Walls with blue plaques? Someone famous once lived here.

These were people who made a significant contribution to society; such as inventors, explorers, suffragettes, musicians and writers. Some we may have heard of – and some not.

A blue plaque makes us aware that in this very building, a lifetime ago, someone with a significant legacy to history/culture/politics once lived.

We can imagine these (extra)ordinary people leaving home to go to work – in the pursuit of greatness, discovery and innovation. Somehow they seem more real to us because we know they walked down this same street. This was their neighbourhood. This home was the centre of their family life.

And, because of who they were, their colleagues, friends, compatriots and fellow activists might also have been drawn to this place. We can imagine how that played out within these walls.

We see them now as iconic figures, thinkers and do-ers. But back then they were just work colleagues and friends round for a bite to eat and drink. No doubt, talking about politics, literature and music but also (very probably) house-prices, education and the cost of living.

It is when we go inside, within the interior that we get a full immersive experience. Here, we can get a sense of who these people were, and how they lived.

Within the boundaries of these walls, in this room, we can stand in the same space as they once did.

Across time, we stand in their footsteps.

In their home we can walk through their door, stand by their fireplace and perhaps stretch out on a chair – that might have been theirs. It makes their lives seem so much more real. They were not just ‘great’ or ‘famous’; they slept, ate, lived their lives here – just as we do in our own homes.

If these walls could talk what would they reveal?

The true story behind how 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 these closed doors.  

 What did they really say, think and do? But also, at home, how did they sound, and move and behave?

These walls were witness to it all.

Although separated by ‘time’ we can now access the homes of many eminent people such as Chartwell, the home of Winston Churchill, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s home, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh   Hill House (designed for the Black family) or John Lennon’s childhood home. Once privately owned, they are all now in the public domain. Where once we would have to be friends to visit, now, for a small fee, we can all experience these spaces.

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 might disappear, or been kept in private hands, have been opened up for us to visit; so we explore how they other half lived.

The National Trust enables us to have meaningful and wide contact with material things. That is, landscapes and buildings (big and small) from across different ages.

Without the National Trust we might 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 and walls of a stately home – or upstairs.

Now, we can have a glimpse of what wealth looks like, and what it buys. We can see how it reflects the era and how one lifestyle ‘upstairs’ contrasts with 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 with market forces on a high larger properties are more likely to sell.

Public interests are also shifting. The BBC TV series “Who Do You Think You Are” traces personal stories based on lineage  revealing wider values and experiences with which we can all identify. It shows us that more people lived in impoverished circumstances than not. Their stories are part of history too.

It makes sense to preserve the everyday spaces of living memory.

The most popular rooms in the The Museum of the Home, in London, are also the most recent. Unsurprisingly, it seems that people are much more excited about seeing a typical room set from the 1950’s  –  than the Jacobean period.

Seeing and experiencing these rooms again ‘for real’ can prompt rich memories of people and places and events. The space acts as a powerful trigger to re-live the minutiae and details of everyday life, reminding us that life is not just about ‘big events’ and ‘ important people’.

Immersive experience creates a meaningful dialogue between the viewer, the space and the artefact. The emotion that draws people in enables them to connect and empathise  so we feel less like an outsider, or a passive viewer.

The word ‘museum’ still conjures up a stymied, stale environment.

Being force-fed history is incredibly dull. Whereas, finding out about how real people lived through wars, famines and everyday life is a history that we can all relate to more easily, than a world of Kings and Queens.

Vivid snippets of memory are very powerful emotional connectors to both space and place.

Imagination is central to our creativity and sense of self; that is, the wonder, vision and vitality that is unique to all of us. It enables us to ‘see’ beyond what is physically there, and it can connect us to a space and place.

Design is everywhere; in the building style, interiors and furniture, but also evidenced in the changing the social and cultural values and widening access to products and goods. 

Domestic space is where we can ‘see’ the impact of design in everyday life: outdated appliances, new kitchens,  the advent of television, central heating and electricity.

While Design history focuses on change and innovation, we know that not everyone lived in ‘art-deco’ style house in the 1930’s. Far from it. These were very different times from the way we live today. Although the home was the centre of family life and community; poverty, poor housing, over-crowded conditions and ill-health were more pressing issues than ‘style’.

In the 1960’s, George Best left home to find fame as a footballer with Manchester United. The Best family home – the home where his father lived until he died –  is now an Airbnb.

As interiors go this is by no means a beautiful home – and it is not the most luxurious or up to date Airbnb.  But for fans, an overnight stay here must be a very special experience. Here, they can ‘connect’ with George as he was in his early days: a budding talent who came from an ordinary family living in a typical working class home. 

As a footballer, George Best created a lasting impact for his prowess on the field, and romances off the field. For fans, this house provides a very intimate and authentic experience of George Best  (the man) through insights into George Best  (the child). A talent, a legend a man still highly revered.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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