Body/Building: Sensing the Past
Yesterday I ran a workshop for staff, volunteers and researchers from the Bristol area History of Place project, a nationwide initiative which describes itself as follows:
‘History of Place is a nationally important social history programme that charts the lives of deaf and disabled people from the middle ages until the late 20th Century. History of Place will explore and animate eight built heritage sites, unveiling the stories of the people who inhabited or designed these places.’
The group have been researching the history of The Guild Heritage building in the Old Market area of Bristol. The building is said to be one of the first buildings designed specifically for use by disabled people, with doorways on the ground-floor accessible to wheelchairs, although the upstairs obviously wasn’t designed to be accessible to all. The building was constructed as a new base for The Guild of The Brave Poor Things in 1913.
My role yesterday was to provide a way for the group, who hadn’t previously had access to the building, to explore and document their experiences of, and feelings towards it. Each person was coming from a different viewpoint both due to their research interests and their own personal circumstances, identifying as disabled or non disabled, and the approaches to their making were just as varied.
We explored the building which has since been used for offices by Bristol City Council and the NSPCC, paying attention to our senses and our emotions, comparing the newly whitewashed and divided rooms with modern lighting and office carpets with archive photographs of the craft workshops and main hall, formerly used for performances and lectures. I provided a range of mark-making materials, and Grace Swordy from History of Place printed some archive photographs for us to use, enabling the participants to layer text, drawings and photographs.
The workshop led to discussions around the feelings that the building brought up in people, whether it was felt to be cold or warm, friendly or oppressive. We discussed how the direct experience of being physically present with the space, compared to knowledge gained through research and access to archive imagery of the building in use, and the importance of being allowed access to a building that for some held a very personal connection to their family history.
The afternoon culminated in a sharing of artwork and a reading of a poem written onsite by one of the participants.
For more information on upcoming events such as a film screening on December 3rd at MShed, Bristol, see the History of Place Bristol blog.
For more thoughts on the building and its relationship to disability culture and heritage see this blog post of Bristol-based artist and activist Liz Crow.