The Figure 9 Collective was established nearly four years ago to explore ways of carrying out experimental design history beyond the academy. As curators, academics, policy makers, writes (and much more), individually and collaboratively we have explored (and are continuing to explore) numerous ways of communicating design history’s fundamental principles to as wide an audience as possible.
2016 marks the 200th anniversary of the Stoke Newington Methodist Church and later this year a new church building will also be opened on the site. To celebrate the church’s bicentenary and new building I am working alongside the church’s minister, members of the church’s congregation and other volunteers to arrange an exhibition and a series of events to reflect on the church’s past, celebrate the church’s present and consider the church’s future.
Referred to within university contexts as ‘public engagement’, I have become involved in this project because of my PhD research into Methodist practices, buildings, material culture and experiences in London during the nineteenth-century I’m keen to communicate this knowledge beyond my primarily academic context and I want to engage the church’s congregation and the local community with the church’s more distant histories and learn from them about its more recent past.
Therefore, last Wednesday evening I ran an ‘Objects tell Stories’ workshop at the Green Lanes Methodist Church in north London (the church linked to the Stoke Newington Church where the congregation are meeting while their church is being rebuilt). I invited congregation members to bring with them an object that helped them to tell a story about their faith or relationship with Methodism.
I also took some objects of my own. Although there has always been a Methodist church on Stoke Newington High Street over the past 200 years, four different structures (including the one presently being completed) have been built during that time. Therefore, the objects I showed helped me tell this story: a minute book used by church leaders dating back to 1816 (when the first church was built on the site); a map showing the location of the Stoke Newington Church and the other Methodist churches in the local area in 1940; the time capsule buried under the Stoke Newington Church when it was rebuilt in 1957; and a letter written by a former member of the church reflecting on her memories of the congregation in the 1950s.
Numbers were small and few brought objects of their own, more interested in the historical stories I had also promised to tell them. However, once I had told them a very brief overview of the church’s history, shown them a few images of the church in its various incarnations, and introduced them to the objects I had brought with me, conversation began to flow.
Photographs of the interior and exterior of the church building constructed in 1851 fascinated them. Used to the post-war structure built on the site in 1957 and the brand-new, modern building at Green Lanes opened in 2015 they were captured by the ‘churchness’ of the 1851 building. While they continually noted that the ‘church’ was much more than building in which it was built, they were also drawn to the features of the 1851 building that clearly marked it out as being a church: its arched stained glass windows, its reference to the gothic style, its large organ, its grand pulpit and its high ceiling.
They were astonished by the care, attention and expense that had gone into the 1816 minute book and contents of the 1957 time capsule. Impressed by the hand written minutes they saw the care and attention that the church’s leadership had put into their meetings and decisions. Similarly, inside the 1957 time capsule was an invitation to the stone laying ceremony for the post-war church, printed on thick, almost-card-like paper. Touching and feeling this invitation they were impressed by the effort the church had gone into to make these invitations and how expensive they were likely to have been. These objects therefore sparked conversation about their present devotion to the church and its activities. How did they match up to the apparent devotion of their forbearers?
Despite not bringing objects with them, discussions around the objects I introduced them to encouraged those who attended to describe ‘objects’ that told important stories about their faith. As a design historian come historical geographer I was fascinated when one lady told us about a space that was important to her. Clearly seeing no distinction between a physical thing and a physical location she described the vestry in the 1957 church and how this had always been a special place for her as it was where she had come to faith. Continuing to blur the line between object and space another lady showed us a painting she had done of a yert that had been temporarily erected inside the 1957 chapel as a listening space. Taking the tent outside the chapel in her painting, both the representation of the yert and her memory of the structure itself were important tools for thinking about her relationship with God and his voice.
The first time that I have run an event like this, I was really inspired by the variety of conversations that the objects provoked. I liked the way in which the format not only allowed me to tell the Stoke Newington Church’s history, encouraged them to volunteer their own histories, but also helped me illustrate how material objects are powerful historical sources. I hope that I have the opportunity to run similar events with other Methodist communities in the future.
© Ruth Slatter, 2016