Buildings with a Social Memory – PHM represented at international conference in Belgium

A guest post from our globetrotting Director, Katy Archer

Buildings with a Social Memory 1I’ve just got back from a Conference in Ghent, Belgium exploring the social memory of buildings across Europe as part of a Belgian project being run by the University of Ghent, the Public History Institute, Amsab-Institute of Social History and the Arts Centre Vooruit.

I was one of 6 international speakers representing organisations from France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands… and the UK of course!

The workshop took place at the Vooruit Arts Centre which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The Socialist movement built the ‘Feestlokaal’ or Party Room of Vooruit in 1913, the same year that the world exhibition was organised in Ghent. It had to be an “opera for the working people”, offering blue-collar workers a café, a restaurant, entertainment and education. And it’s a fantastic building and organisation to visit today.

The range of speakers was great and provided a number of perspectives and examples of how historic buildings (and especially those associated with working people) have been repurposed and reinterpreted today.Buildings with a Social Memory 2

Talking about PHM’s connections to two important buildings – The Mechanics Institute and home of the TUC, and the Pumphouse as a working Engine House – went very well. There was lots of interest in the museum and it was great to share our history and journey with an international audience.

I then took part in a Q&A session with Louise Karlskov Skyggebjerg from the Arbejdermuseet in Copenhagen (a fellow member of Worklab) and there were some really interesting and challenging points from the audience:

  • How can museums be truly neutral spaces when they receive government funding?
  • How can we use derelict / empty historic buildings in our cities in creative ways?
  • How do you navigate the grey area of being a contemporary space where current campaigns and conflicts could have a home, with being a professional museum?

I found the discussion really invigorating and inspiring – it was great to have conversations about the role and purpose of museums – especially when we’re dealing with different points of view, political collections and conflict in history. Lots of ideas and thoughts to feed back into our work at the museum – especially as part of our current Play Your Part project which is all about the museum’s response to contemporary events and ideas – which are often challenging to represent and interpret.

Buildings with a Social Memory 3I also really enjoyed my first trip to Belgium and was very impressed by Ghent – it was a beautiful city and I’ll definitely be going back again when I’ve got more time to explore…

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