A Visit to the Bishopsgate Institute Library

Located in a prime spot opposite Liverpool Street and on the A10, I have walked past this place countless times, with its beautiful entrance sign. Paradoxically repelled by its grand entrance (designed by late Victorian architect Charles Harrison Townsend who also famously designed the Horniman Museum and Whitechapel Gallery), I never once stepped in, having previously simply assumed it must be one of those private workingmen’s clubs to which I had no business barging into.

No doubt today I only have my own ignorance to blame for my failure to investigate further into the Bishopsgate Institute earlier, but in a document about the history of the institute released on its centenary, it seems that I am not the only confused person – “It appears that the Institute had something of an identity problem in its early years; when the caretaker was interviewed in 1899, he noted that “One ingenious person entered with a pair of roller-skates in one hand and asked to be directed to the rink. On Saturday a gentleman, carrying a Gladstone bag, and with a travelling rug thrown over his arm, rushed up and asked when the train left. But the most disconcerting experience was when a young woman entered and demurely asked ‘Is this a matrimonial agency?” Her disappointment was quite saddening when informed that marriages were not performed there…”

(I was so excited about being inside this place that I forgot to take interior pictures of the main reading room. It is oddly almost exactly the stereotype of the grand old public library I had in my head when I say “I’m going to the library”. And in the past, so many a time have I languished around the Brick Lane area, eventually sitting in the Old Spitalfields Market wishing there was somewhere to sit and read or do something other than jostle with rushing business people in suits and angsty travellers speeding past with their angrily overweight luggages. If only someone had told me about this back then!)

Unlike many other libraries in London, no registration or proof of identity is required to come to peruse the library’s books (or make use of its fine reading tables). Besides the reference library, on request it has an amazing collection of books, maps and other materials on London, the East End, labour, and activism/protests. A very enthusiastic archivist/librarian whose name I sadly didn’t manage to catch showed us around and told us briefly about the history of the collection. First established as a workingmen’s library for the working class in London’s East End, many of the books in the collection today were the result of one librarian – Charles Goss. His unbridled collecting was not so much celebrated during his time, but he was responsible for building up the significant collections on London history, labour history, freethought and humanism whilst going on his extremely long lunch breaks and buying insane amounts of books by the wheelbarrow. (While he was with the library, he also campaigned to raise the status and pay of library staff. Also the man had a magnificent moustache…)

In the main reading room, there’s a magnificent skylight which has survived the Blitz (and people throwing small rocks at it), and the original bookshelves have also survived till today – they have got little handles on the side which people could use to climb up and access books on the higher shelves by themselves. However, this useful design addition proved to be divisive for the sexes – victorian notions of women’s ankles being “indecent” resulted in women asking for a separate reading room so that men would not glimpse their ankles as they climbed up using the handles and reached up for the books in a flash of prudish ankle absurdity. (I’m curious how the books were separated then between the rooms…)

The Minute Book of the First International Working Men’s Association, 1866-69
Apparently the library had been consciously painted in a neutral calm colour as in the past there were concerns that the books alone being read in an excitable environment might spark some sort of mad revolt. In fact, the single most famous manuscript in the collection is the Minute Book of the First International Working Men’s Association, 1866-69. The book was allegedly hailed by some as the moment of the birth of socialism, although disputably being just an ordinary meeting which just happened to be followed by an argument between George Howell and Karl Marx. (It’s also got squiggles on the back, speculated to have been made by a bored notetaker). Due to the book’s popularity status (even Stalin wrote to the Institute to ask to see the book!), the book was eventually deposited at the bank across the road for safe-keeping for over 20 years…

See Also: OYSTERS AND OTHER FUN FACTS??
More about its archives/collections
120 Years of Events, including various lectures such Shackleton on his return from the South Pole
Horse Urine and Oysters

Tally Sticks, Parliamentary Scrolls, and Vellum: A Visit to the Parliamentary Archives

I was very fortunate to have had the chance to visit the Parliamentary Archives, which holds the official records of the UK Parliament including acts, acts, journals, appeals, peerage claims, architectural plans, sessional papers, hansard (debates), various personal papers, etc.

