Public History

Memoryscape: an interview with Toby Butler

Toby Butler is the creator of Memoryscape, ‘sound walks’ that invite you to experience the hidden history of a place by listening to the memories of inhabitants, both historical and contemporary, as you walk through it. He is a lecturer in London History and Heritage at the University of East London.

One Sunday, I walked the Greenwich to the Millennium Dome walk and was enthralled by what I heard and what was revealed (and newly concealed) of the riverscape. Having dragged myself from the mud I felt compelled to reflect further on his walks and ask Toby more about his time travelling device…

Toby Butler interviewing a lock keeper at Molesey Lock on the river Thames

Rowan Wilson: Can you briefly explain to the uninitiated how Memoryscape works in practical terms?

Toby Butler: The Memoryscape trails use oral history to gather experiences and memories of people at riverside locations along one of the most famous landmarks in Britain, the River Thames in London. The presentation of oral history tends to be limited to publishing extracts from transcripts, or playing extracts in a museum context. I wanted to experiment with presenting memories coherently in a spatial context, using some techniques borrowed from sound art practice, and in the process encourage people to encounter parts of the river – and its culture – that they may not have considered exploring before. The Museum of London funded the publication of two sound walks on 1,000 double CD sets with accompanying walking maps, which can be ordered and downloaded (in MP3 form) from the website, or bought in the museum shops. Each walk is about three miles and follows sections of the Thames Path. As you walk along the river, you play tracks along the way and hear about 30 different voices telling you something about river culture.

RW: Your walks are an extremely effective way of bringing the unseen history of an area to life. It seems to me that there are 2 ways in which a historical site can have its history remembered: as a ruin and as heritage preservation (complete with interactive displays, etc). The latter has an over riding feeling of containment – a compartmentalised history separate from our daily lives; a cauterised wound as opposed to the still bleeding ruin. The Memoryscape allows an area to continue to be its own place with a new history, while allowing one to experience aspects of its past. Memoryscape also provides a sense of change over time. The Greenwich walk, for example, starts with workers in their youth, lingering on the 19th century Greenwich tunnel and its use as a wartime shelter, and finishes with the decline of the docks and the new uses the river is put to. Do you feel that Memoryscape is in conflict with the heritage industry in that it foregrounds this sense of history as movement rather than as static moment?

TB: The present plays a very important part in these walks, in practical terms and in terms of what you might call my historiographical position on the heritage ‘industry’, that I have worked in and written about for many years. I’ll start with the latter. The heritage industry got an almighty kicking from Patrick Wright and Robert Hewison for this kind of compartmentalisation you mention in the 1980s, and in some cases deservedly so. Since that time I think there have been a couple of major shifts in how heritage is delivered. Firstly museums and galleries have come a long, long way in making the history they present more relevant. Curators would probably argue that this has long been the case, particularly with the uncelebrated work education departments have done with schools. On the back of political and financial pressure from the government to make heritage more inclusive, a great deal of ‘outreach’ work has been done to actively engage with sections of society to create more relevant heritage experiences for them. Oral history work has been an important tool in this respect because it can capture the experiences that so often don’t make it to written or material history, and as a process it forces people to listen to each other, which is fundamentally important to any meaningful cultural exchange. Secondly there has been a reconsideration of what ‘heritage’ is; there is a view that was championed by Raphael Samuel and what might very loosely be called the public history movement that heritage (and history for that matter) isn’t just something that is packaged up by scholars and experts and passively consumed; it is an activity, something that all of do; we all create and consume this wider definition of heritage/history, and it isn’t usually a very passive experience either. If you consider tracing family history, collecting things, charity shops, friends reunited, boot fairs, listening to old records, wandering around an old town, memorial signs on park benches, reminiscing – these can all be forms of curating, exchanging and finding things in the past that matter now, and have a function here in the present. Spoken memories are important to this idea because they are such a major example of this process of using the past in the present. Our brains seem to constantly plunder our past for useful bits of information that we can use now, whether it is picking the right bus stop or working out some deeper things about our situation or identity. The amazing thing is that our memories also seem to be able to borrow from others – by listening to other people’s stories, we can sometimes (but not always) gain useful information for our lives.

In my Memoryscape walks you hear a set of memories in the present of your life and the landscape you are walking in. This is a very dynamic process; sometimes your present will synchronise with what you are listening to and it will become very meaningful, other times there might be some dissonance; maybe the landscape has changed or something happened to disrupt your experience; the memory might not have much function in your present (although it might another time, or with someone else). The result should be your very own set of reflective experiences.

