind entirely!”

I am reliably informed that the Gentleman made a noise that sounded like “Hrumph” – Matthew, for anyone lucky enough to know him, has a remarkable sense of humour. It would prove to be spot on during this encounter as he began to write a tweet to express his displeasure, he noticed the time; 4:45 pm. Matthew decided to wait for four minutes…. posting his tweet of displeasure at 16:58…

So what does this have to do with the wider issue of Heritage? This is one guy, denied access to one bit of land. What is the impact? Well the impact is enormous and this is the perfect example.

Heritage belongs to everyone, well on certain levels. My heritage, my personal heritage is mine, my family heritage is equally mine but shared amongst my relatives, who we choose to that with is our prerogative as family, as individuals. How we interact with our heritage is equally very personal. There is no denying this. However, when the site is of national importance, when that site or building is much larger than the sum of a single individuals memory then the rules change – St George’s Hill is not governed by the same rules as the shoe-box under my bed, with the family photos in. Sites such as St George’s hill are shared, they are “common ground.” But then again, in this day and age, that common ground may also be private property.

The problem described above, of shared heritage becoming private property, is not going to be one that is easily solved – building’s don’t simply repair themselves, landscapes don’t simply retain their natural elements, heritage cannot preserve itself and equally preservation, required for the longevity of our physical heritage, costs money. I won’t write here that all museums, stately homes, visitor centres etc should be free at the point of access. I can’t. Why? Because I’m a realist. I work in a heritage site, a building to be precise, and it needs care, it needs attention and it needs to be heated. It requires lights, otherwise it’s a bit dark, it requires gas because otherwise, it’s a tad cold. It requires water because otherwise it wouldn’t be deeply unsanitary. At the end of the day, money makes the world go round and heritage cannot be spared from that mechanism.
The National Trust, English Heritage, Historic England and many other organisations rely on charitable donations, legacies, membership fees and the sale of paraphernalia in their gift shops, to keep afloat, to pay for repairs and to make sites accessible and to cover the cost of interpretation. That is unavoidable but equally their mission statements are all aimed at sharing and revealing the rich narrative of our shared heritage (I won’t go on about what I dislike about some of these organisations, that will be another blog post) However, despite the inevitable cries of “How much?!” when it comes to access, you can still gain access. You can still walk in the footsteps of the “Great and Good” or indeed the ordinary individuals not born on satin sheets.  This is not the case with all sites as has been shown in the above anecdote.

I am not going to sit here and write a manifesto stating that the only way forward is to claim all private property and restore it to the hands of the populace – sometimes these sites are people’s homes, their private heritage. They choose to allow access, sometimes through schemes such as “Heritage Open Days” and this should be celebrated, thanks should be given and respect as well, in equal measure. Equally, those who become custodians of Heritage, those who buy the land and settle on it should equally take a moment to consider their actions and responses to request to access heritage. If you, by chance, end up owning a site of huge national importance, do you have the right to refuse access? Of course you do! It’s private property, on a legal standpoint you’re absolutely entitled to preserve the privacy of private property. Morally however? It’s a different story.

You are buying in to the narrative of this country, this world. The people who have been born on that site, loved on that site. breathed that air and walked that ground. You are the custodian of a site that perhaps means something incredibly important to someone, they have a strong emotional or spiritual connection to that space, that place. How would you feel if someone denied you access to something you cared about? Something that made You; You? Imagine that is the shoe-box with the photographs in, of school, of friends and lost loved ones, of silly moments and sad ones, happy memories and bemusing ones. Imagine now, that someone has that box in their hands and they are refusing to allow you access? The pain that could bring.

Sites such as St George’s Hill, now an exclusive Golf Club, are always going to be contentious but there is compromise. Respect for the intentions of those seeking their heritage should co-mingle with the respect shown to the owners. If someone wants to access a service, exclusive to members, then they should pay. If someone simply wants to wander, without causing harm or damage, then equally this should be allowed. Churches and Cathedrals may charge for a guided tour, but then they wave such a fee for those who wish to visit simply to worship. There is a middle ground, finding it and forming a relationship of respect and access for specific purpose is surely the way forward.

Let us take a moment to breath and make this land, a common treasury for all.

