Blog written by Tasnim and Imad, Year 10 Students from School21 who researched and devised a workshop and tour.
Myself, Tasnim, and my colleague Imad (GCSE students from School21) have been working hard with Bow Arts as apart of our Work Experience, investing our time to support the Raw Materials Project alongside Karen (Raw Materials Project manager) and Lydia (Bow Arts Education Project Manager). In the last few months we have been working to create a workshop to raise awareness of the River Lea and the heritage of wood around Stratford. After much thought, drafting and crafting, we believed that the best way to raise awareness was to actually visit local sites and thus we planned for a tour around the River Lea.
On 18th January 2017 we held our workshop with Year 4 children from School21; we started of from School21 and walked to various places such as, the Buildings Crafts College, Carpenters Road Lock and the Olympic Park. In each place we conducted a specific activity which corresponds to the places we visited such as sketching boats on pieces of wood and going to meet and having a lecture from the head of the Buildings Crafts College. Both the students and ourselves had a lot of fun and acquired a lot of new knowledge! Such as the origins of the Carpenters Estate and how wood affects our daily lives
The students told us some of the new things they learnt on their tour:
“I have learnt that you have different stages to create a masterpiece and people who make wood are called Carpenters”, Jackie
“I have learnt in Henry times they used stone cannon balls because they didn’t know how to build metal”, Aia
“I have learnt that wood could be carved in difficult ways. I loved the trip”, Isabel
“I have learnt about wood and also boats”
The workshop was a huge success and hopefully will be a memory both the children, Imad and I will remember.
Visit to the Jewish Museum London archives by Steering group member Carrie Foulkes – artist, writer and Newham resident.
The Jewish Museum is tucked away on a calm residential street just off of Parkway in Camden. This was my first visit to the museum and I had looked forward to it for some time. I was excited to encounter the collections and hear from those responsible for curating the objects and stories within. The question of how to represent complex and interconnected histories in a coherent way is one that we in the Raw Materials community steering group have been asking ourselves continually as we investigate the history of wood in the Lea River Valley.
We were divided into two groups. One group was whisked away by assistant curator Miriam Phelan. I remained with two others and spent the afternoon with Kathrin Pieren, the collections manager who recently joined the museum. Kathrin took us into a small room where multiple wooden objects and assorted papers were arranged on a large table. We studied an antique toolbox, a massive wooden compass, a chisel and various grooving tools. We heard that the toolbox belonged to an East Ender by the name of Abraham David Leigh.
I was drawn to a small handsaw with a wooden handle. We heard that a man had recently approached the museum with pages from his father’s written memoirs and various tools that had belonged to his father and his grandfather. The handsaw was among them. Its handle was engraved with the initials of the grandfather on one side, and the initial of the father on the other side.
I donned protective gloves and picked up the saw. I admired the carved initials and reflected on the family lineage this tool represented. The saw was passed down from grandfather to father – the transmission not only of an object but also of a trade. This brought to life the personal nature of these tools, which seemed imbued with the ghostly presence of the hands that had held them, worked wood and made a living with them.
We looked through a Yiddish – English dictionary printed somewhere on Commercial Street in 1901. This dictionary would have assisted local, integrating Jewish communities. We saw photographs of men standing in front of their stores in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. Looking at these historical photographs is slightly eerie. The faces peering out at you belong to men long dead. You wonder what their names were, what they thought and felt, and whether any of their descendants still live in the East End.
Kathrin led us upstairs and told us a bit about the history and operations of the museum. In terms of collections the museum has two stores: a picture store and the store for objects and papers. Kathrin informed us that the museum holds 30,000 objects in its collection, which encompasses 13,000 photographs and documents as well as Judaica such as ritual objects, Torah scrolls, menorahs, oil lamps, picture collections and portraits.
We heard that the Jewish exodus from the East End started as early as the 1910s. The development of the tube system contributed to out-migration to the suburbs. The old handpainted shop fronts were updated, trade was modernised. The wealthier people moved elsewhere, and the poorer people were left behind. Increasing imports of cheaper things made abroad led to a decline in local manufacture. What was still made locally was less often sold locally. “Made in the East, sold in the West” still holds true in many ways in our city today.
I was particularly interested in discussing the approach of the Jewish Museum to collecting the present. It’s important to collect while you still have lots of contextual knowledge but how is it possible to know what’s significant when there’s so much stuff everywhere? Which objects will future historians consult in an effort to try and understand our present era? This was a tangential and fascinating conversation.
Once we were back on topic we viewed a beautiful engraved cabinet including a Torah scroll from the 18th century. The scroll can be wound by a mechanism on top of the cabinet, therefore allowing it to be read through the glass without being touched. The museum’s collection of objects is housed in a series of winding stacks. We saw wooden chairs from a friendly society, sewing tables and suitcases, which seemed deeply symbolic of the Jewish history of peripateticism and exile. Some of the suitcases are associated with the Kindertransport. Like the saw, these suitcases radiated energy.