This idea is also echoed in the sound design of the walks. The sound tracks are layered with binaural recordings of the river bank – recordings made with a binaural stereo two-part microphone that is placed in each ear of the recorder, which picks up sound in much the same way as the human head. When the binaural recording is listened to with headphones, the result is a startling ‘surround sound’ that spatially locates the sound that you are listening to – if footsteps are recorded behind you, it will sound as if someone is behind you when you listen. Most people are familiar with the effects created by listening to a stereo recording; the differentiation of sound sources along a two dimensional linear sound stage between two speakers. Binaural recording, with its closer approximation to human hearing, can capture a much fuller, 360 degree range of movement. Sound artists often collect sound and present the results in a different spatial or aural context (for example Bill Fontana’s Sound Island, or Janet Cardiff’s work). But I decided to reuse or ‘double’ sound in the recording that would be heard in the walk anyway. I was concerned that the act of walking and listening with headphones would remove the listener’s consciousness from their surroundings, and certainly from the background sound around them. I wanted to gently draw attention to their environment, not take them anywhere else. I wanted people to experience the riverscape more carefully and consider it as a setting for the memories they were listening to.

The binaural recordings also give the walks a temporal dimension, as the listener is hearing the past of the sound recording, made along the route relatively recently (complete with rowers, ducks, swans and pushchairs) along with the past of the memories that they are hearing (some recorded 20 years ago) and combining it with the present of the walk. The background sound either blends in and goes unnoticed if it is similar to the walker’s experience, or if it doesn’t match it creates a little prick of consciousness – like the sound of a bird, or a boat passing, or the tide – the idea is that people would look out for these things and either see them or realise that they were there some other time – a little reminder that, like any river journey, it cannot be travelled in the same way twice. In the ‘dockers’ walk, for example, the listener stands for a while looking at a gate which obscures the water. During high tide, the river gurgles and splashes onto and under this gate and sometimes the gate is open due to boaters getting access to the water. The sound of the high tide events are used in the walk so the listener can hear the sound potential of the space, even if they are walking at low tide. It is basically a way of making people pay attention to time and place.

RW: The interplay of rootedness and movement in the walks, both geographic and temporal, is fascinating. You mention in an essay on your work that it reflects a ‘nomadic metaphysics’. This philosophical approach, as pioneered by Deleuze and Guattari, is often represented as a battle for fluid subjectivity against the stultifying restraints of identity. What struck me about the Memoryscapes was a confounding of this polarity of nomadism/identity. It became apparent through the lives of the dockers and barge men that I heard that identity was formed by this movement, by their travels across the city and the world, their changing careers, and it only made sense to see identity as continually under construction. It made me wonder how you felt about the calls for preservations of communities and lifestyles – and about your own decision to live on the river (literally) for the past 10 years.

TB: I think living in a fluid and dynamic place like a river probably has influenced me in ways that I am only beginning to understand. Let’s say you live in a house. You go on holiday for a couple of weeks. When you get back it is like a little time capsule; the house and its contents are in exactly the same place as when you left it, even the packing list you left is still there on the table. But in reality your house has changed; things have decomposed, there is a bit more dust, there is some post on the mat, the milk in the fridge has gone off, but unless you really think about it the place doesn’t seem to have altered. Your house seems like a fundamentally stable place. Most places we are familiar with seem like that; in your home town a shop might change hands, a new house is built, but because big things made out of brick and concrete change pretty slowly we have an artificially stable idea of places that are actually changing all the time. Living on a boat, on a river like the Thames, it isn’t like that at all. If I left my boat for a couple of weeks I might find it several feet higher than it was, if the river level had risen; in a different location if a neighbour had decided to move it; my neighbours might be different. Because my home is in a more obviously dynamic place, perhaps I am more acutely aware how the places I know well are changing all the time. In geography there has been a very interesting move to consider transitory experience – say, of gypsies or the homeless or refugees, not as something that is outside our (very fixed) sense of place, but as something that might be more fundamentally truthful about our shifting, complex, ever-unfolding reality.

I regard identity in very similar terms to memory – a very natural important part of our human instinct to make sense of our past and our surroundings. But like memory our sense of identity is selective and tends to shift over time depending on our circumstances. Our happiness seems to depend on a feeling of identity in some way or another. I generally have no problem celebrating community identity or lifestyle. As long as we remember that deep down our identity, and our community, is always partial and a work in progress, I don’t think we should be too puritanical about it. When I evaluated the walks I was interested to note that some walkers said that they felt a sense of identity with the landscape very quickly. I like to think of it as a bit like having lots of grandparents walking with you, or knowing an Aboriginal songline. The walks seem to be a very rapid way of making place significant; and if you walk the route ever again in the future, many of these memories will come back to you.