 

How Queer – The personal perspective of LGBTQ+ Heritage

The Author wishes to begin with a slightly pointless revelation – I am a gay man. It’s really rather superfluous to announce that fact, it’s a tiny almost irrelevant aspect of my personality and the footprint I leave on the World. However, occasionally it is necessary to frame a subject with such a declaration and in the case of a post about LGBTQ+ Heritage, it is necessary. I am admittedly a caucasian, male, anglo-saxon, with historical links to Germany and to Yorkshire; some of these links are closer than others, I am a Fenman, a brother, a son, a grandson and a friend. All of these things go in to the melting pot of personal identity and from me, there spreads a web connecting to differing aspects of global history – as does your web, dear reader, in which you are the kernel and you have your own incredibly personal threads. The thread we are going to tug on now, is my sexuality.

Sexuality is a dreadfully difficult thing for some people. That may well be an enormous understatement but I’m not here to draw a line in the sand, I don’t wish to put anyone on the spot however this is about Heritage, we must grasp the nettle and feel the sting, otherwise we will allow things to fester and that is never good.

“LGBTQ+” as a subject of Heritage is a difficult one, it’s divisive even amongst those who have legitimate claims to it. There are those who would seek to share it and celebrate it, publicly, loudly and with courage. Equally there are those who would rather it be a part of a wider narrative, with reference made but without it being the sum and total. Where does the Author sit on this matter? Does it matter? I suppose it does for the purpose of this post.

I believe, wholeheartedly, that LGBTQ+ heritage should be very much in the public eye, however I equally believe that it’s position is not one that should be elevated above all others, in fact it should be one amongst equals. It is no more important than any of my other strands, nor is it more important than any of yours, dear reader!

So what is “LGBTQ+ Heritage” and why is it a fairly new field of study? Well according to Historic England “Gender diversity and same-sex love have long been part of England’s history. But LGBTQ identities as we understand them today only date from the last decades of the twentieth century. Prior to this, same-sex love and gender diversity were treated as criminal acts or moral sins, medical or emotional problems, or absorbed within accepted family and community relationships. So LGBTQ people and their histories have often been hidden, marginalised or suppressed.” A fairly apt explanation one feels. It is true that “LGBTQ+ Heritage” has for centuries been something left undiscussed, something hidden, something one shouldn’t be proud of – times, thankfully, are changing. However, as with all change, there are issues – there equally isn’t a suits all solution. The following are some of the issues the Author believes exist. The list is not comprehensive and is written from a personal position.
Who do we include?

Now that’s got to be one of the most controversial issues. Homosexuality has existed for as long as the human race has…. Oh wait, no. Sorry it predates that what with animals displaying the trait. (Beware the tangent) Back to my point; there are aspects of Heritage dating back to long ago that can feature a LGBTQ+ element to the narrative. From Medieval Kings of England, who Historians have outed, including Edward II. There even exists speculation about the issue of Oliver Cromwell, Richard (The short lived Lord Protector) due to his effeminate nature. Possibly entirely untrue and unless one believes in spiritualism we will probably never know. History is full of famous LGBTQ+ individuals or those who have had sexuality assumed. Do we include that in their narrative? Is it fair to do so? The Author is very private about his sexuality and so are many others. One of the most recent examples would be Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, the last Lord of Fellbridge Hall – His legacy and sexuality became the focal point of a campaign by The National Trust to highlight LGBTQ+ Heritage – this caused outrage amongst some of the staff, individuals who had known Ketton-Cremer, who had been aware of his sexuality and equally aware of his personal privacy which he preserved during his life – they, in my opinion, rightly challenged the NT on their decision to publicise this personal aspect of his life, contradictory of his choices in life. This is unforgivable, respect and understanding should be one of the very foundations on which Heritage is built. There is an ability to tell the story of LGBTQ+ people without needing to out those who never wanted it. We can consider a number of things, overarching concepts, events and narratives, featuring those who wish to be identified as LGBTQ+. We must respect wishes, even long after death.

 

What do we include?

Being LGBTQ+ hasn’t ever been easy. There are periods of extreme persecution and there are times where, though not a concentrated assault on LGBTQ+ people as a group, persecution and abuse are rife. Alas they still are in many countries and even in my home country of England. Perhaps including a more obvious LGBTQ+ narrative in Heritage and interpretation, we may change that… Here is to hope. What however do we include? Do we side step the sadness and talk about heroes and moments in History where LGBTQ+ people have been celebrated? Do we talk about Decriminalisation but ignore the period preceding it? Do we talk about what Pride has become, a mass celebration of identity featuring everyone but ignore its origins as a protest against oppression and a fight for the right to an identity and the associated violence and aggression that met those original marches? I would argue that we include all of the above. The narrative cannot be edited to ignore the darkness, in fact surely the darkness provides a contrast that makes the light of better days far brighter. We must not ignore the actions of the the Nazi Regime in Germany, with the persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals – thousands died, as much as we must respect the wishes of those who don’t or didn’t identify openly as LGBTQ+, we must respect and honour those who died. We must not ignore the violence of the original Pride marches or indeed the Stonewall Riots. To do so would be unfair and unkind. Time may be an ever growing tree and the roots may run deep, but we mustn’t forget the growth of that has gone before.