The earliest document they hold is from 1497 for the House of Lords, and as for House of Commons the earliest they have is from 1547, but it would have been much earlier if not for the ‘tally sticks’ fire of 1834 and the small, unassuming “Jewel tower” standing across the road…

Apparently in 1834 the Exchequer/National Treasury had to dispose of a bunch of tally sticks, which were a physical form of accounting system that was becoming obsolete at the time. A primitive form of accounting which could be used even if you were totally illiterate, they were basically sticks marked with notches that were split lengthwise. These sticks were used to keep track of taxes that had been paid and an example of them can be seen here at the National Archives. Unfortunately the obsoleted sticks had their revenge just as they were being disposed of by being burnt in the basement of the House of Lords, resulting in a fire that consumed many records, except the ones in the Jewel Tower and ones that were furiously pushed to safety out of the window by a clerk…

We entered the grounds via Black Rod’s Garden Entrance, and having never come explicitly to see Big Ben and the other the “touristic” sights of London before, I was shocked at the extreme numbers of people walking all around in all directions. People of every size, colour, and age, milling about on the greens and all over the roads, in every direction! “Is there a protest? Is something special going on today?” “Are these people coming to a festival? Is this place like this because Theresa May was just appointed as PM? Or is it because of Brexit??” No. Just another day at Westminster, inundated with an endless stream of flashing cameras and transient sightseers who have come to see the spectacle of parliament…

The persistence of the monarchy in the UK is a curious anachronism. From the perspective of a visitor coming from a foreign republic, the notion of it doesn’t really bother me, but up close it is truly a very strange vestigial limb, wrapped up in a bizarre spectacle and ritual that I half-expect to be parody or a satire of itself.

We went up on an old lift and found ourselves in a maze of tiny passageways. The funny thing about very old and important buildings is that sometimes they seem to have been built for people who were much smaller, perhaps harking back to a time when the world’s population was also smaller. You couldn’t really expect to bring a big group through these tiny corridors, there just wouldn’t be any space!

For those uninitiated with televised broadcasts of the State opening of the UK Parliament at the start of each new parliamentary session, Black Rod (whose Garden Entrance we used) has a very visible role in the ceremony of the opening of Parliament and the Queen’s speech, where Black Rod (as representative of the Queen) summons the Commons to come to the Queen’s speech. As he approaches the door of the House of Commons the door is slammed in his face, symbolising the independence that the Commons have from the queen. He then uses his black rod to knock on the door 3 times and then is admitted in to summon the Commons to attend the Queen’s speech. (The short explanation of why this ritual exists is that in 1642 Charles I attempted to arrest 5 MPs which constituted a breach of the constitution, so the monarch’s representative has to ask to be let into the Chamber of the house of commons, symbolising the right of the commons to question the right of the monarch’s representative to enter the Chamber…)

We were shown the spot from which some strategic camera angles of the Queen are had… as the opening of this former ventilation chimney lies directly above the Sovereign’s Entrance.

“Hmm… did you say this entrance is only for the Queen? But the inside of this chamber is covered in pencils and small bits of stationery carelessly dropped in by other butterfingered visitors and researchers passing through! What will happen during the next opening?…”

Here is the famous room where all of the UK’s parliamentary acts are stored – a controlled climate room to keep over 60 thousand vellum scrolls in the best condition possible.

These are actually the first scrolls I’ve ever seen in my life in person (I’m definitely no medievalist!). All written in iron gall ink apparently. I’ve never had occasion to request for a document in scroll form from any archive or library in the past. In fact I’ve never had to think about real scrolls in this way before, or to have to use the word Codex to distinguish it from the Scroll. [Codex being individual sheets of vellum which are then bound along one side.

I think of the Page/Codex as the “older” format from which tyrannous Infinite Scroll has emerged out of. But historically, the scroll came first. To see the scrolls as retired format for the archive is vindication that the infinite scroll is indeed a regression in terms of design – an abomination of both readability and function. I hate the infinite scroll with no end in sight, which overwhelms with too much information and takes control away from the reader who may have wished to index, bookmark or access the text with more precision. Often it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the location of the data that one wishes to find back later, especially if you have pressed the back button on an Ajax loaded infinite scroll. As for a page/codex format, even though one can only read one page at any one time, it is also easier to make a decision on whether any material of interest will be present in a document by reading one highly specific page, as opposed to skimming through a potentially infinite chunk.

Strangely when I look at these very old scrolls, I think of them almost as a painted landscape, of them painting an infinite, continuous history. (Also: I suppose that if the scrolls consisted of only visual material and formed a continuous narrative, perhaps I’d be less prejudiced against the infinite scroll itself…)

Another significant change has recently happened, or rather, NOT HAPPENED. Although legislation has been printed and paginated for quite some time, this year there was a big decision on the material to be used. Vellum which is made out of calfskin (actually sheep and goat too) has been the traditional material used to inscribe or print upon because of its longevity – it survives thousands of years and has enabled the persistence of documents in the parliamentary archives for a thousand years! (except for humidity and fire! it can’t do fire!) But earlier this year, the House of Lords debated that legislation should be printed on archival paper in order to save tens of thousands of pounds a year. The use of vellum was argued as being “vanity printing” and “frivolous flummery” in an age where efficient digital alternatives seem exist)… But of course this begs the question, how much trust can we put in digital alternatives? Can there really be any digital media storage solution which isn’t inherently unreliable or under the physical threat of becoming obsolete as a format further down the line, when we are talking about 500, 1000, 5000 year time scales?

