Bernadine Evaristo
Black History at the Museum of London

Bernardine Evaristo's second book Lara, a verse novel (1997) won the EMMA Best Book/Novel Award in 1999. Her poem Britain: A Continuum is the commissioned signature poem for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's millennium brochure 'A View From Britain'.

Excavating the Imagination

My residency at the Museum of London was to explore the Black history of London. The residency was divided into three parts: the creation of new poems, creative writing workshops for various community groups and the public, and a public reading.

It was, in many ways, a marriage made in heaven. I had long wanted to explore this hidden history and had read widely on the subject, I already had a relationship with the museum and they wanted to encourage artists to interact with their collections.

My link person Chandan Mahal of the Interpretation Unit worked brilliantly to ensure the residency was a rewarding one for both the museum and myself. I relished being able to tap into the expert knowledge on hand and to draw inspiration from the exhibitions, stores and archives. The wonderful London Bodies exhibition was my starting point and inspired a series of poems about the first inhabitants of Britain, musing on what they could have looked like:

Extract from Routes

...................Welcome home. Welcome
first citizen, chasing reindeer over the hip joint
 
with France, tropical and glacier cycles, waves
of migrators, your long trek north from below
 
the Sahara, circling a camp fire by the Thames.
The hair of wolves over tight backs, dread-
 
locked beards, unpolished eyes, your slow
heavy mouths chewing fresh rhinocerous, roasted,
 
no spices...'

Chandan and I were in regular touch via email and she set up many introductory meetings with museum staff including archaeologists and historians. Some of these meetings actually led to the creation of poems, such as my meeting with Helen Ganiaris of the Conservation Department who showed me around a rotunda full of six thousand skeletons in cardboard boxes. She explained entusiastically that conservators like to work with their hands and history, rather like me, I thought, creating poetry out of history:

Extract from The Conservator

Here in my lab, the post

brings limbs of hardened earth,

for surgery. I pluck at scabs

with cotton buds, a scalpel picks

out detail, for magnified hours, my pupils

dilate at old culture exposed. But

 

oxygen kills. Pre-historic wood

shrivels. A fish-beater is kept

in the freezer; an acrobat's leather

briefs, glycerined (Female. Young. Londinium);

from Preacher's Court, Elizabethan

coins, sealed in a bag.

A boat trip down the Thames with the Thames Archaeology Survey Officer Mike Webber was fascinating and made me aware of the importance of the river historically and in our lives today. The foreshore preserved a significant number of the smaller objects which are now in the museum. I learnt of the pre-historic forest at Erith where at low tide you can walk under 5000 year old trees; that the beach at Tower Hill was used by holidaymakers right up until the 1950s; that our effluence sometimes overflows the underground sewers and rivers in the capital and ends up in the middle of the Thames until boats called bubblers pump oxygen to disperse it.

Other trips included a visit to the Spitalfields archaeological site where skeletons dating back to the Roman occupation are being excavated, (a strange sight indeed to see bodies half-dug out of the earth); and also a trip to the museum's storehouse at Eagle Wharf Road, where one can find such things as a corpse cage which is literally a human-shaped cage for corpses, which used to hang outside Newgate Prison.

The workshops were held with various adult groups who came to the museum and used the idea of personal, family or community history as theme. We were able to use the museum's handling objects for inspiration during the workshops. Objects such as a 500 yr old leather drinking jug, the first telephone in the 1890s, a gentleman's C17 boot jack, a 1970s bus conductor's ticket machine and so forth.

The culmination of the residency was a public reading in one of the museum's galleries and an interview with the biographer and editor Jenny Uglow about the new poems and the residency, which I described as a journey of excavation, interpretation and imagination.

I do think it is important to mention that the museum was one hundred percent behind the residency and I was at all times welcomed, supported and encouraged by the directors and staff. People went out of their way to be helpful and to answer any of my research queries, in particular Jenny Hall and John Clark of the Early Department. The museum printed a lovely colour leaflet about the residency with information about workshops and the public reading which was available at the entrance to the museum and they also used a photograph of me as the cover image on their Events Guide to highlight the residency.

In terms of publicity and outcome, by the end of the residency I had begun a new book of poems, given two separate readings of this new work on Woman's Hour - Radio 4, read a poem and was interviewed at the museum for a poetry programme on mpr - national Dutch television, read the poems on a tour of New Zealand, given several radio interviews and had two of the poems published in Wasafiri magazine.

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