The Grand Tour: Bishopsgate Institute

A group of Kensington Narrators headed to the Bishopsgate Institute to get an up-close-and-personal look at modern Archiving, and see how and where our Archive contributions would be stored.

Already home to wide-reaching community activism over the last century (including workers unions, gay rights, women's suffrage), Kensington Narrators feel it important to note that Bishopsgate is also home to the Frank Crichlow's Mangrove archive.

Archive Tour Transcript

Speaker Key:

JK JC Kamau, filmmaker

DC Darnell Christie, Narrator

CS Christina Sealy, Project Founder & Narrator

LN Lisa Nash, Narrator

KK Kieron Kymara, Narrator

JL Julia Laite, Historian

SD Stefan Dickers, Lead Archivist at Bishopsgate Institute

JK Where are we going?

DC To the Bishopsgate Archive in Liverpool Street.

CS So we’re about to go into the Bishopsgate Institute. And we don’t really know what to expect.

LN I expect it to be quite clean. And everything cleared away with a big catalogue. And then you just look at the catalogue and say, can I have a look at that please. And somebody goes away somewhere and comes back five minutes later with this artefact.

CS I expect it to be really dusty. The smell of old. And there to be piles of brown paper and articles everywhere I look, with random artefacts such as vases and picture frames.

KK I have no clue what to expect. Yes, I’m just excited to go and see what it’s going to be like.

DC I’m not sure really. Maybe just some old things from the past. Things that are of some importance. Yes, not really sure, but just going to have a look and see.

SD All this used to be an oyster room, and they got a designer to build the building. So as you’ll notice it’s a bit like the Tardis, where it starts off quite small and goes out back. And it’s been here ever since. Like I said, mechanics, a community centre for working people.

Unfortunately, they’d booted most of the working people out when they building Liverpool Street Station. But it’s still been, a sort of open place basically for everyone. Because even though he was a church guy, he was like, I don’t want it to be a religious building where only certain people can come in.

So anyone has always been welcome to come in. We’ve done concerts and lectures. And the library as you’ll see in a minute.

We’ve got here, Lambeth Marsh. Yes, fine with me. And then I like the rather naughty cleavage on the Queen.

CS Is that the Queen?

SD Mary, I mean, just like the Mitchell Brothers. I don’t know. And lots and lots and lots of maps. And so about 2000 maps of London. We do lots of stuff as well like oral histories as well on people. But not just famous people. Just anyone who wants to come in and tell their story.

So it’s very much based about the People’s London, rather than, you know, the Government’s London. There’s enough places that do the rich, the famous and the people who’ve got somewhere to go. But this collection is very much about everybody’s London.

Four rooms we have this size. And everything is air conditioned. See it’s a bit colder here and you can hear a hummm. That’s us monitoring the humidity and the temperature in the room. That door cost £5 000. Its fire secure and will not burn down if the fire is outside. So everything in here is safe.

These boxes cost £7.50 each. They’re acid free. They’re guaranteed to resist nuclear holocaust. So we’ll all be dead, but the labour history collection will still be here to rebuild society from.

LN Is this all the Labour Party here?

SD This is just stuff from every kind of labour, left wing movement you would ever want.

LN I’m going to send it to my, a friend of mine.

SD We literally have everything from very extreme communists to Labour Party type, Tony Blair-y people. So the big collections we have here now, are stuff on London as I told you. Stuff on sort of labour, social, left-wing kind of politics. Stuff on protest campaigning. Stuff on LGBTQ history. Probably a giveaway with the flags.

But we do a lot of very contemporary collecting as well of stuff. Of stuff that’s taken place now. So protests that are

taking place now. So you may notice behind you here, we did a lot of collecting around the Trump March, and the Women’s Marches.

People donated placards. And items they carried on the Trump March.

JL Oh my gosh.

SD When someone walked in with this, I was like, yes we’d like that please. So if you would like to squeeze the finger of Donald Trump. [Inaudible]. So yes. You know if someone walks in with that, you say, yes.

JL That has to be preserved.

KK How could you not!

SD Then we get other wonderful things like the Berwickshire Granarchists decided they were going to send their posters in. Now the Berwickshire Granarchists are three old ladies in Berwickshire who couldn’t get down to London for the march. So they walked around their local Asda carrying these placards.

JL I love them.

SD Personally my favourite ones.

CS Power to the grannies, eh?

DC Exactly.

SD Power to the Granarchists.

DC Is there a limitation to how much stuff you can actually hold in one building?

SD At the moment we’ve got a lot of space to add stuff in. And what’s quite wonderful about this place is, we’re very committed to developing the collections and making sure important history is recorded. So the institute is committed to having more space and it needs it.

So I’m thinking the great hall we’ve just looked at — concerts? Pffft. We’ll put some shelving in there. Yes, that would be good.

CS Whose phone is that?

SD Bernie Grant’s mobile phone...and instruction booklet. So, yeah.

CS Is it wiped?