Paper lasts around 200-500 years (probably more in the range of 200), but vellum purportedly can last 5000 years. The Domesday Book was written on vellum in 1086. The Magna Carta was put on vellum in 1215. Unbelievably we can still see those very documents today. Vellum from 600 can be found in excellent condition today. There is no telling how paper will survive beyond 200 years. So, although the material change would result in some savings for parliament, it might mean jeopardise the accessibility of historical documents in the long term future – assuming that we also believe that time will go on and switching to paper might even result in costly preservation issues in 200 years time!

At the time, Paul Wright, William Cowley’s general manager and Britain’s remaining maker of vellum was quoted in The Telegraph as saying: “What they have decided is that future generations will be denied the privilege of touching history and no man has the right to make that decision.”

Fortunately, after protests from MPs and many other supporters, it was decided that they would continue using vellum. The ability of people in over 500 years time to touch legislation made today may seem rather inconsequential in the short term, and obviously a vellum maker also has vested interests in the matter, but it touches on something quite important: indeed one may argue that we can let go of things, and sometimes we may even be forced to let go of things, but I think the desire to touch and hold these historic things in our own hands will continue to persist. A primal desire to prove its existence by squeezing it in our own hands, to have that personal tactile connection with something that we believe is real and authentic…

Here is the original FOI act printed on Vellum.

Thank you to archivist Mari Takayanagi for showing our group around the archives.


 

Update: On more recent attempts to gather galls to make Iron Gall Ink!

So all the acts were written in Iron Gall ink on Vellum. We know where the Vellum came from, but where does the iron gall ink come from? Where did it come from in the past? Was this ink imported, and where from?

At first, I began by doing the obvious – trying to find oak marble galls myself. Whenever I read online that galls are “widespread” around the world, I weep because for some reason, I must be living in an area of London that is somehow devoid of the specific wasps which are responsible for causing those characteristic oak marble galls.

After hours in my nearest park, Finsbury Park, I determined that there are probably only just 3 large English oak trees of note. You’d have thought there’d be more Kings of the Forest in there, but noooo, it is mainly populated with London Plane trees and a smattering of other trees including cedar, horse chestnut, holly, willow, lombardy poplar, beech, and a fair number of hornbeam trees. (NOTE: not an exhaustive list!)

English Oak

Baby Acorn (English Oak aka pedunculate oak has acorns with stalks, sessile oaks which are also known sometimes as irish oaks have stalkless acorns. These have got stalks)

Spangle Galls

Knopper Galls

Every acorn, a knopper gall!
Out of these three English Oak trees in Finsbury Park, two have a lot of galls on them, but only spangle galls and knopper galls. Funny enough, as I was searching for galls under the oak trees, I found myself being bizarrely hit on the head by a constant rain of knopper galls (the very things I came for!) as it turns out that there was a small squirrel very very high up in the tree trying to eat the baby acorns but it was discarding all the excrescences and throwing the gnarly bits down on to the ground!

Half eaten acorn, only excrescence is left!

The miscreant who is pelting me with galls
Anyway with my handful of knopper galls, I went home to read up more about galls, and on closer reading I realised that the Andricus kollari wasp itself responsible for galls was not introduced to the UK until the 1800s!!! In any case it is reported that galls on English Oak trees are ascertained to contain little tannic acid, and are of little value. I haven’t verified this properly but it seems Aleppo galls from Syria and Asia Minor are said to have been shipped over in boatloads to Europe for the production of iron gall ink???

THE SEARCH CONTINUES…

“What do you mean we’re in Middlesex?” and “Is it Harringay, Haringey, Haeringshege, Haurnsy, Hornsey or HRNNGGGHHH??”: A Visit to the London Metropolitan Archives


The first time I’ve ever seen an 18th century feoffment document!
E/MW/C/0218 / A transaction in 1707 for Tower Place and the Warren in Woolwich

The London Metropolitan Archive is hidden away in a large nondescript building down in Clerkenwell. As an archive of local records for the London area, it combines the collections of the London County Council (LCC), Middlesex County Council (MCC), Greater London Council (GLC), pan-London charities, organisations, businesses, and records from the Diocese of London (all of the parishes that donated their records – most have, and these are quite useful for those researching family history within the area).