How do we include it?

The Author remembers seeing something on a social media platform some years ago, in which the question was posed “How do I tell my children about gay people?” the response offered was wonderfully to the point – “If you can explain to them, with a straight face, that a man flies around the world in one night and brings gifts via the chimney, you can explain to them that people love other people and that gender doesn’t matter” A refreshing response I am sure you will agree. It is that philosophy that we must utilise. Children are wonderly adept at adapting. Their unformed perception is influenced by an enormous collection of social, economic, spiritual, personal etc elements and Heritage should be one of them. Why should it be “Shocking” that one man loved another? It doesn’t need to be placed like a thumbtack, ready to pierce the foot of the unsuspecting – for as long as we make it an issue, as long as sexuality is made to be contentious, it will remain so. We can create specific sites and collections, a narrative built around LGBTQ+ issues and the associated heritage and that is entirely appropriate and I support it but that shouldn’t be the end of it. LGBTQ+ should be included as we include all things in the narrative, where appropriate, where respectful to those who are referenced would be comfortable with it.

There is an inevitable hope that by talking about and interpreting LGBTQ+ subjects, individuals and their associated heritage, we will move society towards greater cohesion.

Disclaimer – I don’t speak for every LGBTQ+ individual or group, I speak for me, a gay man. A gay with a love of heritage and History and a desire to see all represented.

Here is a new feature – A reading list – These are just a few suggestions of texts to read to further discussion and research.

From Prejudice to Pride: A History of LGBTQ+ Movement by Amy Lamé

50 Queers Who Changed the World: A Celebration of LGBTQ Icons by Dan Jones

The Museum of You and Me and Everyone

So you’re at a museum, some particularly narrow remit drives the collection and the narrative within, perhaps it’s the Icelandic Phallogical Museum  focusing on the Penis (The Author is far to sensible and adult to laugh at penis…. instead he giggled) or it’s the Vent Haven Museum of Ventriloquy, wherever it is, you’re there for one or a number of reasons. Perhaps that particularly narrow subject of specialism is a shared area between yourself and the collector/curator, perhaps curiosity has bloomed and it’s attractive petals have caught your attention or (and this is a genuine reason written in a visitors book I once inspected) “It’s raining and my wife is shopping – it’s alright for something small like this. Also it’s free, that’s always nice!” – I won’t presume to know your reasons, dear reader, for visiting certain sites, collections, exhibitions, stately homes, ruins etc etc over others, it’s not fair of me to do that.

I’m here because I have been moved to write about something that’s been sitting in the corner of my mental study. Whilst the desk is piled high with “Accessibility Audits” and great texts offering examples of how we limit access to shared Heritage (one project) and equally piled high with a vast array of sweet biscuits, all with labels attached such as “Byzantine Empire” and “Georgian England” (Equally another project #historyandbiscuits) – The Author has accidentally made a note in a book, just a throw away one. It was “Our Story” that was the original one, followed by that being scribbled out and ultimately the phrase “The Museum of Human Interest and Memory” – Sounds like some obnoxious Art Instillation…. It isn’t. It’s a potentially silly idea but equally one that has actually kept me awake with ideas.

I offer this up to you, dear readers, the missions statement or perhaps Manifesto of “The Museum of Human Interest and Memory” – The Museum of Human Interest and Memory is a non physical but equally entirely physical Museum, featuring a collection of incredible social and historical importance that has a direct relationship with the heritage of EVERYONE and equally a single person all at once. The Museum of Human Interest and Memory is a repository for public access and private contemplation. The Museum of Human Interest and Memory is a remarkable collection of agreement and conflict, comparison and contrast. All in all, it’s about people and their own heritage.

What is the Author talking about? Has he purchased a steel shipping container, painted the words Museum of Human Interest and Memory on the side? Is he now charging an entry fee? (Unless you have a Blue Peter Badge, which affords free entry to all museums apparently… The BBC equivalent of being a Freemason) – No, it’s far more simplistic actually, the above Mission Statement is simply for the amusement of the Author, who takes pride in tweaking the nose of the pompous and frosty y-front wearing Old Guard. It’s quite simple really…

Whilst wandering around on Twitter, the Author (@magpiememoria) found it necessary to complain about the lack of biscuits in his office. Noting that the rich tea fingers seemed appropriate for a house made notable by it’s chief former occupant, Oliver Cromwell, the great puritanical folk devil. Thus began the great #historyandbiscuits conversation, seeking to connect key eras in History to a biscuit and offering up why one is representative of the other (That is another blog….) – One of the responses elicited came from Twitter User @DemonArcher1 who sent a reply that ultimately changed the course of idea for the Author (The Author is so up himself he talks in the third person….) and ultimately planting the seed that is now growing as I write.

