In this post Dr Michael Eades, who is working on School of Advanced Study’s programme of events for the 2013 Bloomsbury Festival, reflects on the history, character and legacy of the area. This is part of a series leading up to the announcement of the programme later this year.
What is Bloomsbury?
This question immediately begs a second: where is it? We can think of an area circling out around the British Museum, bounded by Euston Road to the North, Tottenham Court Road to the West, Gray’s Inn Road to the East and, to the South, (either) Bloomsbury Way or High Holborn.
But exactly where it begins and ends depends on who you talk to, what books you read. Writing in 1883, Willkie Collins for example described, and ‘located’, the area in the following terms:
The broad district, stretching northward and eastward from the British Museum, is like the quiet quarter of a country town set in the midst of the roaring activities of the largest city in the world. Here, when you are idle, you can saunter and look about, safe from collision with merciless straight-walkers whose time is money, and whose destiny in business. (Heart and Science, 1883)
The description is geographically vague, yet instantly recognisable. In setting it apart from the hustle of its surrounding streets, but not being too specific about its borders, Collins underlines the sense that Bloomsbury is as much a conceptual construct—a ‘state of mind’, as it were—as a locatable ‘place’. It becomes a conceptual space of refuge amid the chaos of London, in which a certain amount of intellectual contemplation (and idle sauntering) might be achieved without bumping into the
relentless ‘straight-walkers’ of the city.
Our Project: Cultural Engagement
When I started work in the School of Advanced Study in February, I thought I knew more about Bloomsbury than I did. I’d read Mrs Dalloway, and written a bit about the Bloomsbury group in my PhD thesis. I knew the British Museum, the Wellcome Collection, and a few other places. And I also knew (vaguely) that Senate House had been the Ministry of Information during WII, and had some sort of connection to George Orwell’s 1984.
Part of the pleasure of my work over the last few months has been finding out how incomplete that knowledge really was. The Bloomsbury Festival Cultural Engagement project, which I’ve been leading over this time, has used a grant from the AHRC’s Cultural Engagement Pilot Scheme to initiate a programme of events for the upcoming Bloomsbury Festival this October (15th-20th). The aim is to foster (and strengthen) connections between the humanities research facilitated by SAS and its wider cultural and civic milieu, and to make tangible the diffuse networks and exchanges of knowledge that pass in an out of the School, into Bloomsbury, London, and beyond.
This has involved a good deal of exploration on my part. Over the past weeks I have been on a one man perambulation both of SAS —from the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies to the Warburg and everywhere in between—and around the streets of Bloomsbury itself. I’ve been working closely too with the team behind the Bloomsbury Festival, which this year more than ever is geared towards uncovering the diversity of the area, its history as a place of refuge, revitalisation, reform.
New Perspectives on Bloomsbury
The challenge, as I see it, is one of opening up new perspectives: on SAS, on Bloomsbury itself, and on the School’s place within it. In other words, what we are attempting is to make apparent the School’s existing connections to communities in the immediate civic context of Bloomsbury, and to break down the illusion that universities and their employees are in some way separate from the communities, cities, and cultures around them.
How can we ensure open access to knowledge to all, and enable genuine communication between researchers and a broader public? How can we explore the crucial role that the humanities have played, and continue to play, in society at large? These questions are pressing to the HE sector generally, but are particularly significant ones for SAS. They are significant too to pose in the heart of Bloomsbury: long regarded, as we have seen, as a special place within London, but also home to some of the most traditionally elite institutions in the country.
In the coming weeks I’ll be posting more directly on the emerging themes and outcomes of the Cultural Engagement project (as well as soliciting directly for contributions), and posting some provisional answers to these questions in project. In the meantime though please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow the project as it develops on Twitter: @BloomsburySAS.
Michael is working on the School of Advanced Study’s programme of events for the 2013 Bloomsbury Festival, as part of the Cultural Engagement Project. The second post, about New Perspectives on Senate House, can be found here.