Information about the piece
A Collection of Small Choices is a piece about an archive. More specifically, its about Hoxton Hall's extraordinary archive which dates back 150 years and contains 1000's of items.
"An archive is a conversation between the past and the present." Stuart Hall
When thinking about how to start that conversation, we realised that everyone has a firsthand relationship with an archive of sorts - the 'archive' of our own life. Every memory, every person you have ever met, all the toys you once played with, every smell, the places you have visited. All your facebook posts. These things form your relationship with the past, and contribute to your legacy in the future.
Our bodies, as much as our brains, are archives of life experience. Nothing triggers memory like smell. Sounds, spaces, even light, have a subtle effect. They can be incredibly evocative and powerful. Our life experience archive is sensory as well as cognitive. We found the physical experience of exploring the archives was as powerful as the visual: the sensation of turning a crinkled old page, the smell of old mildewed newspaper, or scorched fabric from bomb blasts.
Being in the building, feeling a shift in temperature, hearing a certain noise – this physical link to the past was essential to our experience of the archives. It’s more than just a cognitive 'conversation' between past and present – it's a shiver of sensation, a noise behind you, an atmosphere. We embraced the desire to anthropomorphise the building. We were determined that the building itself should respond to you as a visitor – and through our technology it knows when you follow the correct route in the correct order. It knows when to turn on a light for you. When to conjure a particular voice in your ear. The building is almost a puppet master, observing you as it has observed others before you.
It's important to acknowledge that most of the people who passed through Hoxton Hall are missing from the archive. They never left records of themselves. But by physically moving through this building, you make a connection with them.
Plus you add something of yourself to the archive by being here. Although you might not contribute a letter or a photograph, nonetheless by visiting you have a microscopic physical impact on this building. It absorbs you as part of the archive – through the skin cells you leave on the bannister, or the intangible imprint of your imagination, or a memory you leave in a corner. There’s a poignancy to your visit as well of course – because with all historical places, your visit damages the building, as well as animating it. Like our archivist character (Abi) says: '...we damage everything that we bring into the light... everything we bring to the surface is obliterated.' And this is true for memory as well as archival material – by digging deep to grasp hold of a shadowy memory we change it, re-remember it, re-shape it. History is subject to interpretation.
Maybe it is unsurprising that our meeting places reflect our diversity, but perhaps few buildings today have had such a bafflingly rich array of uses for so many different groups. From bawdy music hall to a Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance mission; from the Bedford Institute and the Girl’s Guild of Good Life to a post-war old people’s social club; and from a hotbed of pioneering 1970s political theatre to the performance and community venue we know today, Hoxton Hall has consistently defied easy definition.
Hoxton Hall has, ultimately, always been a place of resistance. The early music hall as a place of transgression. The community centre as grass roots defiance of poverty and desperation. Political resistance, encompassing modern social work, liberal educational values, and political theatre. And of course the building itself has resisted destruction, despite the constant threat of physical and financial ruin. In many ways, initially we felt the building resisting us from defining, categorizing, or simplifying its history. So we started to work with the idea of 'the book' versus 'the archive'.
You'll hear some of our characters refer to 'a book'. According to Rhianna (the intern) it is '...massive. Has all about the History. Says when everything was, what happened where and when...'
This book is a fiction. It represents an attempt to order history. It presents an ordered, chronological, authoritative telling of history, and it is a guide that steers a path through chaos. It identifies millions of tiny individual actions that together demonstrate social trends, and demonstrates how history forms patterns if you look through a wide angle lens. Of course all this information is available online in the real world. You can read about the original music hall entertainment, the Blue Ribbon Temperance Army’s fight against alcohol and godlessness, the Victorian philanthropists with their sensational descriptions of East End poverty, and the Quaker introduction of modern social work. You can google May Scott and Olive Christian Malvery. It’s all there for you to browse in the comfort of your home.
On the other hand, the archive represents multiple, chaotic individual voices and perspectives. It is an arbitrary collection which does not privilege any one voice over another. It is haphazard, simultaneous, contradictory, sensory and threatening. It is a vast labyrinth of voices and materials. It includes smell, the shift of temperature, the sound of the page turning. It engages your imagination, and is coloured by your own personal beliefs and life experience.
In reality there is no clear line between 'the book' and 'the archive' – they are interdependent. A Collection of Small Choices plays with drawing lines. Musical lines. Poetic lines. The lines of countless scripts. Moral boundaries. Lines that you are tempted to cross. People born 'the wrong side of the tracks'. We have represented Hoxton Hall via both these modes – the archive itself, and the books written about it.