“The Barmouth Biscuit… from the 70s… because it reminds me of family holidays & nostalgia.” In these few words, spoken in to the ever increasingly dangerous sphere of Twitter, sang to something deep in the heart, soul and mind of The Author. One forgets all to readily, that History and Heritage isn’t always about Crowns and Gowns, it’s about people, individuals, families, tribes and it builds up from there. Heritage is not something to be kept in a Museum, not in it’s most organic instance and equally it is unfair to judge what is “Prestigious” – You’ve probably noticed the recurring theme about bring heritage to people, linking people with their shared past. Well, here we have a perfect example which could sadly be lost to pomposity.

The Author was forced to Google a Barmouth Biscuit as, despite his almost unsurpassed knowledge of 21st Century Biscuits, this particular one had missed him. I am pleased to announce that is is a thin, circular crisp biscuit, I am however saddened to note that it is no longer available. A french version exists, but purists on the Internet have denounced it as inferior. Is this not a note for the list of reasons it should be preserved in a Museum? The Original as it were, now copied and it’s memory and purity threatened, surely this would go some way to having it’s place in a glass lidded, slanted cabinet, made sacred…

Actually, I know the last sentence of the previous was written to be a tad humorous (Yes, Dear Reader, it was a joke, I promise to make them clearer in future… perhaps a different font.) it is the purity of the memory, the link that is created by @DemonArcher1 to memories he obviously holds dear, or returns to. A biscuit is a biscuit to you and I, but to him? It is perhaps wet canvas overhead, in the Lake District, perhaps it is jokes still uttered though the subject and context are long since lost but for some reason they still make the familial audience laugh, perhaps it’s none of this. Perhaps there is a story not told, perhaps it should never be told, but a story untold is still a story. We forget that, i feel, sometimes. We forget that the ice skates in the Museum in Ely, belonged to someone, they glided across ice, carrying a person who carried with them emotions, memories, experiences, and would go on to have many more.

We can share Heritage, from our surnames to our location of birth, and all of those Meta-Concepts, but equally we must preserve our particular and personal heritage – it is the realm of photograph albums, whispered stories, drunken arguments and silent tears in the dark. Do these things not deserve their own Museum?

Below are two items for the collection, submitted by M W Routledge on the 24th November 2017 – Accession Number – 1 and 2

  1. One Yellow Ticket Stub – Typical of the ones provided by low denomination gambling machines in Seaside Arcades, popular throughout the latter part of the 20th Century and in to the 21st. – Donation Narrative reads “Obtained by throwing a large number of two pence coins in to a machine in an Arcade on the seafront in Cromer, Norfolk. This time was spent with *Name Redacted* and much amusement was had.”
  2. One .33 spent Blank Firing Cartridge. – Typical of examples used in Historical Re-enactment. Donation Narrative reads “Fired from a replica Naval Pistol, the first shot fired by the Named Depositor, on a field in England, unremembered with good friends.”

I wonder, if any of that will mean anything to any of you reading this? It offers a slightly odd, but never the less important and potent, snap shot in to the life and legacy and the heritage, of an individual – perhaps you sat next to The Author in that Arcade, or you heard the pop of his gun going off, in Kent.

The Museum of Human Interest and Memory is accepting donations to it’s collection – why? Because the risk of loss is too high that they may be left behind, and that’s not right.

“Cry Bloody Murder” or Our fascination with death, darkness and disturbing things.

When did we become fascinated with death? It’s a very broad question and i’ll be very clear here and now, I am not trying to answer it. I just had that question in my mind during researching this post and I felt compelled to put it at the very front of this narrative. Death has, in my knowledge and experience, always fascinated us. Either as a stalking terror, a medical curiosity or indeed as a malleable material for fictional frivolity and such titivating activities. It has become, in many ways now, an industry. Not Undertakers or Coffin Makers, no that is the inevitable industry of death and it’s associated rituals. No this is an industry associated with Heritage, and within that you potentially find a two fold unpleasant taste in the collective mouth. Financial gain from “Selling Heritage” and equally making money from death.

