One began her life and career in the north of England, before travelling to London to find success in the West End.
The other began her life in south Asia before travelling to England to reach the heights in London theatre.
One would be found in front of an adoring public on the stage of the Gaiety Theatre; the other spent 56 years blowing her trumpet to the heavens from the dome of the theatre – only occasionally spotted through the grimy London air.
This musical comedy production, ‘Our Miss Gibbs’, was a huge hit for the Gaiety Theatre and the star of the show was our first leading lady, Gertie Millar, who played the eponymous Miss Gibbs – a shop girl in a large London department store, Garrods.From a working-class background herself, (father a millworker and mother a dressmaker) Gertie’s career began in the 1880s with performances as a child in pantomimes in Manchester and London.She moved to singing and dancing in northern music halls, then found more fame and higher pay in London variety shows.
The zenith of Gertie’s career was achieved through her successful partnership with George Edwardes, the manager of the original Gaiety Theatre in the first two decades of the 20th century.In 1903 the new, rebuilt Theatre opened, Gertie played the lead in the long-running opening production, ‘The Orchid’, watched from the royal box by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
Musical comedy was a hugely popular form of British theatre in the early 20th century, and Gertie was one of the top performers, not only in the London theatres but also on Broadway – taking New York by storm in her performances in ‘The Girls from Gottenburg’ in 1908.She was also one of the most photographed women of the age, appearing on numerous postcards.‘Our Miss Gibbs’ was a typical Gertie Millar success story – running for 636 performances before transferring to Broadway in 1910.
Our second leading lady is The Spirit of Gaiety, designed by Hibbert C. Binny, constructed at his workshop in Essex and positioned on top of the dome of the newly rebuilt Gaiety Theatre in 1903.She is made from blocks of carved teak, gilded, weighs more than a ton and is 20 feet high – quite a show stopper.
In 1939, the theatre was scheduled for demolition to accommodate a road widening scheme.The Spirit of Gaiety oversaw the last performance (‘Running Riot’) on 25th February 1939.However, the road widening scheme was discarded, partly due to WW2, and the theatre stood abandoned and increasingly derelict.Astonishingly, despite bomb damage in The Blitz, the statue remained standing – resilient and proud.
After the war, the famous comic actor Lupino Lane bought the building, hoping to restore it to its former glory.Unfortunately, despite spending huge amounts on restoration works, Lane realised he had in fact bought a money pit, which he did not have the resources to fill.In 1950 he had to sell the property.The theatre was demolished and the English Electric Company building was constructed on the site.Although she lacked a theatre, The Spirit of Gaiety still remained on the site, if somewhat lower in status and height.She was preserved and stood in the well of the Citibank premises until 1984 when she was presented to the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden where she began her 3rdlife –on display in the main entrance until 1992, as concerns about her condition caused her to be taken off display and moved into storage.She came to rest at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Gertie’s private life was also entwined with the theatre: in 1902 she married Lionel Monckton, 20 years her senior, the man who had first spotted her performing and recommended she come to London.A theatrical composer, he wrote several of her best known songs, including ‘Moonstruck’ for ‘Our Miss Gibbs’.He was, however, a jealous man who disliked seeing his beautiful wife enjoying attentions from many of the ‘stage door johnnies’.The couple separated, but Monckton refused to give his wife a divorce even though she desperately wanted to marry the Duke of Westminster, with whom she was having an affair.Eventually King George V and Queen Mary were compelled to step in to prevent the scandal that would have erupted had the Duke had to divorce his wife to marry Gertie.
Meanwhile, theatrical tastes began to shift – in WW1 audiences began to prefer new entertainment in the form of films as well as music hall.George Edwards died in 1915, and Lionel Monckton’sstyle of song was increasingly dated.She achieved a few successes after 1912, but never again had the consistent acclaim of her early career, so in 1918 she retired from the stage. Her final performance was fittingly in the theatre of her home town – the Bradford Alhambra.
Gertie had by then embarked on a liaison with the 2nd Earl of Dudley.His wife died in 1920, and Lionel Monckton succumbed to illness in March 1924, so in April 1924,at last Gertie became the Countess of Dudley.She and her new husband spent most of their short married life in Le Touquet, not far from their neighbour, friend and fellow theatrical writer – P.G. Wodehouse.The Earl of Dudley died in 1936, while Gertie, still a countess, lived on in Surrey, until 1952, on her death leaving a substantial estate.
The Spirit of Gaiety on the other hand, has outlived the era of the Gaiety Girl, epitomised by Gertie Millar, and resides at the end of the Paintings galleries on the first floor of the V&A.Years of exposure to rainwater had left her internal framework heavily corroded and woodwork weakened.Urgent work was required, before an extensive treatment programme could progress, strengthening the rotten woodwork and reinstating her gilded surface – carried out by lead conservator Zoe Allen, who calls the statue one of her favourite objects.She was given this level of care as she is something of a rarity – wooden architectural sculpture doesn’t often survive.Size, weight, exposure to the elements mean few are preserved intact when the buildings they grace are demolished.The Spirit of Gaiety is therefore considered by the V&A to be unique within UK museum collections.She now has a new name – the V & A staff affectionately call her the Angel.Restored and renewed, she is once again visible to many visitors as well as staff who can all appreciate the joy and gaiety she represents.
This is the text to a presentation that was part of the Conway Storytellers in the Being Human Festival in 2021.
During the first years of The Courtauld’s Digitisation Volunteer program, Peyton Cherry wrote about how the project aims to capture materiality. Cherry emphasizes how “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5 in Cherry, 2019). In her blog post, she discusses how the digitisation project aims to contain as much of the materiality of the photographs as possible and to preserve context. Cherry outlines how the project seeks to keep texture, marks, or stains visible in order to reproduce “the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections” (2019). When I joined the Courtauld project a few years later, I hoped to extend her ideas further and contribute to the ideas about the project itself, by highlighting that the documentation of materiality also encompasses the evidence of decades of connections between the photograph and its use.
Cherry already outlined in detail the methods that The Courtauld uses for this digitisation project. The policy, with the salient points outlined below (Fig. 1), is a part of a method which ensures that the photographs and prints are not reduced to what our Head of Digital Media Tom Bilson calls “a point zero,” or a photograph contained within a timeless bubble which neglects context; Bilson’s approach to this project directly counteracts this trap in photographic theory. Again, this method is not about scanning the photograph, but photographing the photograph. In this way, the use of this object is also documented through its inclusion of handwritten notes by the photographer, labels written by curators, or numbers indicating categorization. Further, when photographing the collections for digitisation, raking light is often used to reveal a sense of depth through shadows and to illuminate small markers of use such as marks or tears. When the digitisation project includes each of these markers, the materials become signifiers of even more information, and document not just the subjects of the photographs but how everyone who has encountered that photograph has engaged with it.
