18 Folgate Street

February 3, 2009

This is a slightly odd post in that it’s about something I haven’t actually seen myself (for reasons which will be discussed below). 18 Folgate Street is regularly mentioned in lists of London’s ‘best kept secrets’ and best museums. I first heard of it years and years ago and have always been fascinated by the idea. It’s a house in Spitalfields in which the (late) owner, Dennis Severs, created a ‘still life drama’. As you move through the rooms, you pass through the lives of the fictional Gervais/Jervis family invented by Severs and consequently through a fictionalised history of the house 1724-1914. Severs also wrote a book about the house, which is beautiful and fascinating.

It’s emphatically not a reconstruction. Severs occasionally takes great pleasure in undermining the museum effect, pointing out the anachronisms and inaccuracies. And of course the whole project revels in fictionalisation and trickery. It is about ‘aura’, not authenticity. Visual and aural effects are used to give the impression that the family are just out of reach, that they have just left the room: half eaten food, ruffled bedsheets, whispers.

Crucially though it seems that visitors are not expected to empathise with the characters in the personal way that would be expected in a more conventional Living History experience. The family are archetypes. We experience the mood of each period through them; we don’t try to relate their experiences to our own.

Something about it reminds me of Collingwood on re-enactment. It’s explicitly about rethinking the era, about recreating its thought processes. For instance, in the book Severs describes how he came to understand the Georgian mentality by rethinking the steps which had led them to move the fireplace to the centre of a wall. This seems to be close to what Collingwood meant by saying that history ‘is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind’.

According to my interpretation of Collingwood, thoughts can be ‘re-enacted’ or ‘re-thought’ because they are, in a sense, a-historical. Collingwood’s experience of rethinking Euclid’s thought that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal will be shaped by his own character, by his relation to Euclid and by his knowledge of the intervening centuries. Yet the thought: ‘the angles are equal’ remains the same. He cannot feel like Euclid but he can think like him.

Similarly, Severs’ discovery of Georgian aesthetics is mediated by his desire to communicate with the past, by late twentieth century taste and by the changed meanings of hearth, home and family. Yet something about it remains the same.

Despite this, something doesn’t quite fit. First, Collingwood specifically repudiates the idea that his kind of ‘historical knowledge’ could be gained by ‘some Wellesian machine for looking backwards through time’. And second, Severs is quite adamant that guests need to surrender to the experience, to feel, to be, not to think.

It may be that these are semantic points: 18 Folgate Street isn’t a time machine, it’s a thought experiment; and its visitors are being invited to rethink the past but not to analyse the illusion. Or it may be more than this. I’m still not sure. Has anyone been?

Oh, and on the question of why I haven’t been myself. To tell the truth, I’m scared. That whole boundary between past and present, reality and fiction does something funny to me. I know that’s the point, but it doesn’t help. I’m always a little bit scared in museums. One which is specifically about ‘unsettling’ our relationship with the past may be a step too far. Severs admitted that he tried to push his ‘guests’ to their limits. I think my limit might lie somewhere in the pages of his book.

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