I was in the process of discussing a potential run of “Haunted Tours” of a property not far from my home base, when I accidentally touched a nerve. I’ll never ever forget the sudden change in the face of a fairly placid and kind man. His eyes darkened and within minutes the enthusiasm for my project was replaced by opposition and hurt. I had asked a question and it was one with answers far too close to the surface. I had asked the client if anything particularly gory or horrid had happened within the building and apparently something had. Something that, unlike The Ripper, H H Holmes and the such, was not a dim and distant memory or story. I realised then that I had accidentally walked into something that was best left, out of respect, untouched. It took a younger me, a naive me, a moment to retract and smooth the surface back down and walk away, it’s taken a slightly older, more world wise me to consider what happened and what we must learn from it. Some of the dead, are not buried deeply, either in soil or time.

It’s the “Industry of Blood” as it were, to which I turn my previously mentioned slightly older eye. Jack the Ripper, ghoulish spectre of late 19th Century Whitechapel and much further beyond, is probably the best example of an enduring case of the “Industry of Blood” – Is it his mysterious and unsolved identity that keeps people interested? Or is it the juxtaposition he enjoys, with his barbaric actions, in relation to a rather rose tinted view of the Victorian age? It is, admittedly both and more. (As for “The Good Old Days” I cannot recommend enough the book “The Good Old Days – Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London” by Gilda O’Neill) With accepted images of the prim and proper, the class divide being more about clothing and cheek between society ladies and naughty impish chimney sweeps. Lets not forget Margaret Thatcher and he call to return to Victorian Values! With that in mind, we find a sense of shock and horror in the acts of a mysterious figure who pop culture has dressed in top hat, frock coat and cloak. How could this have happened? How could it have gone unnoticed and unstopped? How could someone do such things to women? We do so love having our expectations challenged and our sensibilities taunted.

A friend of the Author, yes he has one, lives and works in London. Upon questioning her concerning the plethora of Ripper Tours, and if she had embarked on one, she responded that she had indeed done several. Upon asking why, the answer was “Because I love Jack the Ripper’s story and I like being scared – there is just something about about walking down the same streets he did, gives me chills” (With thanks to Jessica Harris Edwards – Who blogs at herdarkmajesty.wordpress.com) This single quote probably best illustrates why I’m writing this piece. “Walking down the same streets he did” – It is in that which we find tangible history. Jessica nor I are, as far as I know, related to any of Jack’s victims, nor to Him (That is a well educated guess but who knows….) yet we feel a deep link to such subjects and people, it is our shared heritage. Be it from an academic viewpoint, considering the sociological context in which this could happen, the changes in viewpoint towards “working women” and their plight, or as Jessica says “the mystery” – The fact that an oft maligned school of research, called “Ripperologists”, has grown around him and his evil actions, surely proves his lasting influence on the subconscious. Don’t worry, I’m not going to now claim I know who he was. I am going to use him a little more though, with statistics, to prove my theory.

Jack the Ripper Tours, The Original Terror Tour, which was established in 1982, promises visits to more murder sites, expert guides and all of this 7 nights a week, for the exceptionally good sum of £10, is one of many such tours. To break this down; there is enough interest in such a subject that they feel comfortable running their tour 7 nights a week, (The Author only runs his Ghost Tour once a week!) and their digital footprint is of excellent quality – you can’t get along for 35 years without a constant stream of interest, because interest translates to income. Having never been on one of these tours, it isn’t fair for the Author to offer a review and equally one wouldn’t on here, it’s just not cricket. TripAdvisor etc are the homes of, one would hope, honest reviews. I am simply using their longevity as an example of the hunger for such subjects.

Jack the Ripper, it is easy to imagine with his mystery and influence on pop-culture, is a fairly acceptable and removed from “living memory” perhaps making the subject slightly more acceptable to the palette. However, when is too soon? I mentioned earlier that something was touched upon in a conversation, something cemented in living memory, which caused a change in the conversation and the relationship between myself and a client. I won’t go into details but less than two decades had apparently passed between my conversation and the incident. One would guess, in a small town, where perhaps family connected and indeed friends, may still live, that it will be many years before it becomes something of note for a tour guide. After all, thankfully, we don’t have tours associated with Fred and Rose West or indeed the Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. We still have a period of respect, a period of understanding, perhaps connected with the idea of living memory. A century from now? I don’t know. We are fascinated with morbid and shocking things, but we don’t tend to cope if the air still smells of the sorrow.