Useful and sometimes curiously specific research guides

“IS YOUR ANCESTOR A CONVICT?”

Index files for Parish Records at LMA

Parish Registers: useful for historical records of births, names of parents, baptisms, marriages, and burials, etc.


Mind you, I’ve noticed that archivists and government administrators seem to love acronyms, so the terms do take getting used to, but the most exciting thing I’ve been induced to think about is the concept of the place called MIDDLESEX. Perhaps this is something all you people brought up in the UK already know in great detail or learnt in school, but my understanding of Middlesex has always been fuzzy. To be honest I simply thought that was where Enfield is (aka Quite Far Away Place), because I saw a Public Office noticeboard in Enfield in 2014 that wrote MIDDLESEX on it. Back when we were living in Stamford Hill, I could hop on the National Rail service directly to Enfield Town in about 20 minutes, so it’s clearly a very reasonable commutable distance to the city.

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In Enfield (February 7, 2014)

It might sound like a useless distinction to talk of, but people, you don’t understand: I’m still easily excited by the frisson of crossing invisible county lines! We haven’t got other historical counties or towns to travel to in Singapore, everything is just paddling about in the same pond there. Here I can go to a DIFFERENT county or city in under half an hour? OMG I’ll do it, it’s cheap thrills for me!

But non-londoners may not be aware of the boundaries of the historic county of Middlesex prior to the 18th and 19th urbanisation which rendered areas such as Tottenham and Enfield more as residential suburbs for the city of London.


Map by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, 1997

In simple terms, historically Middlesex had its own thing going on (and it even appears in the Domesday Book) – Middlesex, Middleseaxon, Land of the Middle Saxons! But then as the city of London expanded, more and more of what would be considered Middlesex in the past was effectively changing into the “suburbs of London”…

Starting with the Local Government Act of 1888, administrative counties were formally established. So in 1888, a small part of what was considered part of Middlesex County was then transferred to the new County of London, and the rest then came under Middlesex County Council. Over the years, a series of local government acts established, merged, or dissolved various counties. The MCC (Middlesex county council) was dissolved in 1965 as the area had become urbanised together as the Greater London area, and then became under the GLC (Greater London council) from 1965 onwards [London Government Act 1963] – until the GLC itself was dissolved in 1986 and its powers distributed to the various London Boroughs [Local Government Act 1985].

So the question is, does Middlesex still exist or does it cease to exist if the administrative region of Middlesex no longer exists? (I suppose I’d say that Middlesex ceases to exist once people no longer actively refer to it as Middlesex).

This reminds me of the equally confusing question of “Is it Harringay or Haringey?” A victim of multiple spelling variations, when you walk around the neighbourhood around my house, you’ll see this:

A walk around on 17 July 2016


A h2g2 article notes that the spelling Haringey was recorded in 1387, whereas Harringay was recorded in 1569. A large Tudor house built in 1792 was named by its owner Edward Gray as “Harringay House” and it formerly stood at the top of the hill (on what is the present-day Ladder, at the top end closest to present-day Wightman Road between Allison Road and Hewitt Road and over the tunnel through which the New River runs underground) – thus the usage of Harringay took common precedence in the neighbourhood. OS Maps in 1894 record the area where our flat is as Harringay Park Estate (Note: this means that our house was originally built somewhere between 1880-1894).

The name “Harringay” was preferred by the people who lived there and attempts by the Municipal Borough of Hornsey to standardize the spelling as “Haringey” were stymied by locals who insisted on using “Harringay”. Today, the administrative name for the borough is Haringey, but the place is known as Harringay. In any case the names Harringay/Haringey and also Hornsey are both actually derived from the mangling of the name of Harenhg or Heringes or Haering’s Hege. Haringey Borough website says that a local historian established that there are a staggering “162 variants of the spelling of the name in surviving historical documents from the medieval period onwards”, so at that rate, people may as well have been muttering HRHRHRHGHRGGG to each other… “Oh righto, see you tonight in Herrggnhgghhhhh….”


IN THE NEXT EPISODES: WE VISIT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, WHERE IF YOU SIT FACING THE WATER FEATURE TO WATCH THE FAMILY OF GEESE WHILST EATING YOUR SANDWICH AT LUNCHTIME, ALL OF THE GEESE WILL ROTATE THEIR BODIES TO FACE YOU, SUCH THAT YOU WILL REALISE, CHILLINGLY, THAT NO LONGER ARE YOU THE ONE WHO IS WATCHING THE GEESE – BUT RATHER, THAT THE GEESE ARE WATCHING YOU.

