Looe Street Detectives 3
Looe Street Detectives 3
Plymouth Arts Centre
2 February-13 March 2018
To mark Plymouth Arts Centre’s 70th anniversary, I was commissioned to research the history of its site and the people and events connected to the location that impacted on cultural, social, ethical and economic history nationally and internationally. My interest was rooted in how individuals influence their times and those that follow, exposing multi-layered and interconnected histories of people and place and how they intertwine and interact over time. It built on the original Looe Street Detectives project begun in 2013, drawing on original members and new researchers from amongst Plymouth’s residents. The ‘detectives’ identified individuals connected to the site and traced their actions locally, nationally and internationally, recording their influence on the social, scientific, economic and cultural thinking of their day.
We discovered that the site had been a locus for entrepreneurial behaviour, non-conformism, philanthropy, religious reform, social welfare and cultural engagement. It also went from being the most prestigious place to live in Plymouth during the Elizabethan period to being amongst the worst slums in the country by the late Victorian era, yet this particular area survived much of the post war redevelopment experienced by the rest of Plymouth as it was on the Barbican side of the city and fell under the early protection of the Barbican Association which saved many historic buildings from demolition. Many notable people (eg Sir Joshua Reynolds, Robert Falcon Scott) had connections with the location when it was home to the Pope's Head Inn, one of Plymouth's premier hotels established during the Elizabethan period and active in a reduced form up to the early 20th century. The buildings were repurposed as shops, warehouses and homes during the 19th century. By this time, this area was a notorious slum, despite its illustrious origins. The other side of Looe Street was completely rebuilt in the 1890s to provide the first council workers' homes. In 1923, the whole plot was acquired by Lord and Lady Astor, to establish the Victory Boys & Girls Club and in 1925 to support the work of the Virginia House Settlement which proved pivotal in shaping early welfare provision in Britain. In 1947, they donated 37 & 38 Looe Street to the newly formed Plymouth Arts Centre, laying the foundations for new cultural, social & educational influences on the people of Plymouth.
Early on I decided I wanted to explore the idea of a Myriorama, an early 19th century parlour game involving 16 tall cards depicting a fictional landscape containing people, buildings, animals, vignettes and various landscape features. It was designed so that any card could be placed next to another and continue to make sense as an image. This idea of the ‘endless landscape’ seemed appropriate to capture the five hundred year history of the site and reflect its ever-changing fortunes and events. The resulting piece, ‘Historama: a story of people and place’ took the form of a two metre tall, three dimensional version of a Myriorama, using narrative text as the landscape through which the history of the site was recounted. The story is told from the perspective of an enduring flower, the Forget-menot, both as a pun on the idea of history and memory and because of its association with Freemasonry which featured amongst the activities at the Pope’s Head Inn. The installation completely filled the Arts Centre’s Window Gallery, inviting people to enter a circular wall of words and spend time letting the words and stories sink in. The accompanying free leaflet mirrored the panels exactly, enabling visitors to take it away to read at their leisure which was complemented by a limited edition of the panels in a boxed set of cards mirroring the original form of the first Myrioramas.
Further works included:
-a curated 20 minute film loop of archival footage showing events, activities and exhibitions at
Plymouth Arts Centre from the 1950s to the 1990s drawn from the collections at SWFTA (South
West Film & Television Archive).
-a large scale drawing capturing key details of the detectives’ research, creating a visual map of the
project’s findings. The 1.5 metre square drawing was presented flat under a sheet of clear Perspex
with suitable pens and an open invitation to visitors to add further historical details to the piece.
-an extensive temporary timeline occupying 23 metres around the gallery walls with key historical
moments related to Plymouth’s history and wider events in the world written below the line, again
with an open invitation for visitors to add their anecdotes, memories and commemorations. The
resulting work represents a time capsule in its own right, embedding each writer’s contributions into
the fabric of the building.
To complement the show, a series of talks were delivered and a free gallery guide produced featuring an essay by Devon based writer, Peter Stiles following an interview, while Plymouth based researcher, Steven Paige, contextualised artists’ use of archives as raw material in exhibitions relating to heritage sites.