Popular photographic theory follows Berger (1972) and Barthes (1977) to propose these photographs as moments frozen in time. This aligns with most reception theory, where photographs are a freeze frame fragment of time to be seen in the present. However, the methods and outcomes of this digitisation project emphasize that these are not frozen in time at all; instead these photographs are endurances which reveal our engagement with them through time. These photographs endure across time to show us that the collections refer back to themselves and to every time they have been used.
For example, the boxes containing the work of Tony Kersting boxes are labelled by his own hand, with his accompanying instructions regarding how he wishes his work to be published or cropped. Within these boxes there will also be unique identifying numbers, handwritten by volunteers, that are used to organize the collection. There may even be some small damage from an intern who was just learning how to handle museum artefacts or how to use the high-res camera. In the image below, we see that the digitised collection does not neglect to reflect on its own existence when it includes the record of its own organization and interactions (Fig. 2). Here the image contains the stories of contact between the photograph and the photographer, the individual curators, the museum structures, and the intern.
In another example, the photo below has two different styles of handwriting and a typewritten label (Fig. 3). These were likely all made at different times possibly by different people. This photograph is a part of the collection of images from the Ministry of Works documenting the damage from the bombings of WWII, with this specific photograph showing the damage to the parish church in Lambezellec, Brest. This Catholic parish still holds mass in 2021, though during the 2020 lockdown, there was an incident wherein the building was damaged again as some of the items were upturned and the lamp of the tabernacle was stolen (Ouest France 2020). Father Jean Baptiste Gless says that despite this incident, he will continue to leave the church doors open in the mornings so that people can come pray (Fig. 4).
In 2021, I came to the Courtauld project and added another tangible layer to this part of the Conway collection (Fig. 6). The layer I have added is of the undamaged church, before the bombing. Now, the image features both moments in time. This layer is not just the visible layer I superimposed but also the contribution to the knowledge around the histories of the photograph and collection. Each time we write about a photograph or engage with it in any way, we add to the histories and build upon those histories. Here, we play with time but we do not freeze it to what Tom Bilson calls “year zero.” This visual creation is especially interesting as it shows how this additive layering moves beyond the original image, stretching off the screen and reaching off the canvas.
On a theoretical level, I am also building on Cherry’s work in the same way that the collection builds on the work of hundreds of volunteers and in the same way that each engagement with the collection builds on earlier engagements. Ultimately, how the collection is digitised is not just about the photographs which end up digitised, but includes the entire history of how we have interacted with the photographs. Each engagement between curator or volunteer, writing labels or making small oily fingerprints, is a critical part of the material world created by the photograph which, through this long process of use, becomes less of an abstract digitised image and more of a museological object containing its own histories.
This project refuses to exclude evidence of its own existence. In digitisation initiatives, it is crucial to step back and look at the full scope of materiality to see how the collection is not simply materials but also the histories of how we interact with these materials. This project does that every time it records not just the numbers of archival boxes but pictures of those boxes. As Cherry (2019) suggests, the Courtauld collections are not simply photographs but cultural artefacts in and of themselves. Every picture which is not cropped, every edge revealing depth, points to the full histories of this collection and how every volunteer has become an integral part of that story.
It begins with a box. Not a large or particularly remarkable box. Similar in size and shape to a foolscap box file. But different: an ever-so-slightly curved spine, a coarse fabric exterior.
Actually, it begins before the box. Walk down a spiral staircase and then along the aisles. Read the spine labels. Pick a box. Take it off its shelf.
Open the box. What’s next? There are two options. Two types of looking.
Option one: place it on a table under a camera.
Look at your phone. The blue-yellow light of its screen. Look at an image on it. Where has this come from? When we look at an image on a screen, on a phone, laptop, tablet, we seldom think of its story.
Inside the box: paper folders, held together without glue, with creases and folds and tabs pushed into slits. A tiny structural wonder. Inside each folder, a pile of papers. On each piece of paper, an image.
Officially: The Conway Library contains over one million images: photographs and cuttings of world architecture, architectural drawings and publications, sculpture, ivories, seals, metalwork, manuscript illumination, stained glass, wall paintings, panel paintings and textiles.
Place each image, in turn, on a table, under a camera.
In Sontag’s words: The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning. 
In Barthelme’s opening sentence: The captured woman asks if I will take her picture.
Yet something, invariably, escapes. Slips out through the gaps in the cage. And the thing that remains behind bars is not the same as the thing escaped. The camera might capture something of the image, but when you see the resulting photograph, on a phone, laptop, or tablet, something else is not there. Paper to pixel. Physicality foregone. The object’s matter remains at large.
What does it mean to capture – partially – an object? Each morning, you click off the lights. You click on the camera, the computer. Before you have touched a box, you place a piece of thick plastic on the table under the camera. A grid of squares, each a different colour. Whimsically named a Macbeth chart. You’re not sure why. The click of the shutter; the chart flashes up on the computer’s screen.
This photograph on the screen is used (officially) to adjust the colour, the exposure, the saturation. Yet as you adjust these things, readying the apparatus for the task that will follow, it becomes clear that for everything you do capture, you must miss something else. To catch the detail of a dark area, you must expose a lighter expanse. The camera sketches the object on the table under it. The thing on the table is itself a reproduction. A drawing of a drawing of a drawing.
The camera sketches the object on the table under it, but to sketch is to approximate, to decide what to keep. Something, invariably, escapes. Perhaps this is the nature of drawing.
But not all of the red boxes are ready for this yet.
Officially: There are 9,763 boxes in the Conway Library. Inside the boxes the items are divided into folders. A folder can correspond to a town, a building, a section of a building, or smaller features. Folders are sorted alphabetically within each box.
To ready the papers, continue inward. Within each folder, the task (officially): to recreate the experience of moving closer to the building. Option two.
A front projection of a building. Below the drawing, a date, 1729, in a scratchy serif, words around it, some capitalised, seemingly at random. The pillars catch my eyes, returning them to the drawing above. I blink.
I am on a path I have not yet walked. It winds forward, manicured grass on either side, trees with undressed boughs. A regal edifice up ahead, the path snakes around it. I blink.
The side of the building, closer. White framed windows, curved at the top, darkness beyond them. Blink.
