Camilla Brown

A Space That Does Not Fetter

The Bishopsgate Institute, 1901. Image courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute.

London’s Bishopsgate Institute is a long-established repository of the city’s counter-narratives. Behind the ornately carved terracotta façade, a succession of archivists have collected and catalogued documents of labour and socialist histories since 1895, and, more recently, those of feminist and queer experience too. Manuscripts, correspondences, and a wealth of ephemera are all ushered in and assimilated into smart archival boxes. The Bishopsgate has developed a position as a reliable guardian of material, partially due to the successful investment of its original endowment from the parish of St Botolph. The financial independence of the institute also means that it can expand the collection in alternative directions, unlike many government-funded or university-affiliated equivalents. That the Bishopsgate is committed to making knowledge accessible is immediately apparent: all you need do to enter the archive is present a photo ID and fill out a short request form.

The institute’s online catalogue displays an extensive collection of hundreds of thousands of items, helpful to those who want to browse from home before making the trip into town. Upon arrival to the Bishopsgate on a typical midweek afternoon, you might find the modestly sized readers’ room populated with a handful of visitors poring over photographs, annotated maps, or clippings from magazines. Items are carefully numbered, indexed, and dutifully returned to their acid-free containers after each use.

On the afternoon I go to the Bishopsgate I find the head archivist Stefan Dickers cheerful in a flat cap and chatting with his colleagues. He tells me it has taken a while to establish the staff he has today. He describes them in warm terms, as ‘a real team’ with a shared ethos that they are there to help people get the most out of the material and not to be ‘some kind of scary custodian who might let you look at stuff if you can prove you’re worthy enough to look at it’. He explains that when he started, the Bishopsgate had been without an archivist for a long time and collecting had ground to a halt. Dickers was brought in to manage and help steer the direction of the library and archives. Smiling, he tells me: 

‘I think they wanted me to do it quietly, but I did it quite loudly, and then a boss went and they made the foolish mistake of putting me in charge and I’ve kind of pushed us down the path of where we’ve ended up now really. I’ve added to the existing archives on London, labour and co-op, and have moved into the new collecting areas around radical and protest and LBGTQ.’ 

I meet the writer Juliet Ash at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in South Kensington where she occasionally tutors Fashion and Textiles students in Critical and Historical Studies. Dickers had told me that Ash recently donated forty boxes to the Bishopsgate. Ash tells me she believes ‘absolutely and utterly in archiving — especially once you get to my age’. She describes it as an age-related process of taking stock and downsizing: ‘not wanting to be cluttered with one’s past, moving on’. She explains that when she was teaching Fashion History and Theory at the RCA on a regular basis she sometimes went back into a library of feminist ephemera that she had collected from the 1970s onwards. When Ash recently entered a semi-retirement she wanted to ensure that the material she had accumulated would remain useful and accessible, and so she archived it.

Ash explains that she is well versed in handling archival material — and not simply her own belongings. She was married to David Widgery the activist, journalist, physician, and key proponent in the Rock Against Racism movement. When he died suddenly in 1992 at the age of forty-five, Widgery left his wife with all of his manuscripts, journals, photographs, and letters.

David Widgery in the 1970s when he was temporary editor of OZ Magazine. Image courtesy of Juliet Ash.

Custody of a loved one’s archive is at once a privilege and a burden. Ash, who held Widgery’s possessions for twenty-two years after his passing, felt divided by a sense of duty to both her departed husband and to the wider narrative of history. How did Ash eventually reach the point of being able to release, to sever herself from the archive? Especially those traces of her husband which, in his absence, had perhaps come to represent him: handwritten memos, annotated newspaper articles, documents imbued with his touch. Relinquishing ownership of this kind of material could feel like a loss, despite an awareness that proximity does not equate to intimacy. Ash wrote an essay shortly after her husband’s death, which she called ‘Memory and Object’. In it, she referenced Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory:

‘The feeling of sublimity is not aroused by phenomena in their immediacy. Mountains are sublime not when they crush the human being, but when they evoke images of a space that does not fetter or hem in its occupants and when they invite the viewer to become part of their space.’[1]

Over two decades later this quote still feels pertinent as an expression of Ash’s feelings towards her husband’s belongings. In the essay Ash contemplates the at once reassuring and disquieting nature of memory with reference to her late husband’s collection of ‘exuberant, zany’ ties. For her, each tie was imbued with his essence, ‘a small part of a whole which is never complete’.[2] The same can also be said of Widgery’s archive: his entirety will not be found in any of the boxes that Ash released from her home, but his essence is in them all.

