Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: Opening the First Archive

The First Box: Earlier this week a plain, slightly damp cardboard box was delivered to my office. Whilst hardly looking like anything to get excited about, I knew that this was in fact a very important package indeed. It was nothing less than the first ‘output’ of my research project: the first (albeit very ‘prototype’) Bloomsbury ‘Festival in a Box’. For six days this October the streets and squares of Bloomsbury were transformed. They became impromptu venues for art, music, and cabaret; for poetry readings and parkour workshops. Local institutions and businesses opened their doors and put on their own programmes of events, offering cultural and intellectual stimulation, as well as (when the weather turned) shelter from the October rain. Every year the Bloomsbury Festival works this transformation, and this year I was lucky enough to be involved in the process. In my role as Cultural Contexts Research Fellow in the School of Advanced Study (SAS), I was responsible for putting together a programme of events that would help people to engage with research taking place across the school. The Research Project: But I also had another reason for taking a keen interest in the Bloomsbury Festival this year. As part of the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project, from July onwards I have been working on a research project entitled ‘Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia’. On a basic level, this project aims to take a peripatetic version of the Bloomsbury Festival out to local residents unable to leave their homes and engage with it directly. Specifically, in this instance, we have been working closely with Age...

Festival in a Box: sharing knowledge on dementia and the arts

 Project Dissemination: As the Bloomsbury Festival in a Box Project moves towards its dissemination stages, we are opening up the ‘archives of engagement’ that have developed over the course of the project via a number of outlets. The first of these is a knowledge share day at the School of Advanced Study, which will bring together leading practitioners in arts and health and dementia, alongside researchers and artists associated with the Festival in a Box project and representatives from Age UK Camden.  The day aims to provide an environment in which the lessons learned from our project can be contextualized in relation to both established and emerging interventions in this field. Sharing Knowledge: The event will be held on Thursday May 1st 2014, Senate House, University of London 10am – 4pm. Alongside members of the project team and associated artists from the Bloomsbury Festival, we will welcome the following guest speakers: Professor Geoffrey Crossick (School of Advanced Study), Director of the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project. Veronica Franklin Gould, Founder & Chief executive, Arts 4 Dementia Professor Justine Schneider (University of Nottingham), on ‘Inside Out of Mind’ Dr Helen Chaterjee, University College London, ‘Heritage in Hospitals’ Representatives from Dulwich Picture Gallery’s ‘Good Times’ programme The speakers represent a cross-section of leading projects examining the value of cultural activity broadly, and specifically in relation to those living with dementia. Please join us: The event is free and open to all, and a lunch and refreshments will be included. Whilst all are welcome, however, there is limited capacity for this event. For further details, and to book a place, please contact michael.eades@sas.ac.uk....

The Bloomsbury Festival, or the Bloomsbury Fair?

It’s the Bloomsbury fair, not the Bloomsbury Festival!’ Such was the reaction of one of my research participants upon our arriving at her flat with the Bloomsbury ‘Festival in a Box’ a couple of weeks ago.  This participant is now in her late nineties and has lived in central Bloomsbury since the Second World War. Still living alone in a flat in not far from my own work place, she is just one of several participants whom I have encountered during the Festival in a Box project who has managed—in a way that now seems almost unimaginable—to have lived and raised a family in the very heart of London. She remains as a living custodian of the kind of life and kind of memories that come from this experience. As we introduced our project and showed this participant some flyers from the 2013 Bloomsbury Festival—billed as ‘an autumn festival of art, knowledge and imagination’—we were met with the same response again and again: ‘It’s the Bloomsbury fair. It was never called the Bloomsbury Festival, never!’ Her reaction was vehement, almost violent on this point, and not for the first time during this project I was self-conscious of worrying at a potentially troubling or painful memory. The visit, and then visits, continued, and over the course of these a relationship developed that allowed us to find out more about her long life in the area, the stories that have shaped and emerged from this life, and allowed us too to engage her in various art activities, from literary readings to ceramics workshops. She told us stories about coming to Bloomsbury...

Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: Looking Back on ‘National Storytelling Week’

It was ‘National Storytelling Week’ last week (1st-8th Feb). If nothing else, this meant that there was a welcome focus in the national press on the therapeutic and social importance on the act of storytelling, and on what it means to form narratives and communicate them to others. Given the narrative focus of the Festival in a Box project—which uses storytelling techniques to engage people with dementia, but also encourages people to communicate their personal narratives of self, of their ‘illness’, and their relationship with place—I followed these discussions with great interest. However, whilst much of the coverage of ‘Storytelling Week’ highlighted, quite rightly, the pedagogical and therapeutic possibilities of the simple act of engaging people in narratives, there was relatively little discussion (that I saw) of the nature of narrative itself. Particularly, there was little on how our understanding of what constitutes a story might be challenged by interacting with people whose capacity to form narratives has been affected by illness or injury, or which is in other respects exists outside of communicative norms. Writing in Health in 2011 Lars-Christer Hydén and Eleonor Antelius noted that, ‘[d]oing research with persons with communicative disabilities quiet often tends to upset the often implicit and taken-for-granted narrative norms of the researcher’ (6). This is something that I have noticed myself over the course of the Bloomsbury Festival in a Box project, and which I have been trying to explore in previous entries on this blog. To put it quite simply, working with people with dementia—whose understanding of time, of the order of events, and of the conventional (unspoken) rules of communication...

Festival in a Box: Dementia, the Counterculture, and Surrealism

  One of my favourite Christmas gifts this year was a copy of Barry Miles’s book London Calling: a countercultural history of London since 1945. It’s a very good book to read on the tube—whilst squashed up in communal but often uncomfortable proximity to one’s fellow citizens—but also a wonderful book to read if you happen to work anywhere near to Soho, Fitzrovia or, of course, Bloomsbury. Reading this, I’ve been struck by the proximity to some of the stories told by our participants in the Bloomsbury Festival in a Box project. Our participants, some of them in their 80s and 90s, have lived in central London for many years. They have told us stories of living in Soho in the 1960s, and of seeing the recently deceased Peter O’Toole (‘he was always drunk’) staggering his way from pub to pub. They have told us stories of smoky dance halls and after-hours clubs where, newly arrived in the UK, they used to go dancing.  One participant, a former costume maker, recalled being introduced to Quentin Crisp in the 1960’s, and being shocked by his blue-rinse hair, ‘shaky make-up’ and painted toenails. Ageing & the Counterculture The connections are striking, and the personal testimonies and reminiscences of these participants have helped to make present what can seem like a very distant cultural world. Many of the people described vividly in Miles’s history of the counterculture are now dead of course, some of them quite recently, such as O’Toole, and many of them hastened along the way by the very lifestyles that made them memorable. One of those who survived into...

Festival in a Box: Reflecting on the G8 Summit on Dementia

  Dementia has been in the news in a big way over the past week. Tuesday saw the first ever G8 Dementia Summit opening in London with a headline grabbing promise from David Cameron to double funding for dementia research by 2025. This follows similar promises of urgent action on dementia put forward last year in the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia, which in fact promises (rather more generously) to ‘[m]ore than double […] overall funding for dementia research to over 66m by 2015’. Dementia, its treatment, prevention, and (one day, we might hope, ‘cure’) has shot up the national agenda over the last few years. In the process, a discourse has developed around the topic which—as is so often the case with discussions of culture in the public sphere—has often drawn upon economic measures of value. David Cameron’s G8 speech emphasised (in its third sentence) that dementia care entails a ‘global cost of 600 billion dollars a year’. And that, he added (in the following sentence), ‘is to say nothing of the human cost’. Unpacking the Discourse It is tempting to read this at face value, with Cameron’s sentence order reflecting his policy priorities: economic cost first, human cost second. But that would probably be rather glib from a researcher currently in receipt of public money for dementia research. What is more interesting, perhaps, is the sheer discursive weight given to the economic factors within such debates. A language of costs, budgets, investments and returns that has shaped the media headlines over the past week, matching the immensity of the problem with talk of eye-wateringly (and eye-catching) huge...

Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: A Visit to the Camden Archives

  Earlier this week I spent a day researching in the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre at Holborn Library. Now that our weekly Festival in a Box visits with people living with dementia in Camden are well underway, my aim was to find stimulus materials which—based on the narratives we are beginning to uncover—might help to prompt reminiscence among our participants, and hence feed into the narrative collage of place (of Bloomsbury, of Camden, and of London itself) that is already beginning to emerge from our research. Aptly, this visit took place on a day of industrial action around the University which meant that my regular library was closed. The Camden Archive Centre’s opening hours have also been restricted as a direct result of funding cuts within the last two years, and, standing in the cold at 10am waiting for the library to open, the results of this were obvious. I was struck once again by the economies of scale at play in Bloomsbury: between my own workplace and between the council-run archives. The reading rooms in the beautiful Senate House Library and the immense, almost overwhelming, British Library—both institutions at the heart of Bloomsbury and of Camden—seemed suddenly palatial. They are palatial, of course, and the comparison with this local and entirely public institution, underlines how fortunate we are, as researchers, to have access to them. On entering the Camden archives, the first thing that you are confronted with is a table covered in boxes full of jumbled ephemera materials on sale to the general public. Here we had the 50p box, the £1 box, the box...

Festival in a Box (Some Thoughts on Boxes)

Boxes have a history within dementia research and memory activities. Some very important work in the field of arts and health has come about through the production of ‘memory boxes’, for example. Via the work of the European Reminiscence Network or the ‘House of Memories’ programme at the Museum of Liverpool (to name only a couple of examples), the therapeutic benefits of assembling personal boxes of meaningful objects, photographs, etc, for people with dementia has been well established. As our weekly visits get under way in earnest, using our first Festival in a Box (designed by architects Lyn Atelier), I want to reflect in this post on not only on our box, but on ‘boxes’, or ‘the box’, as a concept. In no particular order, therefore, here are some of my thoughts on the status of the box as a ‘symbolic object’, or on what we might loosely call the ‘phenomenology’ of boxes.  Boxes and Festivals –  A box is a receptacle for storage. It is what we use for safe handling and transport, a means of protecting something precious. It is an object that exists primarily to protect something more important that is held within it: that is, whilst it can be beautiful in itself, it is a structure defined in the first instance by its contents. We have boxes that range from the elegant (jewellery boxes, snuff boxes, music boxes) down to the mundane level of the shoe-box, the grocery box, the cardboard box. The box serves as a receptacle both for things that are precious and things that are unwanted—things that are valued and things that...

Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: Thinking about ‘dementia friendly communities’

 Meetings:  At 9am on Monday morning a fairly disparate group of people gathered for a meeting and training session for the Festival in a Box project. Alongside myself and other researchers, in attendance were one local Bloomsbury artist (last seen leading a walk at the Bloomsbury Festival), three poets, a ceramics artist, and an opera singer. Along with a representative from Age UK Camden, we were gathered to both learn about and debate the best ways of engaging people with dementia with artistic activity. Thinking about the rather unusual mixture of people in this meeting, I was reminded of a phrase I have come across a lot recently in my research. The Department of Health’s first progress report on The Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia (published earlier this year) talks a lot about the need to create ‘Dementia Friendly Communities’ (DPH, 2013). This is an intriguing phrase, and one which has a relevance to what we are trying to achieve with our ‘Festival in a Box’. Festivals: Festivals tend to pride themselves on being ‘community’ events. That is to say they tend to be presented as both events for the community and also events that actually create community for the periods in which they run (and hopefully beyond). As noted in my last post, our first ‘Festival in a Box’ experiment provided us with an intriguing narrative palimpsest of the ‘community’ gathered in Bloomsbury over the 19th-20th of October. Participants in our first outreach workshop (a random cross-section of festival attendees) gave us a box full of impressions, creative written and visual responses to Bloomsbury over these two exceptional...