RW: The above essay situates your work in the context of other sound artists such as Janet Cardiff and Graeme Miller, the literary explorations of Iain Sinclair and the psychogeography of the Situationists. There has been a lot of drivel written about psychogeography over the years, but I was delighted to find in your walk near Hampton Court Palace an original perspective on the SI’s dérive. You allowed yourself to be directed by the river flow, stopping to interview subjects for the CD only when the ‘drift wood’ you were following collided with the bank. It seems to me that the seemingly intangible vortices of emotion that pull the urban psychogeographer through the city were rendered physical by the natural forces that determine the river’s current – ultimately an inversion of Debord’s metaphor but one that is nonetheless potentially instructive. In this light I wonder how you feel the apparent ‘natural determinism’ in this walk collided with the social relationships you documented.

TB: In London, the Thames is generally seen as a cultural and administrative barrier or divide rather than an entity in itself, positioned on the border of almost all the riverside boroughs. I wanted to find a way of acknowledging the spatial and natural dimensions of the river by developing a more artistic and intuitive approach to structuring my work. I developed a method of using the current of the river to find my ‘sample’ of river interviewees and physically link their lives up. As you say, a float was made out of driftwood and other river-carried material, using a design borrowed from hydrologists that use floats to track currents in rivers and oceans. I followed the float for many days, tracking its route for 15 miles through London, and noting where it collided with the bank (or any other interesting thing). These collision points became sound points on the walk, as more often than not a potential interviewee would become apparent – it would hit a boat or a property that was owned by someone, or a place where an individual was working or resting, and people were generally willing to be recorded. Usually this was an in-depth interview at their home or place of work at a convenient time. In this way I wanted to experience London from the river, feeling its flow and using a natural phenomenon as a memory path through the modern city.

This was a literal take on the idea of the dérive; serious people often seem to forget the playfulness of the situationist ideas. Debord once wrote: “It would be vain to seek in our theories on architecture any other motive than the passion for playing” and it was the playful adventurousness of following a float that I found very energising. In academia there is a lot of pressure to have a coherent and pre-defined ‘research question’ to answer, which can make it difficult to be spontaneous and open to new possibilities. When I was drifting, I couldn’t know what I was looking for until I found it. At times finding an interviewee was not easy; some places the float hit seemed so barren that it was difficult to find a connection with human culture. I discovered that if I waited long enough and looked hard enough some kind of human connection could be made – an old outfall pipe of a disused waterworks led to an interview with a retired water engineer, for example. The floating experience itself was a strange slow-motion experience, particularly on the slow Tai-Chi currents in the extreme west of London. I started to become aware of a different set of organisational principles going on, both spatial and temporal. The flow of the river could be soporifically andante. The river made me look harder and sense more intensely places that I thought I knew well. At times I could explore the bank closely on and off the boat, finding plants, insects, whole ponds and streams that I didn’t know existed quite close to my home. Other times the river would drive me half mad in its tardiness; I would row around in circles for want of something to do, waiting hours in the rain for the float to edge its way along the bank. Straighter stretches often meant less to do but more time to observe, as the drifter hit the bank less often. Turns in the river were exciting, presenting whole new vistas to explore and usually some collisions to record, sometimes with whole families of other floating objects.

The drifting method became unworkable in the Eastern part of London, as the river became too wide, tidal and strong for enough impact points. My ‘dockers’ walk used the same style of a river-culture based walk, using binaural recordings of the route, but this time I mostly used a rare collection of archived interviews with dock workers recorded over 20 years ago when the London Docks were shut down. Using archive interviews presented a whole new set of challenges, particularly in trying to find location-relevant material in archive catalogues that are not very location-specific.

RW: This sense of flow and fragmented incident brought to mind Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s psychogeographic map The Naked City with its lyrical take on urban cartography, but it also made me contemplate the problems of such a method of recording events as history in its cut up approach and its refusal to ‘grasp the whole’. How would you say your method compliments or complicates the grand totalising histories?

TB: Putting short excerpts of so many recorded interviews together presents a serious challenge to the historian’s traditional role of deciding on the significant, making meaning and presenting a coherence where there seems to be none. In historical terms, it is like presenting a whole load of primary sources and expecting the reader to make up their own mind – closer perhaps to the experience of browsing an art gallery or museum. The exhibition is curated, but you have the opportunity to take things at your own pace and decide on the things that you find most significant. It would have been possible to include a historian’s narration of the interviews (and the landscape), but I chose not to. In stylistic terms I wanted to get as far from the tour guide experience as possible – not because there is anything wrong with tour guiding (I have worked as one in the past, and believe me it is an extremely challenging and creative form of discourse) but because I wanted the interviewees memories to be absolutely central to the experience. This more fragmented form is truer to the chaos of reality and it means that you can also easily add your own experience and knowledge to the mix without feeling that it is irrelevant to some kind of grand narrative that the historian is peddling you. The disadvantage is that it can be harder work to make sense of it all. I think it is hard to make sense of the walks immediately afterwards; it can take a few days or even weeks to assimilate. This kind of located story telling is a dramatically different form to grand narrative history; I think there is a probably a place for both – certainly both have their shortcomings.

