I’m still catching up on processing the different directions my research has taken me in so far.
Whilst part of my brain is dealing with that, here is some writing about a small intervention I carried out in the Museum on two occasions before Christmas. These encounters form part of an ongoing element of my research which involves being public in the museum and incorporating elements of my research into (low-key!) practical encounters with the public.
I’d been intrigued by a sample of handwriting in the Social History gallery, since my first visit to the museum:
It’s a sample of handwriting by Abraham Taylor who was aged 11 in 1840. It’s a really powerful artefact – something about the combination of words – the repetition of ‘Banishment’ alongside ‘Mahometan’, (an old-fashioned word for Mohammed, which dates back to 1529) and the attempt at a perfect replication of letters – as warranted by the system of handwriting – but with some variation due to the youthful hand that wrote it. It’s an exhibit which contains a story that remains hidden – we can only guess at the counterpoint of words and how they related to Abraham Taylor.
Shortly after I first saw it, I took my first trip to the Metropolitan Archives and there was faced with many different kinds of documents all written in cursive handwriting – some easier to decipher than others. (Not being a historian, I had to remind myself that what looked like an ‘f’ was actually an old-fashioned ‘s’) Being immersed in so many hand-written documents started me thinking about the practice of cursive, (‘running’ or joined up), writing which is now in the process of being phased out of the contemporary school curriculum.
I came across an article by Umberto Eco lamenting the future loss of cursive writing in which he says:
“The art of handwriting teaches us to control our hands and encourages hand-eye coordination…. [it]obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think.”
I might claim that my handwriting has been ruined by time spent studying at university, (scribbling notes in near darkness) so that now my writing is half-printed half joined, but I was introduced to writing through the cursive alphabet with it’s looping K’s and I’s and it’s very particular Z’s and X’s. Somewhere there is a body memory of this repeated action and I was interested to see what in returning to it, might be uncovered for me. I bought a fountain pen (I don’t have one any more) and I researched examples of lettering. Of the different schools of cursive writing, I tried to recognise which might be closest to the one I learned at school. I started to practise a little bit and was immediately struck by how it effected my flow of thinking and manual dexterity.
I thought as my first action in the museum I would import a desk into one of the spaces and practise cursive hand-writing using a list of foundling names, (the name given to the foundling child when he or she arrived at the Hospital), as my material. In order to frame the action, I decided to gently amplify the sound of my pencil and pen on paper using a self-powered speaker and microphone. Since I’m ongoingly interested in the role non-musical sound plays in the museum, I was interested to insert myself as a (very quiet!) sonic layer.
The writing had its own little system – the paper needs to be prepared with pencil lines in order to guide the letters – before the practice can begin.
I decided to re-arrange the names according to their meaning. So one list was a list of ‘Names as Qualities’, (my favourite from this is Hopegood Helpless); another was a list of ‘Names as Things’; yet another was a list of Names as Qualities, (‘Mary Mild’). As a kind of manual choreography, I decided to try and notice the different movement patterns offered by individual names (Thomas Road with its repetition of o’s and a’ was particularly satisfying in this regard).
As you can see my handwriting leaves a lot to be desired!
After a while, I began to be very interested in my role as an eavesdropper within the Court Room and I allowed what I overheard to begin merging into the list of names. I jotted down fragments of conversation (questions from visitors and replies by museum attendants) and interwove this inbetween the lines of names.
‘How on earth did they take the ceiling down?’ ….’The hoover is behind that door’… ‘I wreak of Roses’… ‘you could be anywhere’.
Some visitors to the gallery were definitely curious and asked me what I was up to and it was a great way to begin talking about my role and the research I’m carrying out. Others ignored me, and for me this was equally interesting – it gave me that child-like feeling of being ‘seen and not heard’.
The museum volunteers who staff the room change every few hours and, ongoingly generous as they are, they also contributed to the value of this activity.
As you can see from this image, due to the ornate grandeur of the court room there is a kind of absurdity to the performance of such a small gesture. The room seems to demand of you a scale of gesture that might meet its own opulence, and the room, as beautiful as it is, can be overwhelming. (One of the volunteers mentioned to me that she particularly enjoys it when visitors enter the room and then take a step back, audibly exhaling at the magnificence of what they’ve just entered into).