What can we learn about Heritage and our engagement with it from the above ideas though? Well beyond the Ripper Tours, through Old Whitechapel, we have museums and attractions which focus either in part, or entirely on unpleasant subjects including torture, villainy and repulsive ideas and actions. Perhaps it is Moyse’s Hall, mentioned in an earlier post, with their Gibbet cage and Human Leather bound book, or it’s the London Dungeons, one of London’s Must See Attractions according to their marketing, filled with rooms dedicated to the horrors experienced throughout history. With a courteous mention to Madame Tussauds and the wax figures of villains of yore, it becomes apparent that our fascination with those who reveal the hidden horrors of humanity, their limits which don’t match our own, will forever interest us. With all things, we can take this initial contact with an interested party and move it on to a further interest – Be it Jack leading us into the streets of London, where in which we find those long lost relatives and bigger ideas and issues associated with the Victorian Age, or perhaps information about our homes, our towns and villages, where we grew or where we moved to. Perhaps some good can come from the horrors of years gone by, perhaps they didn’t die in vain.

 

The Spectre of History

So where does one begin with this one? Perhaps a moment of consideration for the current situation of the Author. Sitting in tartan “lounge pants” and a T-Shirt. Not my normal attire, I must point out, but as I’m in my study and writing, relaxing and contemplating, I accept the attire. I’m also watching “Most Haunted” and their Halloween Special. I missed it during it’s original broadcast because of my involvement in what I’m actually writing about. Ghost Walks. Ghost Tours and the associated organisation, research and delivery. More on that slightly later in this post, once I’ve done a bit of pre-amble and background.

I remember the first ghost story I was ever told. It wasn’t a M. R. James tale, chilling me to my bones (They came later) nor was it one of the other great Victorian tales such as Charles Dickens’ “The Signalman”, which equally turned up and influenced me later on in the meta-narrative of my life. No, the first tale of spooks and such that I was told came to me in the most traditional way, through the great oral tradition. I was nine years old and I was in Sheffield. I was staying in what I have come to refer to as my “Spiritual Homeland”, with my, now deceased, Great Aunt Ada Mavis. She was a remarkable woman, a spinster and a traveller. She showed me the wonders of the Yorkshire moors and the rich industrial heritage of the city she’d grown up in. She was also a skilled story teller, without ever realising it.

It was one of these stories that a young boy was told, in a creaky old council house, with shadows in every corner and noises in the night that never sounded natural. My Great Aunt had travelled with a close friend to a hotel in France, their lodgings consisted of an oddly shaped (L Shaped if poor memory is correct) room. Her companion had been taken unwell during the day and had retired to bed early. Ada eventually retired to her own bed just after midnight, sober and aware. Her bed was clearly hidden from the other bed in the room, due to the shape of the room. She went to bed and fell asleep. At an undisclosed Ada woke, she became aware of a figure standing next to her bed and as most of us would, with the contextual awareness of the unwell companion, believed she had come to seek assistance. As her eyes focused, Ada realised that it was not her sexagenarian travelling companion, but a man of middle age in clothing that she would go on to describe as “all lace and ruffles” – After locking eyes with this individual, Ada Mavis swiftly rolled over and attempted to forget the occurrence. She never mentioned it again, consigning it to the list of “Odd dreams” and “Unexplained events” – Had she seen a ghost? The answer that a nine year old Author would give was yes! As the years carry on and cold hard scepticism takes root, the answer becomes less assured.

So there you have the Author’s introduction to ghosts. Other stories would be offered up from various other friends and family over the years, along with the aforementioned beautifully crafted literary examples from Dickens and the remarkable M R James. It is fair to say that it was a combination of these elements has left the Author with an interest in Ghosts, academic, romanticised and for the purpose of entertainment.

It doesn’t help that the Author has a love and fascination with the age of Industry and Exploration, that which is named for it’s Monarch and Dynasty building force of sexuality, contradiction, pride and power; the Victorian Era. It is in this heaving chest of ever present social contradiction that one finds the sudden explosion of “Ghost Stories” – This is an age where discovery and science are at the head of the procession of society, leaving some with an uncomfortable sense of awareness and a desire and longing for something…. supernatural in the face of expanding understanding of the natural world. There are a number of forms in which this manifests – the rise in “Spiritualists”, the fascination with death and ultimately the rise in popular mass access fiction. We forget sometimes that one of the most influential and long lasting stories from an Author of equal note, is one in which a miserable and cruel miser receives a quartet of ghostly entities. We won’t dwell to long on the doorstep of Bob Cratchit, we have more modern ghosts to be haunting…

So what’s the point of this post? Other than for the Author to out himself as a fan of spooky stories, it is a post that seeks to embrace the aid that Ghosts and the Supernatural can offer to Heritage and History. This post is a combination of a love letter and a begging letter.