RW: The connection of your work to psychogeography raises two more questions. While your current project focuses on the city, and this approach to geography has always been viewed as urban, do you see possibilities for rural Memoryscapes? And secondly, many recent attempts at psychogeography are devoid of any substantive political content. Is there a politics of Memoryscape and if so what is it?

TB: I do think that the Memoryscape concept can work in rural settings without any problem at all – it can work wherever you can find people that have a connection and therefore a memory relating to a place, whatever its character. The natural history of the river is something that I did not explore in my walks but there could be some really exciting ways of incorporating information about the natural landscape as well as the cultural landscape.

For all the freedom and playfulness of the ‘drift’, it could not avoid being political. The current of the river could hardly avoid taking the walker to and through sites of representational flux, given that many parts of the Thames river bank are contested areas under pressure from development, stoked by many people’s desire to live and play next to the natural beauty of a river. It is somewhat ironic that the banks of the river are becoming more built up as a result. The walks cover a great range of individuals with correspondingly large range of political beliefs; sometimes I introduced varying opinions on an issue, such as the decline of the docks in the ‘dockers’ walk. The drifting walk features political battles over pontoons for new boat owners, the disappearance of houseboats from Kingston, the redevelopment of riverside apartments for young professionals, the pressure on the sewerage system from riverside housing and the very serious issue of flooding. From mild gossipy criticism to legal battles and police encounters, all can be seen as expressions of conflict, territory and capital, albeit on a relatively local level. The float-follower has therefore been led through various zones of representational flux, like moving through the lines of force surrounding a magnet – the representational forces expressed in various ways through people’s memories and stories. I suppose the Marxist or structuralist would see this as quite self evident – if human reality is constructed from power relations it would be extraordinary if it didn’t, unless such conflict was actively or unconsciously being suppressed. The ‘dockers’ walk is far more historical in terms of the memories used. I would have liked to have included more about the famous labour struggles that the docks were so well known for, but it is very difficult to edit archive interviews to explain complex situations in a short space of time without a lot of narration. They are briefly mentioned but I do think that this is a shortcoming.

RW: What’s interesting is not only what the audio narrative brings to light, but also what it conceals. For instance, on the Greenwich walk you performed the magician’s trick of making the Dome disappear – so engrossed was I in the stories of those who had lived and worked on the river prior to its construction, I just didn’t really notice it! Was this act of erasure a conscious part of the development of the walk?

TB: The landscape of the banks of the Thames in London contains some of the most imposing architecture in Britain, as successive political and economic powerhouses were built along the prestigious waterfront (palaces, bridges, parliaments, corporate headquarters, and of course the Dome). Many of these buildings have such strong historical and visual centres of gravity on the riverscape that they are all but impossible to ignore. Yet in the drifting experiment, the float managed to do so. On long, straight stretches the float would move fast, disregarding royal palaces, whole industries, entire localities. The flow gave me a strange, unfamiliar structure to my beachcombing of river-related memories. It gave me a fresh set of memory places; the latest in a long line of practices that in some way challenge dominant cultural practices associated with national places of memory by providing an alternative; neighbourhood tours, parish mappings, public art and so on. I carried on the principal of ignoring famous buildings in the ‘dockers’ walk. I figured that anyone could find out about the Dome or Wren’s various Greenwich buildings on their own. These places have demanded attention for so long; I wanted give other places (and people) a chance. Perhaps that can be seen as a mildly political act in representational terms.

RW: And finally, what are your plans for future Memoryscapes?

TB: I am currently developing a network of trails around the Royal Docks and its surrounding communities in the East End of London. The plan is to work with community groups to map memories and develop content for trails that begin and end at Docklands Light Railway stations in the area. I would also like to put pressure on landowners and local government to establish new paths to access the dockside areas that, until relatively recently, were walled-off, inaccessible industrial quayside. The Royal Docks are also in severe danger of being the victim of the splintered urbanism that characterised much of the development of the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. Premium sites such as the Excel Centre, the University of East London campus and City Airport develop excellent connections and facilities but are in danger of becoming effectively gated communities, leaving a poor, fractured communities physically or psychologically excluded from supposedly publicly accessible spaces. The trails will encourage connections between the different parts of the docks and psychologically ‘ungate’ these premium sites by incorporating them as trail locations, and in turn encourage international visitors to venture beyond the taxi rank and try the trails. I think there is potential to use the memoryscape concept to give past and present residents a voice in one of the most rapidly developing urban areas in the world.  (see the latest trails at or email me at

RW: Thanks very much Toby.

This interview was first published on


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