On this site

There is nothing more basic to history than the idea that things change. Buildings are torn down to make way for what society needs at the time, or what business decides it needs. In Britain, buildings can be saved by being “listed” as Grade I, II*, or II. Grade I is for places like Buckingham Palace. Listed buildings cannot be torn down or altered without permission, so people often complain when they want to make upgrades on their listed house. The idea goes back to a monument protection act in 1882.

Not all places that are lost were torn down, of course. The Great Fire of London in 1666 did a number on the whole city, destroying many buildings. Commemoration of these places is also part of history. Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire began in a bakery is commemorated on the site:

It’s almost as if the bakers themselves have taken responsibility. Around the corner is Christopher Wren’s enormous monument to the fire, somewhat hidden by modern buildings.

 

This always strikes me as a monument to the resilience of an extraordinary city. But in the Museum of London is the other part of the monument, a reminder of the ability of humans to blame each other for their differences.

 

Put up in 1681, it blames Catholics for the fire. Another example of how monuments are interpretive objects, not just memory, as I’ve written before about Confederate monuments in the American Civil War. The British get the idea of putting objectionable history in a museum so people can think about it, not just pass it on their way to work.

In my own research, removed and altered buildings are more of an issue. The University Correspondence College in Cambridge looked like this:

This trip I stopped by Parker’s Piece, which the College overlooked. It was, appropriately, Freshers’ Day on the Piece, with a festival to welcome incoming students to the University of Cambridge. And here, where the UCC used to stand, is the carpark I’d heard about.

Isn’t it lovely, with the cars hidden by white slats? When I mentioned to a Cambridge resident and distance education expert over coffee that it was a shame that one had to tear down such a beautiful building, his remark was, “for those who like that sort of thing”. We agreed it had been a Victorian monstrosity. I just happen to like Victorian monstrosities.

In other places, buildings remain but have been repurposed.

Up on Kilburn Road in London is the site of the old Henley House School. Here J.V. Milne was headmaster, and H.G. Wells was a schoolmaster. But it’s A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, who gets the plaque. And the buildings are now flats.

The old site of the laboratories at South Kensington, where Wells learned biology with T.H. Huxley, has been absorbed into the Victoria and Albert Museum photographic archive and library which, unfortunately, has no photos of the original labs. These might be at what South Ken became, the Imperial College, but that’s a search for another trip. Outside, however, the building remains.

Sometimes historic sites are uncovered in the process of creating new sites. There are several rivers under the streets of London (the Fleet comes to mind). Walbrook River was the water supply for an ancient Roman site which included a temple to Mithras. According to the publicity, it was discovered in the 1960s and reconstructed hastily at a nearby site. I certainly never knew it was there, and I couldn’t find anything on the internet about its existence prior to now.

Michael Bloomberg, creating his European headquarters on the old site, had the temple moved back to near where it had been, and gifted the City with a tourist destination. You can now see the Mithraeum below his building. Extraordinary amounts of money have been spent. It is free, but timed tickets are required, and only 20 or so people are allowed in for a timed visit. The steps down to the temple mark the archaeological eras on the wall. Sound and lighting effects (wonderfully cheap LED lighting effects — I couldn’t have done better in my days as a theatrical lighting designer) make it an “experience”. 600 of the items they excavated are in a case in the waiting area.

Having spent a number of years in the theatre myself, it always intrigues me when history becomes theatre. Sometimes people’s imaginations need to be encouraged in order to engage the past at all, and of course Bloomberg and others employed archaeologists and historians, which is always a good thing. However, I remember being at a conference on visual history in Durham, and hearing a historian who had worked in Stratford-upon-Avon. They were creating Shakespeare’s schoolhouse as a tourist attraction, and had hired historians to verify the details. The trouble is, there is no evidence at all of which school Shakespeare attended, whether the school would still exist, or whether he even attended school there or elsewhere. This has not stopped it from becoming an attraction, refurbished as accurately as possible to the period.

As well as including things that may not have happened, artistic license for history can also leave things out. The Mithraeum, while noting the slaying of a bull as sacred to the proceedings there, does not mention the gay orgies that were an integral part of the religion. I suppose that would be a bit much for the tourists.

 

4 comments to On this site

  • Lisa, I hope you know just how much we are enjoying seeing England through your eyes!

  • JMM

    Sign me up for a group tour with you!

    As a poet/human hybrid, I share your respect for facts as well as your appreciation for artistic license. My only real objection is in the muddling of these two very different lines of inquiry, particularly when the consequences can be dire.

    It is useful and good to imagine what might have been; it’s problematic to pretend things were as we merely wished them to be.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I really hope I’m not doing that. While I think a romantic view of the past might be useful for pulling forward useful things that have been lost, more often it is used to try to recreate something that never existed. Ideals are also useful, but fabrication is not unless it is clearly fiction, based on imagination.

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