In 2014 Juliet Ash’s father William ‘Bill’ Ash died, and her role as an archival guardian expanded. Bill Ash was a Marxist, a Spitfire pilot during the Second World War, and was allegedly the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character — Hilts ‘The Cooler King’ — in the 1963 film The Great Escape. Bill Ash’s involvement with various political causes throughout his life had resulted in a wild variety of possessions, including a letter to the Vietnamese Communist Party leader Ho Chi Min dated 1956, hundreds of posters, and a banner reading: ‘American Warships Out of the Indian Ocean NOW’.

Ash was uncertain what to do with these two significant collections. Then, in the months following her father’s passing, an anarchist bookseller friend recommended she contact Dickers. With nearly a decade at the Bishopsgate, Dickers had earned a reputation for his sensitive approach to acquiring, preserving, and promoting collections with radical, often politically orientated content. He believes in ‘bottom up’ archiving, a process that involves collecting the everyday stories of regular people. Most traditional archiving focuses on a ‘top down’ approach, which prioritizes material from more widely known histories and events. Dickers recognizes that his role is political, and is interested in the stories that often get missed: ‘When you decide what to keep, it’s a political decision; how you decide to arrange it, how you run a service, it’s all a political decision.’

Dickers’s enthusiasm for the history of radical movements was a sort of trigger for Ash to let go. Ash seems thankful that she was introduced to the Bishopsgate archivist, telling me, ‘It’s great that Stefan recognizes the importance of radical documents… he knows this material is precious.’ She confesses how disheartening it would have been if no one had been interested in the material, adding that the campaigns which Widgery championed — including trade unions, gender and sexual politics, and anti-racism — are as crucial today as in decades past.

The fixed, stable quality of the Bishopsgate Institute had also appealed to writer Susan Croft, who, in April 2016, began to move into Dickers’s care her organization ‘Unfinished Histories’ along with four decades of her research. The organization, which she established in 2006, has a focus on lesbian, black, and feminist writers working in the volatile period of 1968–88. I first met Croft at a Feminist Libraries and Archives (FLA) meeting, hosted by the Feminist Library in Southwark, in late 2016. She spoke quietly yet with strength about Unfinished Histories and her aim to recover histories of radical theatre practitioners. She described the complex process of moving the organization into the Bishopsgate (the move is ongoing, but Croft is confident that it will be available to the public by mid-2017).

Her words stuck with me and made me wonder about the delicate transition of matter from a personal setting to an institutional one. A month later, sitting in her Stamford Hill study-cum-living room, surrounded by towers of books, scripts, and files, Croft talks about beginnings. She recalls her time as an undergraduate student in the 1970s when she began attending avant-garde theatre: ‘I kept stuff from the performances, and I would stick it all over my walls.’ Her vast collection is comprised of audio-visual material, scripts, journals, ephemera, and posters by theatre groups such as Monstrous Regiment, Hormone Imbalance, Foco Novo, and Lumiere & Son.

Before long Croft had developed a wide expertise and knowledge on avant-garde theatre. In recognizing that the material she had been collecting was largely obscured from history, she decided: ‘this needs passing on; the work that I’m doing has a value’. Although Croft is still active in gathering material for Unfinished Histories, after a decade at the helm she decided to let go. She confides that she has reached a point where she finds herself thinking about, ‘getting older and mortality’ alongside a growing need to assess and recognize the value of her work.

In 2012, Unfinished Histories was awarded Lottery Heritage funding, which meant Croft could move the project out of her home and into a small office off Bethnal Green Road in London. Crucially, she was also finally able to invest in the large chests of drawers required to adequately house her collection. Unfortunately, when the funds ran out Croft could no longer afford to pay the rent. Unfinished Histories was moved to the Bishopsgate out of necessity. Croft says with a sigh, ‘It’s back to working from the living room.’

She explains that she is happy for Unfinished Histories to be in the Bishopsgate; she feels satisfied that the material will be well cared for and, due to the educational ambitions of Dickers’s events programming, there’s also the possibility that they can collaborate to widen the reach of the archive. Croft is aware that not all archives are so helpful:

‘I’ve been in a lot of places where things have been acquired, such as in some universities, where academics will acquire material for good reasons, but they’ll move on and the material will stay in the special collections or even not be dealt with properly. No one knows it’s there, there’s no commitment, no security: it becomes re-invisiblized.’

With so many stories of archival failures — of lost, damaged, stolen, or fragmented material — the relationship between donor and institution is understandably sensitive. Sue O’Sullivan is another member of the FLA and a former member of the iconic, second-wave feminist magazine Spare Rib. In a candid email exchange — following our introduction at last year’s FLA meeting — O’Sullivan relayed the story of donating her women’s liberation material to a small archive in London in the 1980s. Her donation mainly comprised her own published writing, several socialist feminist papers, and other personal materials. She was motivated by the idea that she could always access it if she needed to and that others could use it too, explaining:

‘I tend to edge towards a ‘letting go’ position. Whether or not anyone finds any of the stuff I have [donated] at least I know I’ve tried to preserve it for the future. I have no interest in curtailing who can look at it at all.’

