LIBRARIES: “UNLOCK ARCHIVES POTENTIAL” SAYS ART HISTORIAN
Lambeth could make money by making more of its history, says the distinguished curator and art historian David Coke.
In a letter to The Vauxhall Society, Coke says that Lambeth‘s archives are ‘second to none’ but are an asset councillors ignore, treating this treasure-house as ‘a cost and liability’.
Coke urges Lambeth to get together with a developer and aim at a purpose- built Lambeth Records Office/Archives Centre/ Museum with event and exhibition facilities.
With his long experience of gallery, research and museum facilities around the world, Coke says a purpose-built ‘Lambeth Records Office’ would be a money-spinner if centrally-placed in a readily-identifiable district of established historical interest.
It would pull in visitors, encourage artists and attract international attention, also helping to sell the new residential property ‘about to flood onto the market’, adds the art historian, an honorary member of The Vauxhall Society.
Three suitable spots for such a venture, Coke suggests, are CLS Holdings’ proposed Vauxhall Square at Vauxhall Cross, the Lambeth Council/Berkeley OAKDA co-development at The Oval and the New Covent Garden Market Authority/ Vinci/St Modwen project. Lambeth recently backed a purpose-built Black Archives Centre in Brixton.
The future of Lambeth Archives is unclear. It has long been crammed into a corner of the Minet public library in Myatt’s Fields, a library Lambeth proposes to sell off.
What David Coke wrote:
‘Wasting income and kudos’
‘Although I do not live in Vauxhall, I am a past user and aficionado of the Lambeth Archives at the Minet Library, indeed, my 2011 book Vauxhall Gardens: A History would have been impossible without them; I am now becoming increasingly concerned about the archive’s future. We hear all sorts of rumours that, following the sale of the Minet, the Lambeth Archives will be moved and probably stuffed into a corner somewhere.
I feel strongly that this is not only a waste of a hugely important scholarly and social resource, but also a waste of a mechanism that could bring kudos and income to the local authority and to the district as a whole.
If they are going to sell all the residential property that is about to flood onto the market, Lambeth, Vauxhall and Nine Elms are going to have to actively attract buyers. Paradoxically, that treasure trove of the old, Lambeth Archives, could be made hugely important in the marketing of the new.
‘Lambeth yet to grasp or exploit Archives’ international importance’
The Archives’ holdings are second to none, but Lambeth has yet to grasp or to make much of their international importance. Furthermore, family research is so popular these days that Archives could well be made to pay for themselves, while proving a valuable tool to highlight the historic status of Lambeth, and to signal its cultural significance to the world.
Businesses and families are always on the lookout for new locations.
An important factor in their final choice is to find a place that has a real identity and history, a place with confidence in itself, and a place where interesting things happen. Lambeth has not figured in these considerations in the past, but it could so easily do so.
Lambeth’s continued neglect of the Archives sends out all the wrong messages. Making something new and dynamic out of Lambeth Archives will be a real stimulus for regeneration, and the opportunity to do so is now at hand.
‘Why not OAKDA, Vauxhall Square or New Covent Garden?
There are at least three sites where Lambeth might grasp this regeneration. Two are in Lambeth – Lambeth Council and Berkeley’s Oval/Kennington development (OAKDA) and CLS Holdings’ Vauxhall Square Development. The third possibility is the New Covent Garden Market development which straddles the Vauxhall/Wandsworth border at Nine Elms.
Lambeth Council and Berkeley’s Oval and Kennington Development Area plan (OAKDA) would be much improved – and so would the borough of Lambeth – by the addition of a purpose-built Records Office that would both be a money-spinner and make the most of Lambeth’s most undervalued asset, Lambeth Archives.
For years, Lambeth Archives, although of international interest, has been treated as a cost and liability. It has been understaffed and crammed into the hard-to-find Minet Library, which Lambeth now wants to be rid of. Lambeth Archives is variously reported as heading for the basement of Brixton Library or a corner of the purpose-built Black Archives Centre.
Neither of these is the right answer. A purpose-built, revenue-earning, properly-staffed and busily-visited Records Office – at OAKDA/Vauxhall Square/New Covent Garden – could be. Especially if there is a Local History Museum component (Lambeth does not have such a museum).
‘Nothing beats purpose-built’
Here’s why purpose-built comes up trumps:
1. The need to create earned income streams needs to be thought through at the earliest possible stage. It is very difficult to add things like a shop, a cafe, a meeting/lecture room, or a reception venue after a building has been commissioned, acquired or built.
Many museum-type establishments would today find it very difficult to survive without the income from a space that can be hired out by private groups, societies etc., for meetings, parties, receptions and the like. Lambeth is currently very short of such spaces in attractive surroundings.
2. The inclusion of a high-quality museum display or exhibition room should be an integral part of the Record Office – especially if the RO (Record Office) intends to attract donations, and/or loans. The ability to exhibit and sell the work of living artists may also provide additional income and footfall.
3. A really useful online catalogue must be created, using standard archival database software, in order to facilitate public access to the archive, alongside the excellent ‘Landmark Lambeth’ website.
4. The RO should ideally be situated close to a rail, tube or bus station, so as to be easily reached by visitors. It should also have adequate signage, and a public ‘shop-front’ to attract attention. Too many Record Offices are hidden away in anonymous buildings, which discourage ‘walk-in’ visits.
If a new RO can be physically close to (or even amalgamated with) an existing museum-type facility (like the Garden Museum or Cinema Museum), or notable building (like St Peter’s Kennington Lane, the Ragged School or Brunswick House) so much the better.
5. A new RO for Lambeth must have the appropriate storage conditions, both in terms of environment and security, and of longevity.
The current holdings of the Lambeth Archives are only the tip of a rapidly-growing iceberg, so record storage should allow for significant growth over the coming years. Ideally, all storage should be on-site, although this may not be possible in the longer term.
6. Thought could be given in the early stages of planning to imaginative outreach and educational services. Many schools and colleges value collaborations with libraries, museums and archive services.
This could involve something as simple as ‘handling boxes’ where items of low value or importance are boxed and sent out to schools where they are handled (under supervision) by pupils; or something as easy as screens of photographic and textual material to present historical information to a wide audience;
or maybe as serious as properly secure and environmentally protective display cases filled with interpreted material on specific subjects which can be sent out to educational establishments of all sorts, or even to shops, banks, hotels etc., (at a fee) so as to show students and the general public something of the rich heritage of Lambeth, and to publicise the RO and its collections.
‘CLS Holdings’ Vauxhall Square ideal for purpose-built Record Office’
A huge amount of new development is taking place in and around Lambeth, much of it close to the Vauxhall rail and bus stations.
If Lambeth/Berkeley/OAKDA can’t see the potential, maybe another developer could: CLS Holdings’ Vauxhall Square would also be ideal for part or all of a new purpose-built Record Office, even if it’s only the shell of the space required.
I’m sure other people have voiced similar concerns, and that there is huge support for the Lambeth Archives, but I felt I must add my voice, because if something is not done now, before an irrevocable step is taken, then the archive will be forever lost to Lambeth, which would be a real tragedy and a sad waste.
I hope The Vauxhall Society may feel able to support me in this, and to pass on one or two of these thoughts to the Lambeth Borough Council.. Yours sincerely, David E Coke FSA
David Coke is co-author with Alan Borg of Vauxhall Gardens: A History (Yale University Press), and former Curator of Gainsborough’s House Trust, Sudbury, and Director of Pallant House Gallery Trust, Chichester. (Source: Vauxhall Society)