A doorway, cherubs carved into its lunette. Blink. A geometric marble floor, a carved wood ceiling, space (lots of it) in between. Blink. Another room, smaller, softer, a chaise longue, a fireplace, objet d’arts on the mantel above it. Blink. Two children playing, long strands of ivy encompassing them, carved in dark metal, covering an abyss; on either side, oak leaves, carved in stone; above, the same mantel. Blink.
I drag a pencil across a page, charting a path I have not walked. These images – photographs, cuttings – these drawings, with them I create the experience of moving closer to the building.
A caged building. Alike but not one with the other: bricks and mortar and stone and metal that I have not touched. The other which remains at large, and unvisited. With this pile of papers (now ordered) on the table in front of me, I have created a building.
I put the papers back in the folder, the folder back in the box. Close the box. Return the box to its shelf. Pause. Then: It begins, again, with a box.
 Susan Sontag, On Photography (Anchor Books, 1977), p. 55.
 Donald Barthelme, “The Captured Woman”, in Sixty Stories (Penguin, 2003), p. 280.
 William Blake, “Song: How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field”.
The 27th October 2020 marks the launch of The Courtauld’s first global crowdsourcing project: World Architecture Unlocked, a transcription task on Zooniverse.
From Somerset House to the Zooniverse
Since we started our work to bring over 1.5 million items from The Courtauld’s photographic libraries online we knew that to reach such an ambitious goal we would need the help and abilities of as many people as possible. We reached out to volunteers and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Our digitisation volunteers are passionate and dedicated – and these two characteristics can really make the difference between what is and isn’t possible.
However, we also knew from the start that it would be impossible for our digitisation volunteers to transcribe the metadata for every single item in the Conway Library, so we decided to capture the metadata for boxes and folders, and that the single items would inherit metadata from their parent folder, until item-level metadata would become available.
Meanwhile, the staff team decided it was time to learn python and put together a project on Zooniverse so that we could jump ahead and start collecting item-level metadata.
Enter World Architecture Unlocked
Zooniverse makes it possible for image-based research projects to upload their images to their platform and set up simple workflows. Our workflow means that the transcription task is broken down into steps: you are guided to look for different pieces of information written on stamped on each item.
For the tester phase, we uploaded thousands of images digitised so far (including plenty of images of Cathedrals in Britain!), so that anyone who felt like it can write down what they see on the screen, with some guidance from us. We are now launching thousands more images of buildings, art, and design from across the world!
One of the main objectives of our team and volunteers’ efforts is to free the Conway Library from the limitations of its current physical form and deliver it to the world as a new, digital entity. This will undoubtedly be a fantastic resource for researchers, but it will also greatly appeal to the general public.
As digital objects, the images will be able to finally travel back to the places they were born, and be seen by the people currently living there. In itself, this is already a beautiful way to complete a full cycle.
The more detailed our metadata, the easier it will be for visitors to find the right images to match their interests. Faye, Digitisation Manager
Our on-site volunteers are busy taking photographs of the rest of the collection as quickly as possible, and we will continue to add new sections of the library to Zooniverse for transcription.
How easy is it to contribute?
Anyone can contribute immediately, without any background knowledge
The main consideration in launching the Zooniverse project was to provide an accessible introduction to the collection and the work involved in the transcription. It felt important that World Architecture Unlocked should share the same vision as the wider digitisation project: to be approachable, informative and fun.
Through training our volunteers on the various processes involved in the digitisation project, we learnt what the most common questions about the collection are, and this informed how the online tasks should be introduced and structured.
When the Courtauld decided to start a Zooniverse project for its photo collection, I jumped at the chance because it was a great way to keep contributing to the digitisation project during lockdown. The interface was pretty straight forward to use, and because it only takes a short time to transcribe the information surrounding each photo, it was easy to feel I was doing something useful even when I could only spare a few minutes at a time. Figuring out some of the handwriting or faded numbers can be a bit of a challenge, but that’s half the fun. Some of the photographs are amazing. Jane, Digitisation Volunteer and Zooniverse tester and moderator
What does World Architecture Unlocked aim to do?
By opening up the digitised images of the Conway Library collections to an online audience, we are able to capture item-level description. This will have a huge effect in terms of the information and searchability of the collection.
The information we are gathering through World Architecture Unlocked (such as city, architect name, date of construction, and image description) will be added to the collection’s database, and will become extra information from which you can search the collection once our website launches.
Interested in browsing 1930’s European architecture? No problem! Want to see a list of all the buildings by Le Corbusier? Of course! Working on decolonising architecture? What a perfect starting point! – item-level description will make this kind of research easier and will provide a more intuitive search experience.
One of the things I really love about the digitisation project is
how it teaches industry-standard knowledge (about digitisation, archiving and object handling processes) in an accessible and open way to all, and I feel that the spirit of Zooniverse is very much aligned with this. Victoria, Digitisation Assistant
How does your transcription help?
Countries and Cities By transcribing the country and city name, you are helping us to build an interactive world map of the collection. Each country/city transcribed will become a geolocation on a world map, offering users a visual way to see the breadth of the collection, and browse it by country and area.
Name of Architect By capturing the architect’s name, users of our future website will be able to discover the work of a specific architect who might have worked in different countries, and begin to explore who did and didn’t make it in the collection, and why.
Date By recording the date of construction, you are helping to provide a chronological search of world architecture through its development and movements. This offers a more in-depth way for researchers to search specific time periods.
Description The option to transcribe an image’s description opens up the collection to a much more intuitive way of searching. For example, it will be possible to see at a glance that the collection contains exterior, interior and detail shots of a specific building, and users interested in fonts, mosaics or statues depicting mother and child in architecture will be able to search and see those images only.
By providing examples and tutorials on World Architecture Unlockedwe encourage contributors to be as accurate as they can. To make sure the data generated is as useful as possible, we are presenting every image three times to Zooniverse transcribers before marking it as completed. We will then compare the three entries to obtain the most accurate description for each item.
We also have a Talk page within the project where you can ask questions about what you find, or query any images that have information presented in an unusual way. Some of our existing digitisation volunteers are also moderators and will be happy to answer your questions.
The collection contains extraordinary old photographs of architecture and artefacts from around the world. I have handled many boxes and files working through the various steps of the digitisation process and I understand how important is to capture all the information contained on the card and to transcribe it in order to build the metadata. I volunteered to moderate on this pilot project to help others with their transcription and answering their questions.
I have also transcribed over 800 records and each time I have learnt something new or noticed a beautifully photographed detail which escaped me during a visit to a Cathedral, for example. Dora, Digitisation Volunteer and Zooniverse tester and moderator.