But when O’Sullivan requested them some time later, she found that a couple of pamphlets had already gone missing. Reflecting on the importance of preserving material, she laments, ‘if the material is lost, then it’s gone — not “see you later”, but gone’. Strategies of survival are vital for these important counter-narratives to stay intact, and for O’Sullivan this has meant moving her collection to an archive with better funding.

It isn’t just about making her work safe. At age seventy-five, the archiving is primarily a way to ‘deflect the end that is inevitably coming’. She concludes, ‘I haven’t tried to articulate this in words before. Not to sound grandiose, but archiving is a way of reassuring myself that I will live on.’

But, inevitably, the material donated to an archive might contain parts of ourselves that we don’t feel so comfortable revealing, particularly in the case of intimate documents like correspondences and diaries. While handing over her father and husband’s archives to the public, Ash notes that, along with the satisfaction of donating, she also felt vulnerable, saying, ‘it felt slightly like exposing oneself, or exposing them all to potential misinterpretation’. Sometimes some careful consideration was necessary before making private documents public. The memories she unearthed during the transition of the archival material were occasionally ‘tricky’, such as the letters between her mother and Ranjana Sidhanta — Bill Ash’s second wife — which Juliet Ash tore up. Censorship is habitually woven through the line that leads from the domestic sphere to the public realm: there is so much that doesn’t ever enter the archive, deemed to be either too revealing, too explicit, or too banal.

Ash notes that she was required to make difficult decisions throughout the move to the Bishopsgate: ‘The question around personal documents is: do you want to let go of them? Do you want negative feelings about that person to be in the public arena?’ David Widgery never specified what he wanted to happen with his material. And while, according to Ash, he was in one sense ‘all out there’ — a doctor constantly communicating with patients and a very good public speaker — inside he could be ‘a tortured person’. While Ash believes that he would have loved to have an archive where students could access his work, ‘there was also a part of him that I don’t think would like to be totally exposed personally’.

Some items also elicit personal memories. During the transfer of her father’s archives to the Bishopsgate, Juliet Ash returned to a moment she hadn’t reflected on for a long time. In handling the leather LP record case that had once belonged to him, she suddenly recalled being seven years old. Following her parents’ divorce she would only see her father once every three months. She remembers that he would come and collect her and her brother, and ‘we would go walking across Hampstead Heath. The whole time he would read to us from Mao’s Little Red Book.’[3] The leather case brings back the alienated feelings she had about her father.

‘He was obsessed with Mao. I had no idea what he was talking about. Now the record case brings it back to me as a sort of really affectionate memory. I accept that, yes, Bill was that really strange guy who didn’t understand anything about childhood but desperately wanted us to know that Mao existed.’

Bill Ash in a Spitfire. Image courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute.

At the Bishopsgate today, the simple filling-out of an archival request form can summon the same faded black leather case to your desk. The cover art is an amalgamation of red flags, golden orbs, and neat rows of young marching women; a bright depiction of Chinese socialist realism. Inside the case are hundreds of vinyl recordings of speeches given by Chairman Mao. The vinyl, with its politically contentious origins, seemingly tangible between your fingertips, might inspire new lines of enquiry: the dense and tangled network of threads extending beyond the room and into the homes of the former creators and guardians.

Sensing your own mortality begs the questions of what traces you might leave behind. What portrait will be drawn from those traces? Disentangling archival material and releasing it into the public realm inevitably touches on tender, private territory. Memories are mercurial and their sanctuary can take many forms. Ash seems comforted to know that physical closeness is retained in what she has released: ‘They are next to each other, you know, in those grey archival boxes. There’s a whole lot of shelves of my father and Dave.’

The transition from private to public is a sort of reincarnation; an unfolding of a new, useful thing. Material (and the memories it stores) might have lain dormant for years before being unearthed and offered up to renewed scrutiny. Or perhaps a memory that has formerly been used to uphold one’s identity comes loose as the archive is severed from the self. Institutional practices of preserving material aren’t equipped to preserve that spectral entity: memory. Even Dickers with his empathetic approach will enact processes that disrupt and disorder. Yet the capacity to disrupt holds a deeper generative potential for reflection and acceptance. And whether it’s a case of LP records, a ticket stub, or a forgotten journal, when released from its shackles it can become an intimate perspective on particular historical events, a beautiful riddle, or maybe an alternative strategy for dissent.

[1] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, (London: Routledge, 1984), p. 284
[2] Juliet Ash, ‘Memory and Objects’, in The Gendered Object, ed. by Pat Kirkham, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 220.
[3] Juliet Ash was referring to Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung by Mao Zedong published in 1964.

‘A Space That Does Not Fetter’ was published in Meet Me in the Present: Documents and Their Afterlives. Order a copy here.