If you’ve been to any major city in the UK, you may well have seen a figure, or figures, in a mix of costume, often Victorian, either touting for business or leading groups of enthralled individuals through historic streets, telling tales of horror, spooks and gore. The industry of Ghost Tours is, unlike it’s subject matter, very much alive. York has a plethora and Cambridge a decent pantheon of such guides. This year, the Author joined those ranks, unwanted perhaps but none the less, his boots are now heard in the dark, along with a combination of nervous laughter and raucous laughter.

A bit more context is required, and it will be provided. Just over a year ago, the Author was involved in a limited run series of tours in Ely in which he played the three fold role of a trio of ghosts, adding a sense of realism to an often intangible subject matter. The bug bit on those cold October nights and the swelling finally came to a climax 11 months later.

In the intervening months, the Author pestered and pontificated from his desk. The issue on which he was so inflamed? Ghost Walks and why they didn’t happen more frequently in Ely. Under the cloak of secrecy, in Lunch breaks and during other overlapping duties, the Author began whispering and listening to what was said in response. From Tea-rooms to Bookshops, to church yards and shops frequented by some of societies less adored individuals, he did what his heroes had done. He collected stories and he stored them away in his head. He would eventually ware his illustrious leader down; causing her to turn against tradition and risk serious upset. He donned his tailcoat and tall hat, he lit his lantern and the Eerie Ely Ghost Walk was born.

From that point forward, with concerns about ticket sales and routes eventually put to rest, every Thursday was dedicated to leading groups of individuals around Ely, starting from Oliver Cromwell’s House and taking in sites including a church yard, a tea shop (sitting above a plague burial pit) and a bookshop with some very odd associated tales. The enormous cross section of society that has booked tickets has amazed everyone involved, from local folk to distant travellers, to ghost fanatics and non-believers. The one thing that became very apparent was that only a few of those who were paying for the tour, had ever visited Oliver Cromwell’s House or indeed knew much of the associated history that came lock stock and barrel with the tour and it’s stories. Now this is the whole point.

If one of those people, who has walked down those streets a thousand times, or wandered past Oliver Cromwell’s former home, take a moment the next time they do that particular activity, to think about something associated, something personal connected to the heritage of the area, to their own heritage associated with Ely or beyond, then the job of a tour guide is done.

Ghost continue to be incredibly popular, as a race we love to be scared. What Heritage professionals need to do is harness that, is grab the spectral hand (whether one believes in it or not) and utilise the power that exists within the concept and turn said power to the aims of a heritage environment. Let ghosts lead visitors to you and from there? Let the Heritage do the talking – Show people a haunted room but lead them there via the kitchen. Tell them of the horrid and grisly death of the Parlour maid but do not let her death be in vein, no. Open up the conversation about  that Parlour maid and her life, let her death be the doorway to her life. Discuss what her world was, before she left it, bring about a conversation about subjects that would otherwise been ignored. Use the inquisitive minds that are seeking ghosts and spectres, to enquire about the past.

 

 

“How to solve a problem like… Team Building?!”

It was possibly the oddest brief I’ve ever had, whilst working in Heritage. I took a call from a friend and colleague, Steve Blake of East Anglia Puzzle Rooms, who I first met during the gestation of the “Royalist Round-up” Pop-Up Escape Room at Oliver Cromwell’s House. A project which began as a slightly crazy idea, combining an site of great historical importance, the oak panelled office in which Oliver Cromwell would have worked during his time as Collector of the Tithe, with the latest craze in “Experiences” – the Escape Room.

An Escape Room is the physical version of the internet craze of the early 21st century, often “Point and Click” flash games, with problem solving driven scenarios, usually a combined selection of seeking and finding key items and solving puzzles, allowing the player to progress. They are now often found in industrial estates, with wonderfully crafted but still “synthetic” surroundings and props. It’s fair to say, since they appeared in Japan, they have begun to spread across the globe, creating a whole new sub-section of “Tourism” – Escape Room Tourists, like their E-Gaming cousins, dedicated and professional individuals or teams who tour their local area and beyond, taking on every room they can. The disposable income and the hunt for non-tangible experiences has driven this industry to a point of great expansion.

What Steve and the Oliver Cromwell’s House team wanted to do however, was to create something unique, something that couldn’t be put in a box, taken from one place to another, unpacked and recreated. From a single weekend per month, with sceptical and ultimately limited hope, the Royalist Roundup went from a few sessions booked to extra sessions being added, corporate groups seeking a new and exciting form of team building and over a year of great success, leaving Steve Blake and I in a position where we both take pleasure in saying “We never ever get tired of hearing people say “Wow” when they enter the puzzle room.” It’s been fun, it’s been frightening at times and it’s been hugely successful. But where next?

