Writing

London Metropolitan Archives

4

We excavate the history we need, bend the past to colonize the present.

Iain Sinclair, Rodinsky’s Room

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Archives can be a great resource for writers. After our visit to the small but fascinating Bishopsgate Institute, Professor Lichtensetin brought us to the London Metropolitan Archives, which contain a lot of material that can tell us more or less everything that happened in London. They have maps, business documents, courts records, pictures, associations or religious organisation documents, engineering plans, and many other important resources. The material that LMA gather covers the area of Greater London.

Some of the historical documents that LMA preserve can make you shiver. The oldest piece they have is a document written in the 1067, when William the I stated that sons should inherit from fathers. It is written on a piece of parchment, made of animal skin, and of course it is not possible for normal visitors to touch it or see it. Parchment, though, deteriorates less quickly than paper. The Archive also has two Magna Cartas, some signatures by Shakespeare and many other documents signed or written by important people of British history.

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There are many documents and tokens from Foundling Hospitals in London. Moms used to leave their children with some objects, letters or tokens (f.i. scraps of material) which could “identify” them. The names of those children and their tokens are listed in huge books. LAM include also parish records or family history documents – such as Charles Dickens‘ marriage contract. A lot of London’s crime and courts history can be studied in this archive – there are even the letters of (the supposed) Jack the Ripper!

Signatures of people like Oliver Cromwell, Oscar Wilde, John Lennon can be seen. The maps and prints can be from 1500, and the photographic collection is huge (125000 in total). Due to the importance of the collection, getting into the LMA is not easy: you’ll need a History Card and be careful of the opening hours (on Fridays the Archive is closed). We were lucky enough to have a tour of the place. There is an interesting Exhibition Area, where at the moment some photographs, films and tokens are shown under the name of “London in War“. Then we went into the Mediatheque, where we had the chance to have an idea of how big the collection of oral history, pictures and films is – the digitalization process is slow, but a lot has already been done and the digitalised materials are many and different.

 The material that can be collected in such an important Archive varies a lot, but how do they decide what to keep? It depends of course on the historical value, the space, the privacy issues, and the accuracy. Also, some materials can be very fragile, and there is a conservation department that is all about preserving that material. It is the biggest conservation studio in London, and it is called “The Hospital for Books”.

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The tour went on to the spaces where materials are actually conserved – enormous rooms full of boxes. As soon as I went in, I got struck by the smell of cardboard. Things are not stacked as individual items, but it is a sort of “packaged collection”. Things are put together according to a specific parameter based on time, theme and so on.

After the tour, we had a special workshop about handling items in Archives. The tutor wanted us to put on gloves when managing fragile material (I was scared to damage everything, so I kept them all for the whole session). There was a specific method to keep the material in order. The boxes we had access to contained some material that was connected by a theme, but everything was carefully divided into files which we had to open slowly and carefully in order not to lose any material or put it in the wrong order. Every box had a specific code which we had to note down. When you write about some material found in the Archive, you always have to refer to that number.

The first box I opened contained some material from a Foundling Site called Mary Ward Institute. I had the chance to look at documents and pictures from the birth of the Institute until now (it still exist, but has of course another function – and there are even Creative Writing classes!). [LMA/4524/01/001-003, 005-010, 012]

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Mary Ward (1851 – 1920) was known as a writer, student and critic. She wanted to start a project for the welll-being of young people, a school for invalid children. I was struck by the force of some pictures of children playing in a boxing ring. As Professor Lichtenstein wanted us to pic one of the items that we found in the Archive and write a creative piece about it, I decided to use this pic, called in fact “The Boxing Ring“. I called my piece Dark Coat and Smoke Rings.

After that, we had to swap the boxes and I picked another one [LMA/4505/02/001]. It was about a man who left China to move to London in the seventies. The box contained a lot of information about the chinese community in Inslington, but the most fascinating part was the moving story of this man, who had quite a difficult journey to find a better future in another place. It seemed like a story that could be interesting also relating to all the immigrants who are moving to Europe nowadays.

After that, I found an old edition of a story written by Charles Dickens, The Holly Tree-Inn [A/FH/M/03/022]. I only had time to read the first part, but it was amazingly funny: I was under these circumstances that I resolved to go to America – on my way to the Devil!

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This visit to LAM taught me that there are immense resources for writers. The whole Creative Practice class is about how important it is for writers to conduct research and find inspiration. Archives seem to be one of the best places in which doing it, because they contain so much material which it is not possible to consult in other places. For example, while I was doing my homework and writing my creative piece about the pictures of the children playing in the boxing ring, I wanted to find a HD picture (the picture I took wasn’t that good). Of course, I didn’t find it on Google. Some of the things that archive include are unique and can only be found there. That is a great part of the magic of these places.

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