General Colonial History, Explorations and Voyages, and Richard Hakluyt: A Visit to the Institute of Historical Research Library

This week I’ve been at a course at the Institute of Historical Research, and I wish I had done something like earlier – because prior to this, it was as if I had been hitting a nail into a plank with a smartphone and going about the historical portion of my research quite randomly and inefficiently. So I have decided that for documentation purposes (as a process blog!), I shall make short summaries of the trips to each of the the library/archive that I’ve visited this week (and separately on my own), including:

  • Institute of Historical Research Library
  • London Metropolitan Archives
  • Bishopsgate’s Institute
  • The National Archive
  • Clothworkers’ Company Archive
  • House of Lords Archive
  • Lambeth Palace Archive
  • London Archaeological Archive and Resource Centre
  • British Library
  • Wellcome Trust Library
  • …and more to come!

Beginning with… the IHR library itself!


 

Institute of Historical Research Library

Excuse me, for the massive gaps in my historical/geographical knowledge shall soon be showing! Is there a term for this kind of bias where you end up mainly reading first about the things which are seemingly more closely related to yourself, rather than reading EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD indiscriminately? I rather like the free-associating browsing of a physical library rather than a direct automatic search of a digital catalogue, but one does tend to gravitate to familiar territory for starters. And actually, I really shouldn’t apologise for not knowing every single thing, but maybe this is some weird workaholic guilt at work here… but then, perhaps it would be great to exercise my right to have incomplete knowledge if I should want to, perhaps.. even as a political statement or as affirmation of one’s position? Right! SORRY BUT NOT SORRY! (Sorry)

At junior college, which was the last time I actually studied history in school – what we were taught in schools in Singapore was local and regional history (Singapore History and Southeast Asian History) and as for that extra something to give us a bigger picture of historical context, the ‘earliest’ era we would have looked in the syllabus was Cold War, ie: 1945 onwards. ie: what I would call Modern History. I regret to say that I never took a History module in my undergrad years either. So… basically in all my life I’ve never attended a medieval history class.

An ex from many many years ago had specialised in Middle English poetry and once painstakingly wrote out a poem for me in Middle English. The unappreciative early-20something-year-old me at the time looked at it as some oddity but never tried to read it. I didn’t quite concern myself about historical variations of Englishes since the main remit of my studies seemed to have nothing to do with it. Simply thought of the translation process as an fruitless endeavour to which there would be no point, just wanted to read the version I could read. And so the poem just went out of mind, undeciphered. I never really knew what the poem meant because I didn’t read it. In fact, I don’t even have the foggiest idea what it was about now! I guess I failed to appreciate the amount of hard work and scholarship that goes into studying MIDDLE ENGLISH – and the value of being able to personally read it! To be able to access the original text before translation!

At the end of the first day of the course I had time to explore the IHR’s Wohl Library. Having no prior experience of studying European History, one might even ask – what is an uneducated philistine like me doing at the Institute of Historical Research then? Greeted by tall shelves of “Low Countries” (apparently one of the central collection priorities of the IHR!) I belatedly realised that all I knew of the “Low Countries” was that it was some kind of archaic term for some bits of Western Europe which were lower-lying but my spatial knowledge of European geography and topography was too embarrassingly fuzzy to be able to pinpoint or recall the countries encompassed by this term! [I went home in shame to read up about it properly and now know that the Low Countries refers to the coastal reason of western Europe including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Ironically I also found out that I had indeed written this down in my wiki/notebook several years ago but clean forgotten it since. Oh forgive me Benelux, I have entirely failed at historical geographing!]

Grasping at straws for something I would be a bit more familiar with, I blithely went to investigate the COLONIES: GENERAL area.

Oh no! Dialed too far back on the time machine!!

Apparently the IHR’s collection of sources on British North America is “one of the best in the UK”. (And I’ve definitely never encountered a physical collection of books on British North America until this point in my life… so having the chance to grab random books off the shelf to read was a delightful first)

And actually, I realise I’ve never really read up about East India Company’s earlier history; certainly my (generalised) knowledge of its ministrations is largely from the period after the expansion of the opium trade and establishment of Straits Settlements.

Here, I found a copy of Hakluyt’s well-known The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation. Famous early chronicler of maritime adventures! Early colonial ideologue, economic opportunist and promoter of proselytising… [Also the adopted namesake (no direct but only symbolic links) of the rather secretive business intelligence company “Hakluyt & Company” (which incidentally also has a base in Singapore)]

And there were entire shelves of the Hakluyt Society’s publications – who have been printing editions of first hand accounts of historic voyages and travels.

