Three years in the making, a slice of London’s living history about to drive by as the Mobile Museum project gets set to venture out onto London’s streets. In the next few months artist Verity-Jane Keefe will be delivering her multi-faceted art project which considers contemporary cultural life and engages local communities in processes of collection, cataloguing and curation. The project, described as ‘a museum, a collection, a public programme, a filmwork and a series of publications’ will take place across eleven different housing estates in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.
The museum itself is a 2001 Ford Iveco Mobile Library van, now converted into a type of mobile archive which will gather, collect and catalogue information and artefacts in order to provide new insights into the borough. The Mobile Museum is set to drive around eleven selected housing estates to engage residents, local community members and a range of collaborators (including archaeologists, archivists, writers, architects, artists and scientists) in a series of workshops and events centred around the housing estates and their neighbourhoods. The project aims to document and map ‘contemporary cultural activity across the borough’, ranging from community making clubs, to more formal cultural activity, all of which will contribute to the museum’s mobile collection. A series of fanzines is due to be produced and distributed during the project, one for each estate. The entire project is also due to be documented through a filmwork which surveys the borough’s housing stock, the stories of its residents and which provides an insight into contemporary cultural life in the area.
Future London interviewed Verity on her project in order to understand more about the potential civic role of public at projects like the Mobile Museum in a city as varied and contested as London:
Future London (FL): How do you understand the civic role of public art projects like the Mobile Museum?
Verity-Jane Keefe (VJK): I think the when talking about the civic role of public art projects, we must address the wider role, if any, of art projects that position themselves within the public realm in the first place. Some might argue that there is no particular role, that they are merely a way of procuring and securing funding as a box ticking exercise, to satisfy the footnotes of engagement and participation.
Within my specific work I see the “role” as a means to explore larger themes surrounding regeneration, place, and the affect of these things on people that live and work there in a more meaningful way. As an artist I am able to wear a lot of different hats, opening up the work and the wider conversation to a broader group of stakeholders: planners, housing officers, caretakers, archivists, librarians, residents, existing community groups and local artists.
Role is an interesting term as it can suggest something formalised and policy driven, an assumed function or part that work can play, when in actual fact the “role” is quite often directed by a brief, the commissioner or a wider local authority agenda. Within this particular project this is quite unique. Developed back in 2011, in response to being asked to explore the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham’s late addition as Olympic host borough. I suggested what would be more appropriate and relevant to both my line of enquiry, and the people of the borough would be something that has the potential to look at Legacy in a real and meaningful way, post games, once the dust had settled. A successful ACE Grants for the Arts bid later, loss of match cash funding from the borough and two years of trying to work out if the project was still possible, I’ve had A LOT of time to think about said role, the potential and the brief/commissioner/client triangle in the process. The project has been strengthened by the loss in funding. I have full autonomy and am still working alongside Regeneration and Heritage departments but in more of a support in kind mode.
The project comes from a long period of working in the area, both on my own freelance commissions and as an artist working for a collaborative art and architecture practice. I see the role as being directed by the process, the individual artist but also the participants. I am constantly thinking of the potential of the work to do something both meaningful and high quality, that isn’t just parachuted in and then driven out. This project has grown out of a devastating process of loss of funding, securing advocacy, lobbying and genuinely digging deep and making a decision that the project needs to happen now more than ever. At the core of this project is the desire to use art practice and mobility as a way to explore people’s relationship with place, and through making directly shape and discuss the current, past and future landscape of Barking & Dagenham: physical, social, cultural and economic.
The deficit in funding is currently being decided via a Kickstarter. I saw crowdfunding as an opportunity to galvanise support and really put into play the idea that this is a project that has the potential to widen the conversation between heritage, museums, architecture, urbanism, art practice and community. So far I’ve had 243 backers. It has been one of the most positive and overwhelming experiences. There are lots of things to consider, you want to offer value for money and best practice and also be completely transparent about the work and process. I was mindful of the fact that the project is so locally rooted, but I was confident that the appeal is much wider: for anyone interested in public art, regeneration, museums, heritage, housing, London and the wider Thames Gateway. I’ve had donations from all over the world: from Beijing to America to Dagenham to Newcastle from people within my network and that I’ve never met before. There are a lot of people talking about the project, in a supportive and exciting way, rooting the work within Barking & Dagenham and placing it on the map.
FL: What role does the idea of a ‘museum’ serve in this project, particularly in terms of engaging people to contribute?
VJK: As an artist I’m really interested in the function, traditions and formal constructs of museums, the rigour and sometimes speculative approaches to archiving, classification and taxonomy. The definition of museum is a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.
Looking at methods of classification, through commonplace library, museum and archiving standards, a “collection” will be made. The collection seeks to offer a re-imagined insight into contemporary Barking and Dagenham and it’s place within London and the wider Thames Gateway. I was keen to use an ex-local authority mobile library vehicle as they are so iconic, and were such an important part of the cultural landscape of my childhood. Mobile library’s would often follow specific routes around housing, routes which served a logistical function, taking in roads that were large enough to accommodate the vehicle but more importantly managed to weave together large areas of residential communities that are often disconnected to libraries and other cultural offerings.
London is changing at a rapid pace and all eyes are looking east as the city expands and evolves. Barking and Dagenham have been subject to rapid regeneration over the last decade, large scale housing estates have been or are in the midst of being demolished, new housing being built. Alongside this have been various waves of public art schemes, some have been more widely integrated into the existing physical and social landscape, some less so. This project aims to use making and conversation as a starting point to explore these strands, imaging a Barking and Dagenham of the future.
From discussions with the Borough Archivist and information collected from previous work in the borough I know one of the biggest problems that the museum and heritage services have is getting people from the housing estates to come to LBBD’s archives, museums and galleries. Arts has similar issues which are exacerbated by fragmented facilities for cultural activity.
The main aim of this activity is to promote and share existing cultural activity across LBBD through the creation of a new piece of contemporary artwork. The project seeks to reach and engage with residents from across the borough, not just those who already actively seek out cultural activities.
I’m interested in projecting, through making, conversation, filming and collecting how Barking & Dagenham might be represented in the future, what objects or artefacts might be seen as historically important
The collection will offer an insight into a contemporary LBBD but through the eyes of those living here. It will hopefully be both playful and rigorous, having room to incorporate real social narratives and activity whilst making space for myth and fantasy.
I’m interested in the museum as a way of connecting the dots between heritage, art practice and regeneration and hopefully promoting a sense of civic pride along the way.
FL: How do you understand the role of ‘living histories’ in reflecting urban realities, especially in a large city like London?
VJK: Place and cities are not just shaped by buildings, public realm or larger urban fabric and infrastructure. It is very much steered by users and uses, what happens when people inhabit the buildings, the spaces and so on. My work in particular focuses on this relationship with people and place and the wider role and potential of the artist within regeneration. Demolition is often very brutal, with a much wider ripple of affect to a wide variety of people: those that have lived there, passed through, worked there, lived opposite or simply drive past, most people invariably will have some form of relationship with their immediate surroundings.
I try to represent a slice of place in a current time, more often than not through a steered process of looking at the past, present and future with a wide variety of people. As an artist I have an opportunity to work beyond the normal people in place potential. I’m committed to long periods of engagement, developing relationships and the work side by side so one can inform the other.
The Mobile Museum is currently fundraising to compensate for funding lost during previous arts funding cuts. Click here to find out how you can support the project.