When can you start?
Immediately! You can start transcribing your first item by going to the World Architecture Unlocked page and clicking Contribute, or – even better – you can create a profile first so that you can keep track of your transcription progress and save any images you like.
On Zooniverse, you can drop in for 5 minutes or settle in for a few hours, each and every contribution makes a big difference in sharing our collections and making them more accessible for everyone – enjoy!
Digitisation, Database and Cataloguing Manager Courtauld Connects
In the Conway library’s photographic collection there is a photograph of an artwork titled ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, taken in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991. The artwork is by David Ward, a contemporary artist (born 1951) whose works include installation, photography, light, and sound pieces.
The piece consists of eight small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. In the black and white photograph we can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them. It must have taken a lot of thought and positioning for the photographer to capture an image of the mirrors without also photographing their own reflection.
The title is unusual: Imagination Dead Imagine. This is also the title of a short prose text by Samuel Beckett published in 1965. In this, Beckett uses imagination to explore imagination itself. He questions what the limits of an artist’s imagination are, and how these limits could be accessed.
By attaching a series of mirrors to a wall, Ward also seems to be questioning the viewer: what are the limits of an artist’s imagination?
In an art gallery it is expected that the viewer will examine pieces that interest them and look closely at work created by artists. Ward subverts this expectation, instead presenting the audience with themselves and their surroundings. They are the art. As the room constantly changes, with people moving in and out, so do the images that the mirrors reveal.
By ensuring the art reflects its surroundings, Ward cannot fully imagine what this artwork will look like before it is in situ. It exists outside of his control.
However, within a photograph the viewer’s experience of the artwork changes dramatically from that experienced in the gallery.
Because of the fixed nature of a photo, we are unable to interact with the piece, to see ourselves jumping from mirror to mirror as we walk across the room, or to see our changing surroundings reflected opposite us. Therefore, we are unable to see the artwork as it would have existed.
For all its attempts to preserve the artwork, the photograph is, in many ways, doomed to fail. As soon as the mirrors become frozen on film, they become unable to fulfil their purpose. They cannot reflect the viewer of the photograph. Through this image, we see the mirrors in a way we were never meant to, we see them without seeing ourselves.
Although our experience of the artwork shifts when it is viewed through a photograph rather than in person, there is some continuity between the formats.
The artwork remains a product of its surroundings, the surroundings just happen to have been selectively chosen by the photographer. The photographer is a collaborator in the creation of the artwork. It is not our own position, perspective and surroundings that create the art we see reflected. Instead, we see through the eyes of a photographer, stood still for a moment in 1991.
To see the artwork without seeing any people reflected defies the nature of the mirrors. This ultimately pushes Imagination Dead Imagine even further in challenging the limits of the artist’s and viewers’ imagination. Although much of the experience of the artwork is lost when photographed, the questioning of imagination’s limits remains.
Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19
Although the coronavirus has put our digitisation activities on hold at Somerset House, the pandemic has unlocked an outpouring of creativity amongst our volunteers. By adapting quickly, we have been able to initiate remote activities to advance the cataloguing, interpretation and care of our photographic collections, logging over 1,200 hours of remote volunteering time to date since 18 March.
Since our first open day in January 2017 over 900 volunteers have engaged with the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, donating over 25,000 hours of time. From the outset we have operated an almost constant programme of outreach, recruitment and training, and maintain an active community of around 230 regular volunteers, some of whom have each contributed nearly 700 hours of time. Activities on offer to volunteers include photography, labelling, copyright research, photographer attributions, transcription, and collection care.
Our volunteer community is diverse, exceeding targets set for us by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), and we cherish partnerships with My Action for Kids, Beyond Autism, and the Terrence Higgins Trust. In 2019 alone we supported 31 students on work placements of periods from a week to three months, and ran corporate volunteering sessions with companies including Willis Towers Watson, Mace, Cirium, LexisNexis, Ashurst, Boden, Sidley Austin, Marsh & McLennan, Tideway, Bank of England, AutoTrader and Facebook.
One belief remains constant: in order to deliver engaging content, without barriers or preconceptions, to the widest possible audience, we include that audience in its creation as fully as possible. Our volunteers’ efforts run through every part of this project, and it is their confidence, creativity and relentless dedication which we celebrate.
Before Covid-19 we were on target to finish the Conway Library by early 2021 before moving to the largely unpublished photographic archives of Anthony Kersting and Paul Laib. We will return to the studio as soon as guidance and practical considerations allow. In the meantime, this blog post describes a few of the ways in which we moved our activities online and strengthened our connection with the volunteer community which sits at the heart of this radical, transformational project.
Task management during Covid-19
To create and manage programmes of remote working, we record every activity on a master spreadsheet which includes a brief description of the task, links to internal and external documentation, and a priority number to measure how closely it maps onto the project’s core objectives. From this we can identify tasks we want to take forward, whilst refining or shelving those with less relevance or benefit. After an informal discussion, favoured tasks are then documented in detail in a pro forma for internal use which breaks them down under the following headings:
Title of task
On which material / collection is this task focussed?
Description of task,
How many volunteers can participate?
What equipment is needed?
Where will the task take place?
Instructions – how will the task be completed?
Who will supervise, and how?
What skills will participants learn and practice?
How will success be measured and judged?
No matter how detailed or trivial the task might seem, we also ensure that every one is matched against the same questions we answered in the Courtauld’s original application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund:
What difference will this task make for heritage? What difference will this task make for people? What difference will this task make for communities?
If a task reaches this stage and we’re still convinced of its value, we create a volunteer-friendly instruction sheet and launch it at one of our regular online meetings. The staff of the Digital Media Department then provide daily support and feedback through a dedicated channel on Slack, our digital hub for collaborations with our volunteers.
Although we continue to use Timecounts as a volunteer management system, managing the remote working activities of our large community within tasks requires a level of scrutiny that exceeds anything we had put in place before: one which enables us to log every activity, name, date and state of progress before checking and sign-off.
The following screenshot shows how we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks:
The following screenshot shows how we monitor progress across two specific tasks: the creation of draft Wikipedia pages for each of the photographers whose work appears in the Conway Library, and the production of audio transcripts of our blog posts in order to improve the accessibility of our storytelling and research.
The numbers are stacking up. From 18 March (the day following the suspension of in person volunteering activities and the start of remote working) to 1 June 2020 we have recorded:
1210.30 Volunteer From Home Hours
260 Kersting Mysteries solved
244 Conway Photographer Wikipedia template pages in progress
149 Conway Photographer Wikipedia pages ready for quality checking and publication
55 Layers of London records created
36 Audio Blog recordings in progress, with 13 ready to upload
28 volunteers have completed 752 subjects on Zooniverse.