I feel there’s a tension between the desire to conserve history and the desire to let historical objects live. When you place an object behind glass, rendering it untouchable, in what way does this deny its identity by denying its function and purpose? We were entertained by a story about a Seder plate that was donated to the museum with the stipulation that the family can use the plate at Passover. Every year, museum staff remove the plate from its case using protective gloves and the same level of care that would be given to any object within the collection. The family collects the plate, eats from it and returns it to the museum for safekeeping until next year.
Before we knew it our visit was at an end. I had been so taken with the objects and our various discussions that I had forgotten to ask any of the questions that I arrived with. Who were these Jewish carpenters? Where did they come from and where did they go? In what ways can it be said that the history of wood in the Lea River Valley is bound up with the histories of Judaism in the East End?
Visit to the V&A stores by Steering group member Anja Mcloughlin, local resident and digital journalist.
It was a miserable Wednesday morning that the Raw Materials skipped across town to Kensington Olympia to visit the V&A archives. The imposing former Royal Mail headquarters that now houses 90% of the V&A’s objects (the other 10% being on loan or show) was a grand example of gothic Victorian architecture.
After arriving, checking our belongings and obtaining a festival-like armband, we met the V&A’s lovely acting head of Furniture Conservation Studio, Zoe, who was to be our host for the day. Zoe explained that the V&A employed conservators with a specialism in every kind of material, including metal and plastic. The wood conservators looked after furniture primarily but there is also quite a bit of crossover. For example, they often find themselves assigned objects from fashion, such as shoes with wooden heels, and objects from the Museum of Childhood such as dolls’ houses, which would indeed keep it interesting.
Zoe lead us up to the second floor to show us where and how the V&A stores many of its objects that aren’t on display. The long corridor ahead was punctuated on either side by what resembled a large-scale filing cabinet; a quick turn of the key reaffirmed this, as an object-heavy unit slided effortlessly out. Inside the ‘cabinet’ we found tables and chairs dating back as far as the 15th Century, all gifted to, or acquired by the V&A (sometimes in lieu of paying inheritance tax). The most breath-taking artefacts we had the good fortune to see was probably a pair of French gilded gold chariots. We also discovered that renaissance style objects were overrepresented in the archives as there was such a big interest in renaissance style art in the 19th Century.
Most of these objects would never be on exhibition, but they are available on the Blythe House Collection’s online archive. The online archive is a great resource for historical researchers or other smaller museums, as they can search for objects from a given era or style, and put in an application to borrow them. The process generally takes around a year and half, and involves a high level of conservation before the objects are ready for dispersal. In addition, the V&A has many blogs that explore the conservation process in further depth.
In preparation for 2017’s Korean Art exhibition at the V&A, the conservations department had received a grant and invested it into acquiring a ‘national treasure’ on Korean lacquer. The Raw Materials group had the pleasure of meeting this ‘treasure’, known as Mr Yang, and witnessing him at work. Korean lacquer is made out of tree resin, much like European lacquer, but is more robust and therefore lengthens the lifespan of objects. We watched as Mr Yang employed incredible skill and dexterity to apply the lacquer to intricate fish-scale detail on a 19th Century tray top.
We met Dana Melchar, the senior furniture conservator, who specialises in lacquer. Dana explained that conservators like her look for pre-existing damage in objects under their consideration and use breaks in objects as a way in. Breaks are also useful in giving conservators an insight into the multiples layers that make up the object. On some of the Korean chests being prepped for exhibition we were able to see marks applied by the designers hundreds of years back, which was fascinating.
Our visit to the V&A archives was enlightening. It was great to get a sense of how objects are stored and the care that goes into treating them and getting them ready for exhibition. To be shown around by Zoe, who is clearly bursting with passion for the collection, was a privilege and has certainly inspired the Raw Materials team, gearing up for our own exploration into the heritage of wood.
Images courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Images courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Visit to Newham Archives, by Steering group member Basil Olten, an artist who teaches ceramics in the local community.
“Like personal memory, social memory is also highly selective, it highlights and foregrounds, imposes beginnings, middles and ends on the random and contingent. Equally, it foreshortens, silences, disavows, forgets and elides many episodes which – from another perspective – could be the start of a different narrative”[i].
This quote from Stuart Hall highlights the many stories, narratives and perspectives that are possibly held in an archive and the manner in which each image, line of text or train of thought is waiting to be selected, discovered and interpreted by the community member/ researcher to be highlighted and placed into a different context.
As a member of the Community Steering Group for Raw Materials: Wood , a heritage project looking at the history of wood and its legacy along the River Lea, I was looking forward to be given the opportunity to investigate how the legacy and histories of different cultural groups are stored and inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and kept for the benefit of future generations.
