If These Walls Could Talk

posted in: Insights | 0

Walls transforming history.

Blue plaques mark the place where eminent people who contributed something special to society and history  once lived – however fleetingly. Inventors, explorers, suffragettes, musicians, writers: recognised for civil rights, science, education, arts, politics. Many famous people that we have heard of, and many that we have not. 

This was their neighbourhood.  They walked down this this very street and knocked on that door. (Extra)Ordinary lives leaving every morning to go to work…. and the pursuit of greatness, discovery and innovation. And because of who they were their colleagues, friends, compatriots, activists were also drawn to this place. Imagine how that played out within these walls, recreated as a drama or TV series.

Inside, the interior, we get a much stronger sense and connection. Our body is their body, walking through a doorway, standing by the fireplace, stretching out on a chair. We occupy the same space they did; within the boundaries of these walls, this room, this space. 

But what if the walls could talk? What would they reveal that would tell us how that idea, that piece of music or invention was finally resolved. Or the dramas, whispered secrets, revelations and epiphanies of soirées, salons, parties and meetings held behind closed doors. What really happened?  What did they really say/think/do? These walls were witness to it all.

Separated by time, we now have access to many noteworthy places such as Winston Churchill’s war roomsDr. Samuel Johnson’s home, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House, or John Lennon’s childhood home. Once private, but now in the public domain, we can all enjoy, experience and reflect on their spatial significance. Space and places: where monumental decisions  were made; where architects/designers created something special; or where someone lived an ordinary life, as a child  – before they were famous. 

Organisations such as The National Trust are about much more than just restoring old buildings to create a mummified museum of artefacts and structures. Yes, they preserve and protect heritage and history. But they also sustain crafts, culture and skills, that might otherwise be lost to the nation. Sites and venues that would have disappeared have been kept open so we can visit and explore. This gives us meaningful contact with material things, spaces and styles of buildings, big and small, from across many different ages. We get to actually experience them: outside, inside, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Without such organisations we would live in a world with little real sense of what went before. In a class-based society we might never know what it is like to be inside the grounds of a stately home, never mind inside  – or upstairs. Now, at least we get a glimpse of what wealth looks like and what it buys. We can see how it reflects the era and how it contrasts with the space for those who had to work downstairs.

According to the Telegraph, the National Trust is shifting away from acquiring more ‘big’ houses to  terraced houses and industrial buildings. Most of their large properties were bequeathed to the nation but now with market forces on a high these properties are more likely to sell. But public interests are also shifting. TV series such as “Who Do You Think You Are” which trace personal stories based on lineage  reveal wider values and experiences that deserve to be told, with which we can all identify. The fact is: more people lived in impoverished circumstances than not, and their stories are part of history too.

It makes sense to highlight the everyday spaces of living memory. The most popular rooms in the The Geffrye Museum, a museum dedicated to the ‘Home’,  are also the most recent. People are much more excited about seeing a typical room set from the 1950’s  –  than the Jacobean period. These are the things people remember, or had forgotten. Seeing them again ‘for real’ prompts untold memories and experiences of people and places and events. The space also acts as a powerful trigger for us to re-live minutiae and detail reminding us that life is not just about ‘big events’. Vivid snippets of memory are very powerful emotional connectors to both space and place.

Immersive experience creates a much more meaningful dialogue between the viewer, the space and the artefact. The emotion that draws people in enables them to connect and empathise  rather than feel like an outsider, or a passive viewer. Even the word ‘museum’ conjures up a stymied, stale environment – which can put people off. Force-fed learning about history is incredibly dull. Finding out about how real people lived through wars, famines and cultural shifts is also history, but a history with which we can relate to more easily  – than a world of Kings and Queens.

We live in changing times….

This is visibly reflected in design and by design through gadgets, products, styles, colours, materials and aesthetics. Different eras also reflect changing values and widening access to products and goods. 

Domestic space puts design in context. This is where design affects people most; filtering through from the equivalent of the cat-walk to general use…. as in John Lennon’s family home and Paul Mc Cartney’s. Changing styles, outdated appliances, old-fashioned ways of living  – before and after television, central heating and electricity. That was the way we all lived.

George Best’s family home – the home where his father lived until he died –  is now an air bnb.

In the 1960’s, George left home to find fame at Manchester United. As interiors go this is not a beautiful home. And it is not the most luxurious or up to date airbnb.  But, for fans an overnight stay is a very special experience. Within these walls they can ‘connect’ with George as he was in his early days: a budding talent who came from an ordinary family, and family home. 

George Best created a lasting impact on many others. For visitors there is the thrill of an intimate and authentic experience, to reflect and relate to someone they revered –  who basically slept, ate, did homework and watched TV here … as well as playing football. George Best  – the man. George Best  – the child. His presence is still strong within the family unit, and home which gives a more rounded view of who he was and where he came from.

And if the walls could talk what would they say?….  We can only imagine….. But imagination is central to our creativity and sense of self. It creates wonder and vision and vitality that is unique to us and stimulates our connection to spaces and places. It enables us to ‘see’ beyond and to explore deeper aspects of ourselves perhaps to reflect on what matter to us now – or if we were someone else. That is, someone born into a different time, with a special talent motivation and drive.  

Remarkable spaces and famous lives resonating with who we are, what we do and how we live…. Perhaps we are not so different after all.

Follow Nuala Rooney:

Nuala Rooney PhD, is a creative professional and award-winning author, currently developing new approaches to design innovation and spatial research through storytelling. With unique skillsets, developed as a design educator in Higher Education institutions in UK and Hong Kong, her interest lies in exploring 'home' as a human centred space.

Latest posts from

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.