At seven-thirty on a cold, snowy February evening in 2010, a young man travelled from Essex to West London to attend his weekly meeting for LGBTQ youth. The journey took him at least two hours and he would return home shortly before midnight. Three days later, a group of six young men, hunched under their hoodies, shuffled their feet and walked nervously from their youth group, through their estate, to the house where spray paints and stencils awaited them. Their route took around five minutes from youth-club to art-space door but they were reluctant to walk it without the presence of an adult for fear of an attack upon them by hostile gangs. The very different journeys of those two groups, and the histories, identities, and experiences that infused them, formed part of the subject of ‘On the Move’, a Raphael Samuel History Centre initiative on youth and migration, hosted by the History Department at University College London’s and funded by an Innovation Seed Fund for outreach.
How historians research and understand the past may be far removed from the everyday experiences and identities of young people growing up in London today. When the present and future are fraught with insecurities – be they of gangs, drugs, homelessness or belonging – the past must appear to be an irrelevance, history a distraction. ‘On the Move’ aimed to explore how history could be made interesting, creative and maybe even helpful to young people of different backgrounds from across London. The project allowed historians and artists to work together with youth groups to explore the history of each group’s local area and identity. Four youth groups took part in the project, each serving young people from very different socio-economic, ethnic and geographical backgrounds. Westminster House Youth Club in Nunhead has a history dating back to 1888 and is a well-established and supportive community, whilst Smalley Road Youth in Stoke Newington has existed for only a year and is still finding its feet as a club. ‘New Horizons’ in Somer’s Town serves homeless young people, often with chaotic lifestyles and ‘Mosaic’ is specifically LGBTQ-identified and comprises predominantly middle-class young people from across and beyond London.
The project aimed to bring together young people, academic historians and the heritage sector to creatively explore issues around migration into and around London across history. Across January and February 2010, a graduate historian and a creative practitioner were placed with each of the four youth groups and worked with the young people to explore and express the history of their own areas and identities. (The creative practitioners were Stimulart, Sparkii Ski, Sachi Nehra and Ella Simpson; the historians were Esme Cleall, Rachel Harris, Gabrielle Villais and Kate Donington.) Smalley Road Youth visited Hackney museum’s ‘Growing Up Black’ exhibition and used Dennis Morris’ photos to think about their own relationship with their area. Westminster House Youth Club interviewed elders and were helped by Sparkii Ski to blend their testimonies into rap music. ‘New Horizons’ explored the history of Somer’s Town through images from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries that were accompanied by a soundscape, documenting the changing sounds across the ages.
‘On the Move’ ended on 27th February 2010 with a ‘Museum of London’s Future’, which exhibited the art-work that the young people had created and which also brought in two school groups, one from George Mitchell in Leyton and the other from King Alfred’s in Golder’s Green. George Mitchell students performed a drama based upon an oral history project they had taken part in that documented the experiences of residents of the Beaumont estate in Leyton. During the day, the young people took part in activities and discussions run by the historians and artists. At this ‘museum’ New Horizon’s historical montages and soundscape were exhibited, Westminster House performed their play based upon the history of their club and Mosaic displayed their identity portraits. Yet the real significance and achievements of the project lay in the creative process itself and the discussions that took place in the weeks building up to the main event. Around large pieces of card upon which images from the eighteenth century were stuck, conversations were had about life journeys from Libya to Italy to London, about our national identities and feelings of not belonging. Amidst spray paints, two young women had compared their experiences of living in different parts of London, of the different characters of gangs and how gang culture had changed over the years. Over maps of the haunts that queer Londoners occupied in the nineteenth century, we had talked about where we felt safe in our identities.
Throughout the project history became a tool for talking about lived experiences, it could be rejected or incorporated into the building-up of our senses of ourselves. What ‘On the Move’ began to reveal was that by sharing history in spaces that are not the historian’s own, historical pasts become useable, unstable, ‘promiscuous’. Through such a process, we as historians might lose some of the grip over the way in which history is portrayed, but we stand gain new questions, new approaches and perhaps, eventually, new colleagues.