On arriving at Newham Archive and Local Studies Library, it was a revelation in itself to discover that the London Borough of Newham was created in 1965 from the former County Boroughs of East and West Ham. This one simple fact and the way in which place names sometimes have an integral truth and relevance unbeknown to the local community intrigued me.
By locating itself in the library, a repository of knowledge, the archive exudes an air of authority as the guardian of local community knowledge. A community’s identity and sense of self is partly based on its memory of itself and in the way in which it commemorates and celebrates.
Memory and identity are two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, memory is tied up with the equally complex question of identity, personal identity and social or cultural identity[ii] An archive is a place of memory and a place that stores memories and organises meaning in some concrete form to be interpreted by the senses. It is both the physical and the ethereal residing in the realm of collective and individual imagination.
Even though I was visiting Newham Archive with the intention to research the history and usage of wood in the River Lea in its many varied forms and manifestations, the only way I could approach this vast and interesting subject area was to find some kind of personal link with the immense collection of data held in the archive and not be tied down by any pre-conceived idea.
I was aware that the archive was not a neutral space so I wanted to utilise self-reflection to explore my personal experiences and attempt to connect to wider cultural and social meanings of the project.
Looking at Maps showing the change from Marshland to industry. Image Courtesy of London Borough of Newham Archives
The idea of a map, to represent spatial relationships and to make a 2D representation of a physical area is an important part of the history of humans. In the Newham archive we looked at the Chapman and Andre map from 1777, the Clayton Map from 1821 and the Ordnance Survey map of 1894. These maps showed us the development of the area of Stratford from a collection of pig farms, marshes and a mainly agricultural infrastructure through to a highly industrial area with residential areas for workers, a railway, brickworks, distilleries and soapworks. The maps represented the Industrial Revolution and development of the area of Stratford and in some way the industrial development of England as a whole. Through the industrial revlolution wood was extensively used in almost every capacity form railway sleepers to wooden printing blocks.
Wooden Printing bock from R E Littler printing business in Stratford. Image Courtesy of London Borough of Newham Archives
Through an investigation of the microfiche trade directory’s from 1903/ 1904, a proliferation of companies with a dependence on wood can be seen from coach builders to building merchants and undertakers.
What this initial investigation into Newham Archive, the maps and the industrialisation of Stratford also tell us is how important the transportation and use of the raw material of wood was from the colonies to fuel the insatiable appetite of the industrial revolution, the British Empire and the new consumer led social classes.
Kellies Directory page of Cabinet Makers, Carpenters, Builders and Undertakers! Image Courtesy of London Borough of Newham Archives
Scanning the archives and looking for clues using a Microfilm reader. Image Courtesy of London Borough of Newham Archives
i] Stuart Hall, Whose Heritage? Unsettling ‘The Heritage’, Reimagining the Post-nation, in ‘Third Text 49, Winter 1999-2000’, pp.5
[ii] Stuart Hall, ed., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Sage Publications, London, California, New Delhi, 1997, 160
Bow Arts is delighted to announce they have received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant for their community driven project Raw Materials. Thanks to National Lottery players, the project will explore the industrial heritage of the ‘raw material’ wood through the River Lea, which runs through the heart of east London and right by Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery. Telling the stories of the areas that line the riverbanks – including Hackney Wick, Walthamstow and the now iconic Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – Raw Materials will create a legacy for east London’s industrial history, including a map, walking and river tours and an exhibition of unearthed objects in the Nunnery Gallery in Spring 2017.
Foundation for FutureLondon, the charity created to help realise the ambitions for the cultural and education district in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, are also supporting the project through a grant that will ensure the digital legacy of the project for generations to come. The project has also had tremendous local support, including the Victoria and Albert museum – who will be joining the Cultural and Education District in 2021 – The Geffrye Museum, Stratford’s Building and Crafts College and local boroughs’ archive collections, including Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney and Haringey.
Educational arts charity Bow Arts has been working with the east London community and supporting artists through affordable workspace since 1995. The Nunnery Gallery is their not-for-profit, free and public space, presenting a programme of east London and heritage driven events and exhibitions. This grant support, together with expertise from project partners, will enable their most ambitious and far-reaching heritage driven exhibition to date. Press Release: 2 September 2016
Raw Materials will work directly with the community through a steering group who will lead the project’s research, while students from Stratford’s Buildings and Crafts College will incorporate the project’s research into their furniture making course. There will also be an exciting programme of events, workshops and area tours, providing multiple opportunities for communities old and new to engage with an important part of London’s heritage.
Commenting on the award, Sophie Hill, Nunnery Gallery Director, said:
“We are thrilled to be awarded this grant. Part of the Nunnery Gallery’s mission is to explore east London’s heritage through engagement with our local audience. This project is an invaluable opportunity to marry the extensive redevelopment that came with London 2012 to east London’s rich and important past, ensuring new and old communities share in the history that shaped this iconic area. We’re incredibly grateful to HLF, FFL and all our project partners for supporting the project”.