Last Thursday, I went to the ‘Archaeology by Twilight’ open evening at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive in Hackney. Part of a summer series of tours and events at the archive, the evening included tours, displays of items, spoken word performances and a bar. The archive holds information on almost 8,500 archaeological sites that have been investigated in Greater London over the past century, including many of the items found (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/collections-research/laarc/). With a huge variety of items, from human remains, medieval hairnets, cars and carriages to board games, horns, and Roman pots, it was a fascinating evening.
My favourite part of the evening was an atmospheric tour around the ceramics and glass archive, with the lights switched off and the chanting of medieval monks playing in the background. Armed with torches, we were let loose amongst the rows of cabinets and shelves, to gaze at pottery that was, in some cases, more than 2,000 years old. Once I got over the sensation that this was exactly how an episode of a murder mystery drama would start, I was struck by the sheer volume of material, each item with a story to tell about London’s past. The further we moved away from the door, towards the back of the room, the further back in time we went, to the Romans and beyond. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was very excited to see so much history in one room!
For me, the evening highlighted the process of museum exhibits. Displays and exhibitions in museums have the air of being complete, an accurate record of the past. This glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ suggested how much work goes into curating an exhibit in a museum. Most of the items in the archive will probably never go on display, what a visitor sees in the galleries of the Museum of London is just a fraction of everything that they hold. One of the most fundamental lessons I have learnt since starting my university education as an undergraduate is to question everything, to take nothing at face value. But I still find myself overlooking things, and welcome being reminded of the complexity and intricacy of seemingly simple things as I was on Thursday evening.
Another element that struck me was the particular materiality of this archive. When imagining archives, most people probably think of documents, records, letters, photos, maps, pieces of paper in various shapes and sizes. And whilst the Archaeological Archive no doubt has this kind of thing too, it also has thousands upon thousands of objects. Listening to the curators on Thursday night it was obvious that huge amounts can be learnt from the collections in the archive. For example, because the volume of material is so large, comparisons can be made between similar objects, leading to more general conclusions about life in London than it would be possible to make from one object. After exploring what the archive has to offer, it’s clear that it does not fit into the stereotypical image of ‘the archive’. Materiality has become a popular topic within geography over recent years, and I can think of at least a few historical geographers who use objects in their research. However I’m sure it is not the sort of research that springs to mind when people think of historical geography (when they think about historical geography at all!). ‘Archaeology by Twilight’ reminded me of the huge variety and potential of archives, which is something I wish that more people knew about!