Volunteering from home: researching the Conway Library photographers
The physical library is arranged by date period, then country, province, city or town. Notable buildings often occupy anything from a single box up to several shelves and, in certain locations, a division between sacred and secular architecture is present. However, for the first time since the library was created, our volunteers are revealing insights into the 400 named photographers whose work forms part of the collection. They inspect each photograph individually, and note down on a spreadsheet whether the name of its creator is present, usually in the form of a handwritten note or stamp.
Up to now all we knew about many of our photographers was their names. We turned the current situation into an opportunity for volunteers to research each photographer at home, with the objective of creating a biographical page for each on Wikipedia. The first step of the process is to assign to each volunteer a photographer’s name at random. Information they discover, such as her or his academic, bibliographic, and biographical details, references and external links is recorded on a pro forma which closely mirrors the Wikipedia page we will create for them. We communicate remotely with our volunteers every step of the way via a dedicated channel on Slack which now has 261 members, 64 of whom are actively writing photographer biographies. 244 biographies have been drafted so far, with 149 more in progress! The screenshot below shows a typical few days of the discussion currently taking place behind the scenes.
Readers might be surprised to know that, before the project created one, not even Anthony Kersting – described widely as the greatest architectural photographer of his generation – had a page on Wikipedia (we hold his collection of negatives and prints, and now expect to begin their digitisation in Summer 2021 ).
Volunteering from home: Kersting Mysteries
Anthony Kersting left his whole collection of negatives and prints to the Courtauld on his death in 2008.
He also left us his ledger books containing locations, descriptions and dates for almost every single photograph. In February our volunteers finished the massive two-year task of transcribing every one the ledgers, however his handwriting is often difficult to read, and many question marks remain.
To answer these, we created another Slack channel to which we upload high-res images of illegible entries, opening them up to the volunteer community to discuss, argue the case for a solution, and seek agreement. This involves a lot of Googling, and since we started we’ve all learned a lot about religious sites in Cairo, or alternative names of Eastern European towns.
One of the hardest parts of solving the Kersting mysteries is that he would spell things phonetically, or he might use a local spelling or variant spelling that isn’t used today. Volunteers are busy not only transcribing, but also translating. The product of this research will be the facility to geolocate almost all of his images on the new photographic collections website which this project will create.
Volunteering from home: Conservation
The Conway Library contains several thousand 19th century photographic prints. Many are rare, some are unique, and almost all are extremely susceptible to degradation and decay due to their particular chemical, synthetic and material qualities – the results of individual photographers’ experimentations and craftsmanship. We must understand the vulnerability of these objects to enable us to make the correct decisions and preserve them for the future and, in preparation, commissioned and submitted a Collections Conservation Plan to the NHLF. The period of closure has allowed us to plan and create training resources in the form of videos on handling, cleaning, selecting conservation materials, identifying deterioration, and storage, in anticipation of the digitisation of the Courtauld’s rich 19th century collections commencing soon after our return to the studio.
Volunteering from home: broadening access to the collection and teaching digital skills
Layers of London
Layers of London is a huge collaborative effort to map London’s history in a visual and interactive way, developed by the Institute of Historical Research. Anyone can access free historic maps of London and contribute stories and memories to create a social history resource about their local area, or places they have visited or researched.
We held a Layers of London training session attended by 16 volunteers back in February as we wanted to encourage them to use the site in their own time. However since lockdown we have adapted our instructions to provide a refresher for those volunteers we have already introduced to the project, and detailed guidance for newcomers.
Our partnership with Layers of London has allowed volunteers to add videos, text, or images from other places around the web, adding a richness to the story behind our photos. In many cases new information is sent back to us which isn’t recorded on the Conway’s photographic mounts.
So far, 22 volunteers are involved in this task. 55 records have been published, with a further 15 being drafted. Everyone who has taken part has learned new digital skills, research skills, made their own personal discoveries about our collections and shared them with a wide public audience who might have never discovered the rich and diverse coverage of the Conway.
Blog audio recording
Our blog has 57 posts (and counting!) on a range of topics linked to the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections. Almost all have been written by volunteers, interns, or students on work placement. We have long had ambitions to make audio versions of the posts to aid accessibility for people with a visual impairment. Since lockdown 13 recordings have been finished, with 36 more in progress. Clips will also be shared on social media and collected together in podcasts.
Volunteers engaged on this task have learnt new skills, from practical sound recording to speaking with confidence, and editing text for clarity. To support this activity we created a guide and made sample recordings (with photographs of the home-made pillow-fort setups to give professional results), and we give feedback on demos with tips and workshops on how to improve the sound if needed.
We recognise that creativity and self expression, particularly in a social setting, is an important means of boosting mental health – perhaps now more than ever. Our Art Club brings these very human needs and our collection together.
Once a week a member of the team picks an image from the collection to inspire volunteers (or anyone who comes across our prompts on social media). We always leave the prompts open, so people can respond using any media they have: we’ve received paintings, drawings, photographs, found object sculptures, video, and even flash fiction. The Henry Moore Foundation particularly enjoyed everyone’s imaginative responses to Large Square Form With Cut!
We hold an Art Club video chat each week for people to share their techniques, talk about art, and hear from team members on techniques to try with minimal materials. Our discussions about images from the Ministry of Works Collection depicting the siege of Monte Cassino led to moving reflections on photography, war, and memorialisation.
We’d encourage anyone to get involved in Art Club: check out our Twitter and Instagram channels for the prompts: there’s no time limit on trying out any of them.
The aims of every photographic and cataloguing activity we undertake are broadly those of raising awareness of the collections and the Courtauld, connecting with new audiences and providing them with content to foster learning and enjoyment at all levels. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when our audiences stop asking why our collections should be relevant to their interests, but start to ask why these images: whether beautiful, puzzling or shocking, are of interest to art historians – the content alone enticing and opening a door into the field of study.
A cornerstone of this content-centred approach is crowdsourced cataloguing. Whilst we wait for a new collections management and publishing system to be commissioned and built (which will itself have an embedded facility for crowdsourced cataloguing) we created a project called World Architecture Unlocked on Zooniverse, a platform involving hundreds of contributors worldwide, and uploaded the contents of the first 100 boxes from the Conway (over 8000 images), covering architecture from Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil and the beginning of early British. In each case we’re trying to do something which we always felt lay beyond the pragmatic objectives of this project which were to catalogue down to the box and folder level only: that of cataloguing individual images by transcribing everything written on their mounts.
