Cutting History Short (But Being Respectful About It)

My week in a nutshell

This week, I’ve been working on creating short audio stories out of our Lost and Found audio walk. It’s proving to be a bit trickier than I thought it would be. It feels like I’m trying to squeeze something huge and expansive into a small box. There’s so much I want to say about Esther Barnes, for example, the resourceful woman who ran an east London brothel (at the site in the Google Maps photo above), who was sentenced to the maximum sentence at the time, and who fought back against a moral crackdown on sex labor.

When I’m trying to work through an issue, I tend to write out my thoughts. Some of the best advice I’ve received through my studies is the power of writing. Whenever I’m stuck or need to figure something out, I’ll sit myself down for about 20 minutes and just write. I might not find an answer, but it gives me somewhere to jump off from and I usually end up in a better place than when I started.

There’s a lot to tell – I should mention why she opened her brothel, but how far into that story of her husband’s death do I go? It would be great to talk about her legal battle with East London, but it would take a good while to go through all the important bits there. Unless, of course, I want to be a bit reductive of her landmark case.

Reducing the story to a nice simmer

I guess that’s what this issue boils down to – being reductive. I don’t want to make it seem like this incredibly powerful life and its stories can be captured in a five-minute audio clip, that it can be crammed into 400 words and posted online. But I also want people to listen, to hear this story and resonate with it. And I feel like the way to get people to listen is to make these stories punchy, quick, and exciting!

It’s funny – I ended up following my own advice, the words that I said to Leah when I was recording her weaving the Barnes tale. I told her to imagine that she’s sitting at a dimly-lit bar – there’s a jazz musician tickling the ivories softly in the background, to set the comfy-but-intriguing atmosphere. I told her to imagine that she’s telling the story to a friend at this bar, and that her friend is incredibly interested but must leave soon to catch a bus.

A crowded bar in New York with lots of pictures on the wall.

What important bits would she want to include? How would she keep her friend interested? Striking the balance between speaking conversationally and being respectful of history and the truth of the case would be very important. And it’s just as important when I’m making this audio walk, as it’s more-or-less fixed in time and space – a little more permanent than knowledge passed out on a walking tour (but no more important!). I can’t tell the whole story, but I can make sure that what I tell is a curated selection of the highs, lows, and happenings of the lives of Esther Barnes and Emma Wilson.

I’m not in this alone

And, I’ve got to say, it helps to remember that this audio walk is not the last word in the history of these lives. It’s not even close! This is a specific project for a cemetery, so I should focus on what stories I can best tell in that context and keep it as accessible as I can. Thankfully, there are many others who have told these stories, some of them in much more expansive ways than I want to. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more exciting adventures into the baffling world of digitally preserving history.

How Can We Re-Animate Woodland Cemetery?

Our dead stories don’t have to stay dead.

We’re going full Frankenstein mode on stories.

Cemeteries are such interesting places to stroll through – this is the first surprising fact that I’ve learned in my first few weeks working at Woodland. There’s something oddly thrilling about walking among the headstones, monuments, and carvings and thinking of all the different lives that have ended up here in this space together.

Woodland’s historic sections are host to an absurdly high number of lives lived. The only caveat to this lived history is that so much of it is dead – by that, I mean that we’re only telling the stories as we read about them in our (mostly logistical) records and secondary sources from places like the London Room or the Western Archives. They live on paper and in digital documents and are only dusted off when we host our public walking tours like our “Lost and Found” tour that took place last Saturday.

Our dead stories don’t have to stay that way. Like Dr. Frankenstein or Herbert West show, dead things don’t necessarily have to stay dead. They can be brought back to life with the help of a little creativity and technology. I’ve been turning this idea around the last few days and have come up with some ideas to help bring Woodland’s stories back to life – hopefully not as chillingly as is done so in horror literature!

Cemetery tour guides at the ready.

Woodland Walking Tour - Lost and Found 2018.png
Historian Leah Abaza tells the stories of the Mitchell family and their mysterious memorial to those unknown dead that were transferred from old St Paul’s Cemetery to Woodland.

Historical walking tours are being done already – my mentor Levi Hord has been putting these together for the last few years, walking the public through the stories of Woodland. The stories of some influential women who rest in the cemetery, for example, are brought back to life in “Women of Woodland” – they live through our interpretations and representations of their lives. We remember and thus reanimate them by sharing their stories with London’s communities. Groups can book these tours, but what if our resident historian isn’t around to deliver or, what if a group prefers to walk through the cemetery at their own speed? That brings us to…

The mechanical voice tells many tales…

Guided walking tours bring Woodland’s stories to life. But we don’t always need a physical body to tell these stories. We can use speakers and headphones to stand in for vocal chords, creating audio walks. These recorded stories can tell a fixed, predetermined version of a grave’s history as many times as needed without getting tired from talking or walking. In short, the listener becomes the tour guide as they follow cues and take themselves through the winding path of the cemetery. Digital recording techniques also allow us to play around with sound effects, music, and special guests who might be otherwise be unable to come to every tour. But how can we make these audio recordings multi-dimensional? How can we interest our community beyond telling them to press play and listen to a drowned-out voice telling a linear history? The solution could be…

Theatre among the graves.

Lost Soul Stroll 2013 - Free Press - Mike Hensen
The dead walk the streets during the London Fringe’s Lost Soul Stroll in 2013. Photo by the London Free Press / Mike Hensen.

Theatre can take the better sides of both walking and audio tours. They are embodied by a physical person who quite literally brings a historical person back to life through acting them out. But the fact of being a theatre allows for some production values and storytelling ability that audio tours can’t offer. Imagine walking around the cemetery and coming across John Labatt, for instance. Imagine interacting with Mr. Labatt and having him respond back to you! While logistically tricky to organize due to the number of bodies involved, this seems to me to be an incredible way to reanimate history and allow it to exist in the physical world one last time.

What about you? Any ideas?

Can you think of any other ways to animate our cemetery or have you come across any interesting and relevant media pieces? Let me know in the comments below, through our Facebook page, or by email. This list is not extensive and only represents a small fraction of the reanimation possibilities. Thanks for reading!