The Power of Collaboration

Unforgotten Lives Exhibit moves outdoors

3 September 2023

Written by: Amouraé Bhola-Chin

Recently, when conversing with a long-time archivist, I learned that up until the late 1990s and early 2000s, archives were seen as a source of knowledge created by historians, for historians.

It’s not a coincidence, then, that conversations I’ve had with other researchers has had a recurring theme: the questionable accessibility of historical records. When opening up the discussion to practising archivists and librarians, the conclusion arrived at was: “Ground-up researchers are important. They are the ones who give a voice to the overlooked achievements of and roles played by actual communities.”

Therefore, it makes sense that our partnership with London Metropolitan Archives has been one driven by a desire to fill in such gaps, with the intention of producing a platform which memorialises marginalised lives.

 

‘Historical Thinking’

The process, on our end as researchers, began with geographically-heavy information, resembling parish entries, ancestral records and newspaper clippings etc. (These were gathered using the Switching the Lens database and from a variety of other digitised and physical collections.) We layered these initial locations onto geo-referenced maps: the result revealing itself via modern coordinates on Google Maps. Following this, we coupled these with our detailed investigative material, which came to form the basis of our digital map captions and individual narratives.

Translating this information into visual models (interactive maps and life stories) enabled us to transform once fragmentary entries into histories which now have the opportunity to materialise in our imagination. In doing so, we offer a new lens to gaze at London through spanning the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

“And if we are not holding up that mirror, if we are not helping people understand the world they live in, and if this is not what archives [are] all about, then I do not know what it is we are doing that is all that important.”

(Ham 1975: 13)

 

As a team, we have had to grapple with the notion that the study of history has been posed as something abstract and linear – in and beyond the classroom. As a consequence, this project could not have been completed without extending three-way conversations to researchers alike, the public and archives (Campt: 2022). Collaborative initiatives as such, which vocalise the experiences of those who appear in sparse doses in records, thus, can overcome what scholars dub archival absences and silences.

Panoramic view of plinths featuring Ignatius Sancho, Dean Mahomed and Samuel Crowther.
Video credit: Mark Dutton, 2023.

I invited Claire Titley to speak on the importance of having touring exhibitions. She had this to say:

It’s been a valuable opportunity to reach people who have perhaps never heard of LMA and to display material from the archives in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them. .. We’re hoping to use it to encourage people to make the trip to LMA, as well as engage them in the stories in place.. I particularly love the idea that people might stumble across these amazing stories and want to find out more as a result.

Claire Titley, London Metropolitan Archives’ Catalogue Editor, reflecting in August 2023.

This summer, the Unforgotten Lives exhibition has taken up spots in Aldgate Square and St. Paul’s Churchyard where it has broadened the dialogue between the public and archival institutions. It seeks to challenge narratives previously buried in salt mines, and therefore the seemingly intangible nature of what has grown to be understood as history.


Works Cited

  • Prof. Tina Campt on ‘The Aftermath of Writing to Images: The Practice of Corresponding with Art.’ Delivered at Courtauld Institute of Art, 17 Jun. 2022.
  • Ham, F. (1975) ‘The Archival Edge.’ The American Archivist. 38 (1). pp.5-13.
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