Everyone has a bit of the book, and a bit of the archive, in their own life. We all combine a linear 'birth to death' narrative (our personal 'book') with the chaos of our memories and imagination (our individual 'archive'). In our daily lives, we constantly navigate between the two, in the way we construct ourselves, imagine our identity, and project ourselves. We remember ourselves afresh everyday.
People's experience of the past, and of history, is so much more than facts and dates. It gets mixed up with our personal character, our individual imaginations, our own identity within society and even the era in which we live. The person we are, and the way we see the world, affects the way we engage with the past.
"I have never been able to write about or think about the individual separate from society. The individual is always living some larger narrative, whether he or she likes it or not.” Stuart Hall
We wanted to direct you physically into the heart of this extraordinary building, and let you think about your own place in Hoxton Hall's diverse historical context. What does an archive mean to you? How do you shape your own personal archive? How does that define your sense of self? How does it shape your identity? How will you be remembered? What things have you done in your life that will stay with you? Is anything ever lost? Does it matter if you end up being an untagged face in a FB post?
We decided that possibly the most powerful way to represent Hoxton Hall's archive, was to invite you to bring your own life story into the building with you. Against this patchwork of archives and history, we invite you to imagine, rebel and (hopefully) join the conversation.
List of characters
The voices you hear in A Collection of Small Choices are all inspired by real figures. Fictionalized and given a mischievous edge.
Harneet - Cynical, measured, of Punjabi heritage. A contemporary nod to Olive Christian Malvery.
Rhianna - Youthful, rebellious intern. She is a contemporary fictionalized character, inspired by May Scott.
Dot - Hawk-eyed Victorian philanthropist; 'does good' to people. Inspired by Mrs Rae (founder of The Girl’s Guild of Good Life)
Pat - Enthusiastic Scottish guide. Believes fiercely in order - a disciple of 'the book' model of history. Her presence is a nod to the McDonald brothers (who ran the building as McDonald’s music hall 1866-71) and to Olive Christian Malvery’s aristocratic Scottish-born husband, Archibald MacKirdy.
Mrs Evans - Old East Ender, who was the cleaner at Hoxton Hall throughout the 1950’s-70’s. She lived locally, frequently worked voluntarily overtime to support May Scott's endeavours and, according to the minutes of meetings, earning 25p per hour.
Abi - An archivist, from Newcastle.
Mary - Godly and controlling, zealous and fervent. A fictionalized historical figure from the 1880’s-90’s, she is an evangelical Salvationist Slum Lass.
Alice - A young rebellious survivor, inspired by the 'Street Arabs' of Victorian England. These were iconic ragged street children sensationalized in photographs which swept through middle-class circles, dramatising the power of philanthropic intervention and religious morality.
May Scott - Grew up in Stockport (Lancashire). Worked at Hoxton Hall for thirty years (1944-74) tirelessly maintaining the hall, providing support, activities and a meeting space for local residents. She was much-loved by locals, who colloquially referred to Hoxton Hall as 'May’s place'. Originally trained as a teacher, May was by all accounts thoughtful, intelligent, but also had a knack with people. She’s reported to have been able to get anyone to do anything, with extraordinary willingness! The development of Hoxton Hall’s community arts programme that we see today owes a sincere debt to her energy, compassion and creative thinking. See more at: www.hoxtonhall.co.uk/great-women-of-hoxton/
Olive Christian Malvery (1876-1914) - First arrived in London as a young woman from the Punjab around the turn of the nineteenth century. Surviving photographs indicate that she was part Indian. She pioneered investigative journalism. Her series for Pearson’s Magazine called The Heart of Things describing her firsthand experiences of poverty in the East End of London, caused a sensation and established her as a cultural icon in Edwardian London. The press characterised Malvery as a liminal figure, a mix of east and west, high and low - a hybrid figure. She represented a complex 'Britishness' that coincided with intense political discussions over Britain's relation to Europe and to the Empire. Her position as an outsider was a useful tool, allowing her to reveal truths about England that were generally hidden from (or deliberately ignored by) those born and brought up in the UK. See more on our Small Choices gallery page.
Edward B. – inspired by Edward Bellamy, warden of Hoxton Hall in the 1930’s. Our imagined Edward B. is broken and shell-shocked from WW1, with poor health. The advent of WW2 finds him struggling to go on, and questioning his Quaker faith. A debilitating and unshakeable belief in good and evil.
Jan - Fictionalised actor and educator (1970s). A well-intentioned, idealist. Hopes to 'make a difference' through Hoxton Hall’s informal educational approach.
Heritage Interpretation Presentation
Below is a web version of the presentation we made for the Heritage Lottery Fund meeting at Hoxton Hall on 3 February 2015. It explains our ideas for the piece and reports on the Research and Development week we held at the University of York from 26-30 July 2014