The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, a nation, a company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.
- Orhan Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects, 2012, p. 56
The exhibition A Journey with Absent Friends was deeply inspired by Pamuk’s ‘modest manifesto for museums’, and sought to reshape the meaning of what a museum or archive could be… through a very ordinary caravan. Bringing together themes of grief, loss, memory, pilgrimage, and autobiography, ‘Perle’ the caravan was created by artist Ellie Harrison and her team as part of the Grief Series, an award-winning, decade-long artistic project. It represents collaboration, with other artists and designers such as embroiderer Hayley Mills-Styles, with restaurant Swine that Dines in Leeds, with museums such as Abbey House, with people who had experienced different forms of loss, as well as with myself and Jessica Hammett as historians. We hoped that this collaboration provided innovative ways to do history gently, ethically, radically, by opening up space to consider whose stories get to be heard. Our aim was radical compassion, through bearing witness to our own and others’ marginal histories. This is the subject of our new History Workshop article, co-written by Jessica, Ellie and me.
Ellie Harrison introduces Journey with Absent Friends
In the above film, Ellie introduces the idea of the project, her ‘family holiday with three dead people’, her mother, father and brother, all of whom died when Ellie was young. Ellie invites the audience to reflect on what they’ve lost too, be that a person, a building, or a former self. The caravan used Ellie’s own story to open up space for others to share their stories too. Alongside Ellie’s experiences, a whole range of stories and histories were featured in the caravan, from Suzie Lee, a Traveller whose caravan came to represent the memory of her mother and father, to a mother who lost her baby at just two days old, whose story is shown through a beautifully embroidered baby gown. With the opportunity to add to a map and audio archive, the stories in the caravan are constantly growing as visitors come and add to its contents.
Events like the picnic shown in the above film further allowed us to explore our theme of where the memory of the dead live. The picnic hamper we provided featured items inspired by historical examples of where food came to be entwined with a person’s memory, from Estonian beetroot salad to a beloved aunt’s elderflower champagne.
As Ellie notes, part of an ethical way of working means only asking people to share their stories if you too are prepared to share yours. This really worked, as people were keen to mark their remembrance and share it in the caravan and at events. The diversity of stories available, of the artist, from the past, and from a core group of collaborators created a space of openness and the ‘humanity’ Pamuk perhaps hints at. The diversity of stories and experiences in the caravan invited a diversity of responses, from a wide range of people of varied backgrounds.
Working with an artist like Ellie raised so many questions for us as historians: whose stories matter, where and how they get to be told, how those experiences are dealt with ethically, and how much of ourselves we should share in the process, as researchers. Through such collaboration we found new ways of working, new approaches to public history, and a lot to reflect on in terms of the role of historians, heritage and museums. This collaboration most importantly allowed us to renegotiate the boundaries of expertise, opened up questions of how stories are created and told to a wider audience, and led to different ways of doing historical research itself. The result was a more caring and careful approach to the past. Where grief had presented absence, we were able to create something visual, tangible and present.
Laura King is Associate Professor in Modern British History at the University of Leeds. Her recent AHRC-funded project focuses on death, dying and remembrance in twentieth-century Britain. This project involves collaborations with Abbey House Museum, Leeds Dying Matters Partnership, Leeds City Council and Leeds Bereavement Forum, family historians, and Ellie Harrison and the Grief Series. It was supported by Jessica Hammett. Laura’s past work has focused on everyday and family life in modern Britain, including her book Family Men: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Britain, 1914-60 (OUP, 2015). She has also written on methodologies of collaboration and public history, such as her 2015 article in History Workshop Journal with Gary Rivett.