Imagine a place where personal stories from the past could unfold in front of your eyes. Untouched and unheard, yet rediscovered and brought back to life. That is the power of an archive. A place where the lives of the past can be reconnected with and redefined in the present moment.
A short while ago I took a tube trip to the Bishopsgate Institute as part of the Art and Heritage Archive project. I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the Central London archive, but definitely didn’t think it would be anything remarkable. Perhaps there would be a few interesting historic maps, crumpled letters from the past or just a dusty old place filled with archaic books. Whatever I had thought, I certainly didn’t feel that a place like this would have any serious relevance in my life. I knew they served an important role in history and the preservation of objects in order to deduce certain things from that past. But quite honestly, there was no personal connection that I feel I could develop for an archive. After all, I was not a historian, right? Or so I thought…
Interestingly, my perspective changed that day. I remember reading from a small aging notebook. A diary entry from this woman describing all of her dates and personal relationships. She spoke of them in such an amusing way. Though it was written about 100 years ago, for some reason, in that moment, I felt its relevance today. The talk of relationships, expectations versus the reality of situations and the feeling of betrayal and being let down resonated with me. It made me realise that is was a real woman; not just a forgotten figment in history. This was a real woman living and expressing a very real and relatable human experience. And that could not be taken away despite the difference in our worlds and times.
In a way I felt a connection to her, a sense of empathy and understanding of the past, you would otherwise only imagine could be felt at the time of its occurrence.
That is what is so unifying about an archive. I came to learn it that day. It was not just a place of boring old files and dull unimportant material, but rather a gift of relatable ideas and emotions that could still be felt and experienced in the now.
Whether 20 or 100 years ago, a human connection and relatability can never truly fade but instead is just waiting to be uncovered and understood once more. That is the contemporary nature of an archive that I learned that day.
I see this in relation to Grenfell and value the importance in not just remembering, but experiencing and internalising the feelings, thoughts and emotions of a community. That is strong. That is what germinates a human connection and understanding of the past and what makes it relevant today.
After all, every thing has relevance to somebody. But its significance in the wider world is only rooted as deeps as the understanding of those who encounter it.
I remember waking up on the day Grenfell happened. A notification on my phone saying that there had been a terrible fire in my local area. I looked out of the window. I could see the smoke billowing across the sky. The chemical smell of plastic I inhaled on my way to college that morning. The shock and pain of tragedy emanating from the community that day. I remember the students from Kensington Aldridge Academy having to be relocated to my college because their own was engulfed by smoke. And this, being that it was in the middle of exam season – it was heartbreaking. I could see the emotions on their faces. The agony. The stress. Anger. Sadness. Loss of hope. It was all there, unfolded right before me. But how does one even begin to convey those scenes to the magnitude of which they were once felt?
It is here where the importance of an archive appeared most striking to me in the power of preserving a story. To have real items, real accounts, artwork, poetry or music brings a story to life and in full colour. To have all of these elements interacting together to convey the stories of individuals helps us to understand the entirety of a situation. When we hear summaries of events in the past - on the news or in books - it can be hard to relate. It can be difficult to understand. We don’t hear the individual voices of each character in a story -at best we only hear the voices of the winners. So how can we expect to understand or relate without the intricate details? Without experiencing the pain of sufferers, or the truth of the forgotten?
It is almost impossible to construct a vivid representation of a story without those key elements and voices. We are humans and so we best understand stories with a human perspective and experience.
I consider that it is through this power of preservation that we not limit ourselves to imagining an event in the past but rather, develop a sense of feeling and connection for it as well.
Additionally, what was made clear to me is that it is all about having access to information - and the accessibility of Bishopsgate Institute archive reassured me. Knowing that an archive is open to everyone - and not just the academics or curators who look after them - gave me peace. It grew my faith in this project and reassured me that we were doing the right thing. That we were fostering the course of history, and becoming historians in our own right. I am looking forward to this archive project for Grenfell. I value the significance of a project like this, in being able to preserve and tell the stories of the community for now and future generations. There is power in preservation.