After undergoing a period of internal testing by volunteers we’re now awaiting the go-ahead from Zoonioverse which will take this part of the project live. In the meantime anyone interested in contributing to the Zooniverse transcription is welcome to access World Architecture Unlocked, now in beta release.
We have always used Slack as a private social network for volunteers to use. However Slack has really come into its own since lockdown and, as well as run channels to discuss each volunteering task, we also run a fun_and_banter channel in which recommendations for books, podcasts, films, websites, and more are made. While we keep the recommendations mostly within the volunteer community, we often share some on our Twitter and Instagram channels, so make sure you follow us there. We’ve also been enjoying emoji games and sharing many art-related COVID memes. The London Boroughs emoji game had us occupied for a while!
We’ve run two Zoom chats per week since the first full week of closure, with between 23-46 volunteers joining us to catch up. We like to spend a few minutes going over project updates, but we always keep plenty of time just to check in and see how everyone is doing – and share yet more recommendations. Lorraine always has so many recommendations of all kinds from the seriously cultured to seriously silly, while Muny has shared great resources for teaching at home and keeping up with exercise! Another gripping twist of being online is that we are always learning about hidden talents: one week we found that we have bird watching (David), bird-photography (Christopher), and bird sketching (Anne) skills in our talented team! John has shared his hand-drawn print-out-and-colour in sheets, and Bill shared a gorgeous calligraphy front cover for a future book on Anthony Kersting, Sue went from Zoom skeptic to Zoom convert, and Francesca delighted us with her violin. We also welcomed some new volunteers like Gill, and welcomed back some old friends like Max, who volunteered with us back when the project started in 2017, and is now keeping in touch again with the online community.
The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway libraries hold almost one million mounted photographs and over 60,000 negatives. They act as a comprehensive record of western art and global architecture, including cuttings, reproductions, publications and photographs of works of art and landmarks. One entire room is filled with over 20,000 negatives by a single fine art photographer, Paul Laib, who captured works of art by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their studios. Elsewhere stacks are filled with photographs of sculpture spanning more than two millennia.
Performing the slightly meta process of taking perfectly lit, high-resolution photographs of photographs of works of art and sculpture as part of the digitisation project gets you thinking about the value of taking photographs of works of art. It is an inescapable fact that as jaw-dropping as the sheer number of stacks, shelves, boxes, folders and individual photographs is in its physical manifestation, it is minuscule compared to the billions of images on the internet (over 95 million are shared on Instagram alone daily).
My iPhone’s algorithm identifies over 650 photos in my camera roll which contain “art”. I have definitely been guilty of marching around museums and art exhibitions “camera-first”, viewing the art mainly through my phone screen and capturing images which disappear into the black hole of my camera roll and are rarely viewed again.
Museums buy into our need to capture visually our experience of art with selfie points and hashtags. However, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam made headlines in 2016 when it banned photography, writing “in today’s world of mobile phones and media a visit to a museum is often a passive and superficial experience. Visitors are easily distracted and do not truly experience beauty, magic and wonder”. They encourage the more old-fashioned image-making technique of sketching, arguing that it forces you to look more closely and appreciate a work’s finer details.
As well as having an impact on the museum experience, photography also changes the basic significance of the artwork photographed. John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing “when a camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of the image”. The image of an artwork becomes ubiquitous, released from a single location. The significance of the image then lies in it being the original of all its reproductions, rather in what it uniquely represents. The “release”, multiplication, and dissemination of the artwork’s image escape the authority of the museum or location in which it is housed and their curatorial efforts to create meaning through labels and dialogue with the works situated around it.
Even before a photograph makes it online, the photographer decides exactly what to include or exclude from her shot and can crop and edit at will once the image is taken. I was struck by what was lost in the images of Picasso’s sculptures I found in the Conway library: the three-dimensional objects are confined in 6×4 inch, 2D, black and white rectangles. The images of the sculptures give no sense of scale, colour, texture or physical space, and, without being able to walk around them, the viewer can only experience the angles chosen by the photographer. The images below highlight how different a work can appear in different photographs. The translation of an artwork into another art form shifts the meaning between artist, curator, and photographer just like the translation of literature into different languages.
Although the losses inherent in the photography of works of art are real, the reproducibility and editing power enabled by the process can have real advantages too. John Berger is not all doom and gloom: he writes, immediately after the quotation above, “the painting enters each viewer’s house… it lends its meaning to their meaning. At the same time it enters a million other houses and, in each of them, is seen in a different context”.
An artwork’s meaning is not destroyed when it is photographed, but rather multiplied, and our preference to taking photographs works of art ourselves rather than buying postcards in gift shops suggests we prefer the personal significance. The phenomena of “museum selfies” highlights this: what we see, appear with, and post on social media constructs our identity. Art brings a certain cache that reaches beyond personal Instagram feeds and into culture as we know it, as The Carters’ 2018 music video for APES**T filmed in the Louvre reflects.
Photographing artworks is an important aspect in the democratisation and accessibility of museums and collections too. The Courtauld Digitisation project’s aim is to make the libraries accessible anywhere to anyone who might have access to the internet. It enables a greater number of people to appreciate works of art globally, especially those who can’t access the original artworks, for geographical, financial or disability reasons. Museums concerned that allowing digital reproduction of their physical objects might decrease their value and make their physical space irrelevant needn’t worry: capitalising upon the photography of artworks provides free advertising and actually encourages people to visit the physical space and experience it for themselves.
Another advantage of photographing art is that it enables us to capture the artwork from a single perspective in a single location at a single moment in time. While an artwork can survive largely unchanged for hundreds of years, photographs can chart its journey through space and time and can serve an important historical purpose. For example, I could visit the work of art that is Rodin’s tomb, in Paris, but I would never see it as it looked on the day of his funeral, dwarfing the thousands of people who flocked around it, emphasising the legendary reputation of the sculptor. The photograph which captures this moment has value separate from the work of art it represents.
Photography’s ability to document is invaluable to the preservation of works of art. In the Conway library, I recognised one photograph of the Assyrian Lamassu, or human-headed winged bull, carved in the 7th century BC. It was taken in Iraq in 1950. The same statue can be found on Youtube, in a video in which members of Isis deface it, together with other works of art in Mosul museum. This work of art no longer physically exists, what survives are the photographs taken by hundreds of people, from architectural photographers such as Anthony Kersting, who took this image, to the most casual tourists.
