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30th July 2019

What’s in a Somers Town ‘Pop up Museum’?

British Library outside with bunting.

Esther Leslie writes on what took place at our Pop up

On July 13th, we set up a ‘Pop up museum’ in the Poets Circle on the piazza of the British Library, as part of the Somers Town Festival.

Friday – Preview and Launch of magazine

Construction of the ‘Pop up museum’ began the afternoon before. Using the structure of the Poet’s Circle, which has eight Antony Gormley’s Planets sculptures around a circular space, our display emulated the circular formation of washing line posts on the local Sidney Estate.

Bunting/  A circular gazebo was placed in the centre of the circle, surrounded by a series of large and colourful panels with images of different finials, at each of the eight points.

Large Sculptures..

The display illustrated the themes of the Spirit exhibition with panels of content on three broad aspects of community life: ‘High Spirits‘ covering life in pubs and boxing; ‘Dissent‘ covering links to radical thinkers in the areas, such as Wollstonecraft and anarchists; and ‘Art in Everyday Life‘ covering Gilbert Bayes’ work in Somers Town.

Launch of the magazine Spirit!

Friday was also the preview and launch of the first issue of our history magazine ‘Spirit!’, a sunny evening attended by contributors and supporters. The new publication is a journal of Somers Town ‘curious’ histories, stories and images, and this, along with postcards were available at the Festival.

Exhibition Spirit! – Audio and film

We completed the setting up of the exhibition the next day, the day of the festival. The exhibition was the culmination of the work of Spirit! – a memory project of recordings and film. The film Spirit! was on show in a covered gazebo, which locals such as George Sharp who ‘starred’ coming with their families to view.

Long sheets with quotations extracted from the many interviews with Somers Town residents of various generations were draped over the gazebo structure.

The scene was completed by a 1950s pram, of the type used in pub pram races between Somers Town pubs back in the day.

A museum archive?

Material and artefacts on Somers Town history were available to read – including And Grandmother’s Bed Came Too, works such as A Tapestry of Toil, by Desmond Morse-Boycott and a youth club publication, Somertime, overseen by Sue Crockford in 1974. There were also some artefacts, such as a rent book, and old programmes from Camden People’s Theatre. Histories of organisations working in the community, such as Training Link and Scene and Heard were on display. There were many photographs of old Somers Town, from the archives and local sources, as well as maps.

Art and activities

In March we had an event on Gilbert Bayes finials of the Sidney Estate, and we exhibited the ceramics made and painted by residents, inspired by the different figures – from dragons to fish.

Beatutiful handmade bunting that decorated the space, featured Somers Town finial motifs, reminiscent of the style of decorations used at local courtyard parties of old. The bunting was made in a series of workshops with local community groups, such as older people at Great Croft, facilitated by local college Westminster Kingsway, with the help of Francesca De Souza.

There was clay and some crayons for children to contribute more creative work, stimulated by history and by the Bayes ceramics.

Visitors

Local MP Keir Starmer who opened the Festival, and Camden Council leader Georgia Gould both came by to see the museum, and both showed great support for a permanent Somers Town museum.

Pearlies and Somers Town

The Pearlies, whose origins go back to Somers Town, popped in. This drew in more people, in part because of their colourful costumes and raucous calls.

The pearlies at the Pop up – who brought a pearl-decorated jacket with the words ‘Pearly Queen of Somers Town’ on it. This joined other exhibits, including a Pearly wedding shawl, all hung from the gazebo.

Walks and talks

At 13.30 and 15.30, Noble and King conducted a walk around the British Library Piazza. Titled Camden Relay, it used old postcards to draw a series of correspondences out of Camden’s history, conjuring up themes connected to railways, hotels and the British Library and Museum.

Owen Hatherley delivered a talk comparing and contrasting the reformist policy that led to the building of the Ossulston Estate in the 1920s, and especially Levita House, and the revolutionary context that brought social housing into being in Vienna around the same time – Levita House bearing a visual resemblance to the centrepiece of Austro-Socialist housing Karl-Marx Hoff. A fascinating presentation of the changing fortunes of social housing, it also addressed contemporary policies on social housing, including the Conservative adage, related by Nick Clegg: if you build social housing, you create Labour voters. 

Quiz

At the end of the day, a tough Somers Town History Club quiz was held, with probing questions about local personages, the whereabouts of a Paddington clock, the origins of the name, and much more.

Somers Town currency?

Winners were rewarded with an artwork: Somers Town fivers, featuring the faces of local celebrities, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Irene Barclay, Doris Lessing, and Andrew Aidan Dun.

A plea prevented the mock auction of the Bayes-style ceramics so this was cancelled, in the hope that these works might form one of the exhibits in our Somers Town Museum.

So if you wondered what goes into a museum, as you can see, there is much much more we can show.

The Pop up was joined in the circle by We Are Ageing Better and by St Pancras Old Church.