Anyway, so here this is the massive volume that constitutes The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation – such an historic piece of English travel-writing! – and I can’t believe I can walk up to it and just pick this massive copy off a shelf!

….And naturally, it is either in Latin or Middle English. Its like a TRIAL BY FIRE WAIT THIS IS NOT EVEN CALLED “MEDIEVAL” IS IT? IS THIS WHAT YOU CALL EARLY MODERN TYPOGRAPHY? HELP! WHAT AM I DOING? WHAT DO I DO?


Yeah this is more like the level I’m at:
“What do you mean Lorem Ipsum is not Latin, but just Latin gibberish…??”

It must have been a translation into English I had seen in the past, or maybe was it secondary material through which I had first encountered Hakluyt? I don’t even know! Up to this point everything I’ve touched has arguably been secondary source material. Contemporary books, journals, newspapers mediated through the eyes of the reporter and the witnesses, government reports arguably evaluated through the viewpoint of the administrator… all of these facsimiles! Reproductions! Digital surrogates!

If there’s one thing I’m comforted by is in this tale is that – actually, despite Hakluyt being known for his publications on voyages – actually he himself was not actually an explorer. Instead, he had begun as a university scholar who set out to read about all the voyages he could – and then specialised in writing, translating, contextualising them. And yet the writer wields such powers in the process of writing or record of the journey. How else would I know of these journeys today?

On an aside, here are two mad bookbinding covers for speeches/addresses of the Hakluyt Society, one of which is for the tercentenary or 300-year anniversary of Hakluyt’s death in 1916. (This means that this year will be the 400-year anniversary, or quatercentenary… Yes I had to google for the right word for it… it is not a common term which is quite rolling off the tip of my tongue)


IN THE NEXT EPISODES: WE VISIT MORE ARCHIVES INCLUDING THAT OF HAKLUYT’S BENEFACTOR THE WORSHIPFUL CLOTHWORKERS’ COMPANY (WHO GAVE HAKLUYT A PENSION), WHICH BY THEIR ADMISSION HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED “PRETTY LATE” IN 1528. COS YEAH… YOU KNOW… SOME OF THE OTHER LIVERY COMPANIES EVEN STARTED A FEW HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE THAT IN THE… ELEVENTIES #backtothe1100s #nobigdeal

In Praise of Insignificant Details

The other day I had a dream in which I wandered into a room and there was a white table with papers flying off into the sky. Behind it, there were shelves in which the books of all of Singapore’s literary pioneers were arranged, as if these books had been magically plucked out from the shelves of the library and lovingly collected into one room for our easy access…

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Oh wait! I’m kidding, it wasn’t just a dream, it was real, and you don’t even need to wait a moment longer to experience the exact same thing in person if you’re in Singapore, for this very exhibition has actually been up at the National Library for the last ten years at Level 11. (Wait, what? Ten years??)

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Some of the books on these shelves lay in a disarray, as if others had also picked them up and flipped through them recently before replacing them back onto these shelves. So I picked up a book…

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It was at that point that I realised it was not a book! It was just a solid block of foam with a scanned reproduction of the book cover printed on top of it! A bizarre Cronenburg-esque moment, all around me, what seemed like regular National Library books with the distinctively colour-coded stickers on their side turned out to be nothing more than hollow blocks of foam, devoid of words or detail on the inside!

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Curious as to the origins of this exhibition, I looked it up and found records which show that the “Singapore Literary Pioneers” exhibition originally opened in November 2005, along with the National Library’s move to Victoria Street. Perhaps at some point during the past, these shelves in this exhibition actually held the original books, yet by this point they had all been put back into the collections, leaving nothing more than the skeletal, hollow foam board simulacrums of themselves behind…

The National Library has now been at its Victoria Street site for ten years now! Prior to that, the National Library had been at Stamford Road behind The Substation since 1958. In 1953 the rubber and pineapple king Lee Kong Chian donated a large sum to set up a national library which would be open to the public; in 1957 he laid the foundation stone for that iconic red-bricked building. But in 2000 it was announced that the building was to be demolished for the construction of a road tunnel and the new SMU campus. So the site of the former red-bricked NLB building unfortunately became a vehicular tunnel; a cruel twist which seemed almost emblematic of the denigration of people’s fondly remembered cultural spaces in the process of urban redevelopment – the library’s architectural and historical merits apparently insufficient for it to be have been gazetted as a national monument.

