Narrative Space Day Three - Post Three

'Conservation architecture and the Narrative Imperative: Birmingham Back to Backs' Geoff Matthews.

There has been something of a crisis in knowledge management in museums - with the departure of the old guard of museum curators, there has been a loss of knowledge, and museums cannot afford conissourship. With people being so transient in their work, knowledge becomes less embodied. He argues that narrative comes out of the community which makes it, and comes to embody the experience. Geoff Matthews uses the Back to Backs, which some of us visited, to discuss this.

Both conservation architecture and interpretive design attempt to reconcile authenticity and usability in different ways. Conservation architecture starts with an archaeological understanding of space, and comes to ask how we might sustain the space in the long term. Interpretive exhibition design looks at people's interactions with the content, with their memories and stories. But whose stories do we tell? There is an ambition in exhibition to attain shared meaning. Narrative is used to attempt to embody this. The role of design too, is about the intelligibility of designed space, which can be noisy.

The Back to Backs were a courtyard form of housing, usually a single room stacked on top of a single room. They appeared in Birmingham in the influx of people during the late 19th century, and there is one surviving courtyard left in the UK. My family come from there, actually, and so I'm quite emotionally attached to the area. This makes this talk fascinating for me. They have survived because of their location near the Hippodrome. But they could never be representative of the wide range of experiences that occured within those walls. In 1999, Birmingham Conservation Trust started a campaign, and in 2004 the museum opened. Querceus Design did the interpretation.

In this project the relation between the archive and the museum, the living and the dead is incredibly important. From the early period of the Back to Backs, there was very little life narrative available. But using community narrative testimony, material could be gathered from the 1880s onwards. The choice to use real stories from real families allows for a really integrated museum to develop.

Querceus came up with a narrative spatial concept, which allowed for orientation and interpretation, education, access and layering. The four houses were arranged chronologically, with a museum space outwith that. The space is organised for guided group tours, so there is no spatial correspondance between the houses and what is narrated in the museum space.

The architectural conservation of the building can operated very traditionally in terms of the physical space and preserving the past traces left of the buildings. Gaps in the spaces, you can either cover over, or hand over to the interpretive design people.

At the top of the Levy house, there is an unrestored space which engenders that moment which Johnathan Hale spoke about earlier, that moment of realisation and the distancing of focalisation; the realisation that we are looking at theatre.

The recovery of ordinary lives creates a populist perspective. There is a cycle of interaction here, with staff allowing interpretation to evolve with the additions of people's stories who come to visit the museums. With urban sites, everyday things, and the recovery of experience, narrative becomes a platform for visitor experience. You can't design a narrative, but you can use it as a tool to direct this. People overlay the narratives, enact memory, and so the space is always open to interpretation, but it engenders a myth which is very humanly understandable. The myths which are represented are not representative. Nor do they necessarily claim to be. Whilst there is nothing really original in at the Back to Backs apart from the buildings themselves, there is a kind of emotional experience which I had at least, an engagement which is left open.


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