Steve received a call from a client, wanting a large scale team building exercise to allow a cohesive union of different office groups, due to a large scale restructuring, he was given a location, a budget and left to his own devices. That’s where I came in. As i said at the start of this post, Steve called me. He called me one evening and said “Remember we talked about….” This unspecified point of reference is and was, a theatrical experience Steve had enjoyed in Suffolk, based around theatrical led interactions and puzzles, imagine a large scale Murder Mystery event and throw in the concept of “Cluedo” or as our beloved US cousins would call it, “Clue” and you might begin to get the idea…. Well we’d talked about it over a few ales, in a beer garden in a pocket city and then we’d sadly put it to the back of our minds. Steve had a Lord Protector to be coping with, as did I, Steve also had his business running other pop-up Escape Rooms all over Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and I had my job, which was consumed by large scale events for the coming season. Now however, the ideas came clawing back to the front of our minds.

The planning began, in earnest. Steve found the venue, the wonderful Moyses Hall in Bury St Edmunds and after an initial visit, I was given the outlined logistics of what Steve wanted to achieve, agreed with the client, and an enormous span of History and Heritage to work from.

Sir Terry Pratchett, who I miss dreadfully having read his books since my early teens, once said of Folklore “I think about folklore the same way a carpenter thinks about trees” – It is perhaps a little heavy handed to say the same thing about Heritage, but it should be noted with a second quote by Pratchett, “A good carpenter works with the grain of the wood and should endeavour to make a table that leaves the tree glad that it became timber”, that the same should be done by any Interpreter of History and Heritage. Preserving the integrity of memory, association and legacy of an artefact or event should be the primary objective, though equally it should share it’s position on the pedestal with engagement and entertainment.

Without going in to the laborious aspects of the planning, research and consideration, and causing you to drift away from the blog post, the narrative became apparent, the characters began to form from either the rooms, their exhibits and their stories, along with a decent sized lump of imagination and humour. What began as a slightly odd idea, became something more tangible. Utilising murder, medieval history and warfare, along with an exciting Sci-Fi exhibition, a story of mischief and madness took shape and the next steps became apparent.

Steve Blake, it must be said here and now, is a dangerously devious genius. Truly a Puzzle Master, who can be given a very brief narrative idea at 11.30pm on a Monday only to return to the author at 8.34am the next day with the framework of the puzzles, including their links to other later aspects of the experience. It’s like alchemy, you lob the raw base metal in and suddenly you’ve got gold.

As things progressed, we set the date, booked the venue, polished the narrative, Steve designed the puzzles and I found the players for the snap-shots in History that we had chosen. I had a great deal of fun with my own character, The Celestial Meddler (An entity who finds joy in confusion, sadness and puzzles).

Bringing in trusted comrades, one of my closest friends with whom I’ve appeared many times on stage, Damien O’Donovan, and the remarkable History Needs You team, Matthew and Gill, Steve and I with the rest of the team, met outside the venue as the sun set on a Friday evening in November. What we went on to create, with laughter and trepidation, was something truly unique.
Four teams, four rooms, four snapshots of History, each featuring a unique puzzle based around the room, it’s contents and it’s particular narrative, with a rounded character (in appropriate costume) acting as a location specific guide and narrator, turned in to a fast paced, fun and testing event, culminating in a final salvo from The Celestial Meddler, in which all of the teams came back and formed a single unit and were forced to take aspects of each room and defeat the well attired antagonist of the piece.

After the dust had settled, the warmth and delight that emanated from a group of people who had, in many parts not known each other before hand, knocked the entire team of their feet. As people left, they shook our hands and smiled, thanked us and in many cases said they would be coming back to the museum to have a more leisurely wander to explore the heritage of the area.

Whilst we changed back in to a normal selection of clothing and tottered off to a local pub for a well deserved pint, we left a museum and staff, slightly bemused but enthralled by what 5 very odd people can do within a venue that can often be overlooked.

We left very proud, we also left in a very reflective mood, buoyant from what we had achieved, with pockets full of ideas, modifications and future plans. So, when you hear about an “Immersive Theatrical Problem Solving Experience” in a heritage site near you, perhaps it’ll be Magpie Memoria and East Anglian Escape Rooms trawling through the wonderful collections of your local museum, country pile, townhouse or place of faith, crafting something truly wonderful from objects, stories and places, to show you the future in history.

For further information, don’t hesitate to get in touch and keep an eye out for events near you, in the near future, set in the past.