There was also a practical reason for the NLB’s move; I was reading the 1989 report of the advisory council on Culture and the Arts, which noted that book holdings in the National Library building in Stamford Road had already “exceeded the space available” – which was to the detriment of Singapore’s cultural development. So moving to a new building on Bras Basah would in theory allow for much more space – space for more collections, more books and more exhibitions.


I’ve graduated from RCA and I’m back in Singapore now! I have lots of things to document from the last few months (which I will document here in due course), but right now I’m working on something in September, on behalf of The Substation. I’ve been spending a lot of time at The Substation and the National Library building of late, constantly pondering the dilemma of writing text for an exhibition that is about an art space – but the exhibition will be held in a site other than its own – it will be at a library!

Mind you, I’ve also basically spent two years at a design programme being reminded that the gallery is not a library, and that the number of words in a gallery and museum should be kept as few as possible, because people came to look at things, not to read! But even now, when I’m preparing an exhibition to be set in the library, where the words should be more plentiful, where we shouldn’t need to be shy about shoving books in people’s faces, the caveat about not overwhelming the reader/viewer with too many words still exists.

I wonder, if that is why there aren’t words inside the books in the Level 11 exhibition? Would the presence of so many words in the space make everyone less likely to engage with the content fully? Perhaps it was feared that putting the actual books on show would induce viewers to get stuck at the first book they came upon, rather than skimming through this condensed history of Singapore’s literary landscape.

Maybe this is a matter of exhibition design. Let’s talk about in numbers, since most Singaporeans seem to understand things better in terms of numbers. How many words can we realistically hope that the average person will read at an exhibition? The average reading speed of a native English language speaker is said to be between 250 to 300 words per minute. Let’s give it a bit of wiggle room and assume that the bilingual Singaporean (in a moment of idle distraction!) reads only 200 words per minute.

If an average visitor spends half an hour in our exhibition space, but only spends 50% of his or her time actually reading the text on the wall (the other 50% being spent on talking to people, looking at the pretty pictures, looking out of the window at the skyline, or watching the videos), then perhaps we can hope for 15 minutes x 200 words or about 3000 words to be consumed during an average visitor’s half-hour long trip to an exhibition – if we are so lucky!

This means that if I write more than 300 words for each of the 10 sections of the exhibition, then maybe most people won’t be able to read everything I’ve written in an average visit to the exhibition.

But how can I possibly tell you the 25 year history of The Substation within 3000 words – scarcely more than an essay’s length? Would it be better if I put more shiny pictures on blocks of hollow foam? But the photos are so few. And all I have are so many of these texts, quotes, paraphrased rumours, and snippets – surely this amounts to more and more words being packed into the show!

But maybe the most important thing is not just the big, beautiful, totalising statement that will sum up everything within my 300 word count. The things I want to tell you come in the form of almost insignificant details. Maybe there isn’t anything metaphorical about it.

I’d like to believe that what seems like textual fluff, the description of events and people and programmes and objects and their seeming insignificance in relation to the larger narrative, actually is key to our understanding of it. In his essay The Reality Effect, Barthes argues that these small insignificant details, when put together, signify the real, the l’effet de reel.

For me, there is something so important about all these insignificant, longwinded details. In La Nuit des prolétaires: Archives du rêve ouvrier (which was published in English as “Nights of Labor”, or “Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France”), Rancière presents a series of fragmentary, seemingly insignificant details and contradictory accounts of a small group of worker-intellectuals in the 1830s and 1840s. I like his seemingly anti-sociology, anti-historicising approach in digging through the archives to excavate these accounts. In the introduction, Rancière writes:

If the protests of the workplace are to have a voice, if worker emancipation is to possess a human face, if workers are to exist as subjects of a collective discourse which gives meaning to their multifarious assemblies and combats, those representatives must already have made themselves other in a double, hopeless rejection, refusing both to live like workers and to talk like the bourgeoisie.

This is the history of isolated utterances, and of an impossible act of self-identification at the very root of those great discourses in which the voice of the proletariat as a whole can be heard. It is a story of semblances and simulacra which lovers of the masses have tirelessly tried to cover up.

The night forms the grey area where poor workers unexpectedly double up as clandestine intellectuals; Rancière chooses to give significance to quotes from hybrid figures, painting a much more incongruous picture of the digressions, distractions and conflicting motivations behind each individual that is often taken to be part of a whole, giving significance to the words and stories which could have easily dismissed as meaningless since they were hard for us to process or to summarise into a ‘pure’ or neat theory.