An organisation called Rekrei (from the Esperanto for “recreate”) has crowd-sourced images of the works of art destroyed by Isis from which digital models can be produced by a process called “photogrammetry”. The viewer can zoom in and rotate the models to recreate the experience of moving around a sculpture and viewing it from different perspectives. 40,000 people have visited the website and uploaded images since its launch.
Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari has gone one step further, creating 3D-printed resin sculptures from the digital models produced using photogrammetry. These replicas cannot replace the originals but act as a stand-in, just as photographs did before them. Allahyari‘s 3D-prints physically represent the lost artwork but also act as time capsules, as they contain flash drives with images and documents relative to the original art object, creating an alternative, democratic way of preserving heritage.
In truth, the photography of art will always be a debated issue. As we come to the end of the decade in which Instagram was invented, we acknowledge that the ways in which we experience art and culture have shifted and sped up dramatically and irreversibly. However, after a week with the Courtauld Digitisation Project spent realising the vital importance of preserving images of works now lost or in danger, I conclude that there is a lot more winning than losing in the photography of art.
AF Kersting, 20th Century British photographer, traveled to Turkey at least two times, including in 1963 and 1995, and photographed much of the significant sites of Istanbul, also known as Constantinople. Hagia Sophia, the building we see standing today (preceded by two churches and a pagan temple) was rebuilt by the Byzantines under Emperor Justinian in 432 CE. 
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered this area of modern-day Turkey and transformed this church into a mosque; besides some smaller renovations, this was accomplished mostly by adding the minarets. As the complex’s official site notes, “In 1934, the founder of Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ordered the building to be transformed into a museum,” the condition in which it remains to this day. Ever since 1453, the mosque has been and continues to be an inspiration for the rest of the Turkish Empire mosques.
Kersting’s View of Istanbul: Historical Preservation as Top Priority
As Kersting wrote, “Anyone visiting Istanbul for the first time might be excused for finding it difficult to realise that this City [sic.] was once the centre of the civilised world, and that under the name of Byzantium it carried on the tradition of Roman culture and learning for close on a thousand years after Rome itself had fallen…”  Kersting’s entire entry on this subject (and other parts of Istanbul) remains largely an objective, informative one. The question of what exactly the early 20th Century Englishman thought of Istanbul himself remains unanswered.
However, something can be gleaned from the fact that he titled the article “Changes in Istanbul” and spends roughly 90% of the paper talking about Istanbul (and the Hagia Sophia’s) history and previous state of being. Consciously or subconsciously, Kersting considered Istanbul’s entire value to be derived from its rich history rather than its condition during his own visits. He seems opposed to any modernization or changes he does mention, excepting of course the restoration of older buildings: “New motor roads are being built and in the process [m]any of the old wooden house[s], formerly such a picturesque feature of the old Turkish City [sic.] are being bulldozed away.”
Did Istanbul residents at that time not view these homes as sacred relics as Kersting did? Or did they value them as such, but did they prioritize progress and modernization as the means of restoring Istanbul to its former glory? Whatever the natives’ view may have been, this English sojourner seemed in favor of restoration and consistency (as opposed to modernization) in the city itself, and probably held the same view about the city’s icon.
Kersting’s Journal Entry: Background on the Hagia Sophia
In his entry about Istanbul, he includes snippets on just two of Istanbul’s mosques, including one about the “Hagia” or “Santa” Sophia: “The first object of pilgrimage of every tourist is probably Santa Sophia. Without doubt this is one of the greatest buildings in the world. Built by Justinian as a church in 532 AD, it was converted to a mosque at the Turkish conquest and is now a museum. Although it has suffered many vicissitudes and has undergone many changes, the remarkable [thing] is that the main fabric of the building has remained relatively intact for some 1400 years. The four minarets were added by the Turks on conversion of the building to a Mosque [sic.]. At the moment these are undergoing repair.”
The domed Santa Sophia served as the inspiration for the Mosques [sic.] built by the Turks after their conquest of Byzantium.
The Hagia Sophia As Seen Through Kersting’s Lens
Even with just this little bit of background information, one can analyze Kersting’s photographs with the naked eye and easily notice the deliberate choices he made when photographing this magnificent house of worship.
The developed photos of the Hagia Sophia we have within the Kersting Archive at the Courtauld comprise about twenty-five different photographs, following Kersting’s careful labeling system. There are at least two photographs printed for the vast majority of each of these different shots Kersting took, but even the ones developed from the same negative can vary slightly in lighting and cropping.
The first deliberate choice one can note is that the majority of the photographs Kersting took were of the interior of the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. The majority of his photographs contain either no people at all (over one third of the total shots) or very blurred, obstructed, tiny, or barely visible people (about half of the total shots).
This decision to prioritize the architecture over the people could mean several things: a. He photographed the museum at hours or during a season that was not the peak time or season for tourists to visit. b. Kersting requested, and somehow had the leverage with the museum authorities, to clear the museum (at least mostly) of people. c. The shots in which the people are blurred indicate that Kersting purposefully left the camera shutter open for longer, theoretically for the dual purpose of having the camera focus on the Hagia Sophia building itself (rather than any moving entities) and probably to allow as much light into the camera as possible and capture the interior detail of this rather dark building.
Another common feature one might note is that Kersting typically selects landscape format for his exterior photographs. He does this, most likely, because he chooses to take most of his exterior shots from a distance adequate for capturing the entire rambling width of the mosque complex. We only have one developed shot where he uses portrait mode for the exterior (Fig. 2.). In it, Kersting emphasizes the verticality of the building by shooting from a shorter distance and placing one of the minarets as the focal point (in the middle ground 1/3 from the right). The only other technically exterior shot that is in portrait format is from under a covered colonnade, which actually could be considered as more of a transitional space than an exterior space.
Similarly, Kersting is more likely to place his focal point in the middle of the frame should the shot be of the exterior elevation. Except for the minaret photo mentioned earlier (Fig. 2), all of his exterior shots again showcase the mosque complex, always placed in the background, with the mosque gardens in the foreground and middle ground. Comparing these shots is especially interesting for viewing the architectural alterations made over time.
For his photos of the interior, Kersting mostly – and ingeniously – chooses one of the chandeliers for his focal points. This focal point doubles as a window of sorts, drawing the viewer initially to itself (the chandelier) and then to the background behind it which, in the case of Fig. 4., is the beautiful Arabic lettering and repurposed Greek Orthodox architecture. Because of this method, the viewer is more likely to notice the entire scene, not merely its focal point. Kersting knew that, had he chosen to focus on a singular solid object, the average viewer would walk away having disregarded the whole scene except for the one focal point.