SD No I’ve just not plugged it in for a while. Two weeks later. Bernie’s Sony Walkman and all his tapes. So I was like, yes I’ll have a bit of that. And we’ve got the robes Bernie Grant wore to parliament. He wore a big African dashkiri and pissed the Tories off, you can imagine. What’s going on?

CS Now, that is a relic.

SD That is a relic.

CS Retro, people.

SD But I wanted one of these when I was growing up but could never afford one. So. It’s kind of wonderful, so it means that you can come in and literally have the Bernie Grant experience. So you can look at the archive while making a phone call.

CS So I’ll leave my phone here yes?

SD Thank you.

CS Well I know we’re looking at things that you actually have. But in terms of our project, for North Kensington, 2018 and the responses that people have, and the ephemera and objects that are there that people want stored. To look at it from your perspective, what would you be interested in keeping?

Because I know a lot of people have got stuff and they don’t know if its valuable or it’s for the bin. Yes what do you think?

SD I would encourage everybody to donate lots.

CS Okay.

SD I think with this project, it’s you who decide what’s important and what goes in the archive. So you tell me. I’m completely at your mercy. Within limits obviously with tanks, etcetera. But in terms of, it’s not my position to tell you what should be in the archive. It’s for you to tell us what should be in the archive.

This is how we look after things, this is how sad we are. So it’s a whole tea set. So you get special boxes made, special acid-free foam. So do you want to see a suffragette tea service?

LN Oh wow, that is amazing.

SD Just think, aside from campaigning for the vote for women, they also did an amazing range of merch. So you could buy the suffragette teapot.

JL It’s amazing because the person who donated this, could have sold it and made quite a lot of money. But instead they knew that the real value is that other people can see it.

SD This is exactly what happened. They were like, we got it valued, thought we could sell it, but I’d rather it came here. And it came particularly to Bishopsgate because they know that we would show people.

LN So is this the suffragette brooch?

JL Can I touch it?

SD Yes the suffragette logo. Of course you can, of course you can.

JL I am going to touch the pot.

SD That’s all right.

JL Do you know who owned it?

SD Yes, so it was owned by this woman.

LN I need to touch it.

SD I’ll show you something else as well. Because this was the first box, and I was sort of like, okay that’s really good. So it was this woman who owned it. Agnes her name was. This woman here.

LN And where did she live?

SD So she lived in Peckham.

LN Okay.

SD And she goes, she wasn’t really the really the violent type of suffragette.

...So if anyone wants a selfie with the Votes for Women sash.

CS Yeah, definitely.

JL Yes.

SD Don’t put it on. Here you can hold it up like this. If you want to get a selfie like that.

CS Yes definitely

JL It’s like, “LET ME THROUGH!”

LN Ah bless them.

JL Also green and purple.

CS Yes.

JL Such good colours.

CS Green and purple, I think there is a theme for that period. Green and purple, don’t you think.

KK Yes.

DC So having done the tour of the archives, how do your initial perceptions compare to what you think now?

CS It’s much more different than I thought. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting like, I guess...

KK A bit more archaic, like bit more just the outline, things lying around kind of thing.

CS Yeah.

KK Yes but it, there was a lot more stuff than I thought. Well obviously it is an archive, there’s going to be a lot of stuff, but there is a LOT of stuff. Covering very formal things, but then also very informal things, like peoples’ personal possessions and things like that. It was quite a big spectrum, which I thought was quite interesting.

CS I found it more domestic than I was expecting. I thought it would be more top down, the voice of the establishment, everything, written neatly. Those kind of documents, written neatly documents. But actually there was people’s diaries, letters, posters people had made. Artworks people had made. I saw a lot of stuff that I thought, “Oh, I could have made that.” Or, “I made something like that,” or, “My friend’s got something like that.” So it just felt more organic and natural.

KK Yes, I'd say that. Organic.

DC Yeah, on that note I feel it was more relatable than I thought it would have been. So obviously going to archive I thought perhaps it was more archaic like you said and you look at it, and the contemporariness of it is like, really feels relative to now.

CS Yes you can see how you can just use that on a day-to-day basis. Find stuff out and there’s a lot of stuff there keeping that’s been given by people who have a heart for justice. Like the records of the doctor who was seeing people after they’d been beaten up in custody. You know I just got the heart from the person that kept that as, like no I want these people to have a voice in the future. Which is kind of what the heart for our project is. And it was like a big shoe shop. You know when you go in a shoe shop and you ask the lady to, or man to go and get your shoes, and they go downstairs in a room full of boxes. It was like that.

DC Definitely.

CS Yeah.

LN It felt incredibly, incredible privilege to be taken down to the actual area where they store all of the material. I didn’t think we were going to be allowed to do that.

KK Might have to go in a hazmat suit or something.

LN Yes, with gloves on or something. Something much more precious. It was so...

DC Accessible.

CS Accessible, yeah.

LN Accessible, it was so accessible. Stefan was fantastic I think at kind of breaking down any barriers. It was interesting because when you came into the archive it was very traditional with these oak bookcases, and old dusty books. But actually going downstairs into the storage areas, was the complete opposite.