In choosing to structure an exhibition around “spaces”, I feel that the goal of my role as ‘curator’ or ‘mediator’ of the archive would be to position these hundreds of extracts from the Substation’s archive in a space between a conventional confinement to their “place” in time and space – and a completely utopian or metaphorical abstraction of the spaces…

Istana Woodneuk

We went in search of Istana Tyersall yesterday, having vaguely heard about it. Knowing it was somewhere close to the Botanic Gardens, we launched off into an enthusiastic hike into the thick jungle. As we climbed up the hill, where the grass had not be cut in years, we were literally just clawing our way through endless heaps of damp wet grass. Philipp literally had to help push me up the hill along some parts as I am admittedly quite poor at hiking or climbing…

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After crawling up a hill and madly beating through all the tall grasses for what seemed like ages, we saw the building in the distant clearing.

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The second storey of this once imposing house was completely gutted by a fire. Ironically, many “visitors” have left their mark on the second floor using the “charcoal” of the burnt building to write their names and the dates on which they visited. Some of the graffiti even dates back to 1998.

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Front of the palace

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Electrical lines splayed out almost animatedly after having been cut out from the building years ago

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The doors are all gone but we found them stored in the kitchen.

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Roof

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As I was walking on the second floor, which had an impressive view of the area, I suddenly decided to seriously google for Tyersall FOR THE FIRST TIME and on my phone, i read a page on the Asia Paranormal Investigators website that explained that the original Tyersall building no longer exists, and that the nearby Woodneuk house is commonly mistaken for Tyersall. (I asked Philipp later and it turns out neither of us had really googled or searched for much information about Tyersall before being seized by the idea of going on this adventure, but happily so because we might not gone all foolhardy into the jungle otherwise and discovered this other building instead…)

It looks like that the National Archives received a batch of mislabeled photos (all dated 01/07/1986) that wrongly identifies Istana Woodneuk as Istana Tyersall. The Istana Tyersall no longer exists at all.

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This is the mislabeled photograph. Credits to NAS.

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This is the correct image of Istana Tyersall. Credits to NAS.

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This is the building plan of Istana Tyersall. Credits to NAS.

As you can see, this is the plan for the Istana Tyersall and not the Istana Woodneuk which we had found. I think we were off the map somehow as well (but in any case, the actual Tyersall is said not to exist anymore – but this is an exploration for another day!)

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The burnt second floor and a blue roof tile


(For more photos, i’ve posted them up on my flickr)

A Visit to the Police Memory Booth

EXCITING MAIL AT THE ROWELL ROAD!!!
We received this “exciting” letter at the flat today. It was addressed to a “Loo Pin Seng” and was postdated 11 April 2012. Unfortunately, no one called Loo Pin Seng has ever lived at this address in at the very least the last 7 years, so this is a bona fide mystery!

What is the significance of the yellow paper though? I am not sure, for Taoist practices are completely alien to me. The Wikipedia page on Taoism in Singapore says that a “paper coloured yellow with a gold foil printed on it represents a gold tael”, so I think this might be joss paper. What is the significance of sending joss paper then?

We’ve passed this on to the friendly policeman at Rochor Police Station, who took our statement and wrote us and our account into a lovely little story which he printed out, got my housemate to sign, and then filed away for posterity. Although it was replete with typos and grammatical errors, I love the idea of this police man sitting here and writing down all these silly little stories all day long. Years ago I’d imagine the head of a town would do pretty much the same, minus the uniform.

Although it is a kind of memory booth, the crucial difference is that this is not a place to make up stories. I wonder whether the policemen have to go through a writing course, because they would be writing down all these statements, and how did they know how to write a compelling statement or story? Wouldn’t it be a bit like having to read the account of someone else’s dream, something that you won’t ever live but have to imagine being real because it was going to be set down in writing?

Behind us there was also a sign board that warned us that it was bad to tell false stories to policemen in order to get back at people who had offended you. It had a photo of two men sitting in the very same position that we were sitting in Rochor Police Station, across the counter from a policeman, and submitting their statements to a policeman. I looked up to the left and also saw the surveillance camera in the corner. The sign had a very longwinded story in it about a man who had told the policeman that someone had stolen his phone because the other man had offended him. It said that the lying man was jailed for 6 months for making a false statement. In the police memory booth, it is clear that there are some stories that will not be told, that the police refuse to tell and record – ie: those imaginary stories, the made up stories. How can we ever tell which is the true story? If we hadn’t made this legal statement, and because the police make their business about recording true stories, would this incident be any less real or true if not backed up by the physical statement written on the paper?

Anyway, if anyone wants to have a hot sexy chat with a mysterious english-speaking illegal loanshark, the hotline number to call is 83485909.