For his interior photos, Kersting also often uses doorways or columns to frame his scene, again a brilliant technique to provide boundaries for the photo and draw in the eye to the photograph’s central portion. Kersting uses the setting’s ready-made frames to catch the eye immediately from afar, especially if the frame provides a naturally strong contrast between light or dark areas (i.e. the brightly lit west wing popping through the dark frame of two columns and foreground in Fig. 4).
Kersting is creating chiaroscuro: using the extreme contrast of light and darkness to his advantage for the sake of creating depth and dimension. (As he was working in black-and-white, these contrasts were essential in making his photographs readable and interesting.) His framing devices also make this giant museum that is open to the public (and therefore people of all faiths and backgrounds) feel more personal and intimate. In other words, the frames make his photography of this iconic site feel less like the average tourist’s postcard and more like a special access invitation to an exclusive space.
A final observation is that, several times, Kersting chooses to capture the scaffolding and the repairs occurring at the complex, which he also is sure to mention in his journal entry. Why does Kersting choose to photograph and mention elements that others might consider an eyesore? Does he want to emphasize the events occurring contemporaneously to himself – to capture his unique personal experience (as opposed to that of the millions of other visitors who had and would come over the 1400+ years the building had existed and would continue to exist)? Or did he want to document this as history, for the sake of posterity’s knowledge? Or to commend the natives’ or government’s interest in preserving part of their heritage? Regardless, the photographer did intentionally capture this historical preservation of Istanbul’s most treasured site and did not try to crop out or curate his shots to cover up the ongoing preservation, whereas other artists may have considered this element unsightly and distracting.
Despite any of these or other unresolved speculations, we can make one claim with confidence: it was hundreds of deliberate choices like these that characterize Kersting’s architectural photography as superior to that of other photographers, choices that naturally attract the human eye and engage the human mind.
If you are accessing this guide online, please note that it is intended to be printed, as Steiner education encourages first-hand engagement. Users of the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art can also find the printed guide in box CON_B04414; the corners have been rounded, in line with Steiner school practice, so that the student can approach from any angle.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian architect, clairvoyant, esotericist and social reformer. Among his projects, he set up the first Waldorf school in 1919, to teach his principles of anthroposophy, a spiritual movement founded on the belief in an observable spiritual realm which interpenetrates the material world. Waldorf schools use a kinaesthetic, action-loaded approach to intellectual subjects, focusing on art, music, and rhythm. No textbooks are used in Steiner’s philosophy; instead, students make their own educational materials, as I have endeavoured to do here.
Extrapolating from Steiner’s elementary school reforms, anthroposophy, and the initiatives of London’s Rudolf Steiner House, I have created a guide for studying the Steiner archive using his own pedagogy. The library box, ref: CON_B04414_F005 & F006, holds early photographs of both Goetheanum buildings, which cannot be understood without Steiner’s spiritual science.
This textbook is intended for students of the Institute, those involved in Courtauld outreach and public engagement programmes, and any prospective students of Steiner.
“The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and is the theatre.”(Mumford, 1937: 185)
Devoid of the familiar bright bursts of graffiti and reliable clunks of skateboards hitting the floor, the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall pictured in the 1960s is almost unrecognisable. Standing on the site of a shot tower built as part of a lead works in 1826, this brutalist piece of architecture was retained for the Festival of Britain and was worked on by architects such as Bennett, Whittle, West and Horsefall before being opened by the Queen in 1967. As with other brutalist works of the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth Hall reflects the efforts of young designers looking for new ways to express their belief in the future. For example, this is demonstrated in their use of concrete, a traditional material, in original and experimental ways. Love it or hate it, the creativity enmeshed in the brutalist genre is incontrovertible.
In light of this, a building as expressive as Queen Elizabeth Hall should surely stand as the pinnacle of creativity and innovation in the city. Yet, this is not necessarily the case. In the midst of exchanges between large organisations, authoritative bodies, renowned architects and other key public and private players, the individual city dweller can become disconnected from the city that rises around them. Rather, the dictation of how the city is structured from above works to pacify citizens. In this way, people are shaped by the city, or more accurately, the power relations that shape the city in the first place. While Mumford’s (1937) metaphorical description of the city as “theatre” suggests its inhabitants are granted endless freedom in their performance, in reality, this performance must comply with a particular set of restrictions imposed from above. Perhaps the city as “container”, or even “prison”, would be more appropriate.
However, the skate park found in the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall today suggests otherwise. Despite being intended as a pedestrian walk-way, the Undercroft’s interesting features drew skaters to adopt it as an undesignated skate park – “Southbank” – in 1973. In appropriating public space for their own use, Southbank’s skaters are performers in their own theatre, regardless of restrictions imposed from above. They are active agents shaping the city, just as the city shapes them. In a broader sense, subversive actions, such as skateboarding in undesignated areas or making graffiti art, speaks to the re-politicisation of public space through the agency of the everyday citizen. As contended by Hall (1998: 7), the city is “a unique crucible of creativity” and this creativity hands every person the potential to destabilise the supposed natural order orchestrated by those above.
That said, the potential for small-scale subversive activities to make a profound difference in the contemporary urban landscape may seem limited. Indeed, a skateboarder with a can of spray-paint in hand seems unlikely to win a hypothetical battle against the Greater London Council. Collectively, however, the power of communities must not be underestimated. In 2004, the Southbank Centre temporarily closed large sections of the Undercroft for exhibitions, but closures continued until plans for a commercial redevelopment of the Undercroft as a “Festival Wing” were uncovered in 2013. In response, the Long Live Southbank campaign was set up by the Undercroft Community to resist the proposal. Following an incredibly successful campaign which saw immense public support for the Undercroft community, Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre signed an agreement guaranteeing the long-term future of the skate spot. Moreover, the Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre have been in a partnership and joint project team to restore and renovate the Undercroft as a skate area since 2016. As demonstrated by the Long Live Southbank campaign, the collective action of everyday citizens has the potential to make huge institutional changes at all levels of authority and power.
To reflect the changes made to the Undercroft by the skate community, I have graphically imposed a representation of their graffiti artwork and skateboarding onto one of the photographs taken in the 1960s. Indeed, the very action of creating artwork on top of an original photograph seemed subversive in itself. Just as artists spray-paint city walls, I felt as though I was altering property that was not mine to alter. Surely photographs stored in archives were for “proper” research with books and essays to show for it? Yet these are exactly the kind of unspoken expectations creative art forms can challenge. In using the archive in such a manner, I was performing in a theatre of endless possibility myself.