It was a recent rainy morning in East London. I had spent the previous day at Editorial and Committee meetings followed by the AGM and President’s lecture and meal at the Royal Archaeological Institute at Burlington House, Piccadilly. I stayed in London overnight, in Whitechapel, because rather than heading back to Wales, I was on my way the next day to Harlaxton Manor (Grantham) to a conference on Masculinities in the Landscape.
I had planned to spend the morning and early afternoon in London doing something fruitful and interesting; a museum, a park, explore a cemetery and/or public monuments etc. Instead, I wasn’t in the mood. I had a paper to prepare, I really don’t like London that much and it was raining. So I stayed in my hotel as long as possible preparing my powerpoint to the talk the next day and then I walked out of my hotel and along the Whitechapel Road towards Aldgate East station and departed for Harlaxton Manor earlier than I anticipated.
Incidentally, I was staying at the Whitechapel Ibis Hotel, on the seventh floor, and my hotel room gave me a fabulous and distinct sight-line that even adherents to theories of ley lines would find difficult to see as anything but total coincidence. And yet still, this sightline – linking the minaret of the adjacent East London Mosque (established in this location in 1985) with the 17th-century dome of St Paul’s designed by Wren in the far distance – speaks so much of the complex religious and cultural history of London. This chimed also with my encounter with a very special place on my short walk west-south-west into the City.
In the heavy rain, I encountered Altab Ali Park: a site that is a prominent case study in recent archaeological engagements with urban communities and the regeneration of public urban spaces. This is the former site of St Mary Matfelon Church – the White Chapel – a church that went through many incarnations since at least the 13th century to the last church on the site destroyed by German bombing in the Second World War. It was finally demolished in 1952 and turned into St Mary’s Gardens in 1966 and renamed as Altab Ali Park in 1994.
The park as it appears today is a relatively new creation: opened 12th March 2012. Developed by Tower Hamlets Council, English Heritage, The Greater London Authority and Transport for London, over half the £1 million redevelopment was funded by the Mayor of London’s Great Outdoors programme. While elements of diversity already populated the park before 2012 (including the park’s entrance arch to commemorate Altab Ali and victims of racist violence and the Shaheed Minar monument commemorating the Bengali Language Movement), the designers – Muf Architecture/Art – created a new urban public landscape that incorporated many different material fragments with varied historical and cultural resonances. This took place ahead of the 2012 Olympics, creating a series of landscape improvements from Stratford High Street to Aldgate. The key elements to this were a new entrance at Adler Street and a raised walkway parallel to Whitechapel Road, a 38-m bench for users of the park (the footprint of the 19th-century church, see below), history boards and Portland stones illustrating the archaeology of the site and marking the footprint of older 17th-century church, and a new landscaping of the surroundings of the Shaheed Minar monument.
Before this, and informing the design, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) were contracted by Muf Architecture/Art to lead a community archaeology project on the site during 2010 and 2011. This engaged c. 900 school children, local residents and others in the complex archaeological history of the site. The self-conscious aim was to turn the park into an open-air museum. Their video can be found here and the grey literature reports of the evaluation, community dig and watching brief can be found on David Sankey’s blog here with links to his Flickr photos and sketches. They found parts of the previous churches on the site and Roman occupation beneath.
The Muf photo gallery on their website explains the design as reflecting the ‘secular and sacred multilayered history and character of the Whitechapel neighbourhood’. Kieran Long’s commentary on the design in the London Evening Standard fleshes out an interpretation of the design and its deliberate ‘urban collage’ of fragments, regarding the landscape as ‘…dense with meaning and pregnant with the rhythms of daily life and the deeper rituals that define the identities of the people who have lived in Whitechapel over centuries’.
The archaeology and the landscape design together contextualised the park’s dedication to the victim of a racially motivated murder, 25-year-old Altab Ali on 4 May 1978, showing the rich and varied influences on the site and the neighbourhood down the centuries from at least the Roman period. The bench and the rest of the design is intended to create a ‘matrix of the religious history of the site and of the secular, making a setting for the Shaheed Minar, a spatial traces of the realm of faith and acknowledgement of the attachment to place; to landscape’ (Muf’s Katherine Clarke is quoted for this).
The park creates a utilitarian space for walking, sitting and conversing as well as public gatherings. It also creates a landscape of fragmentation – fragments from the past, fragmentary histories. The landscape foregrounds absence: the building, re-building, deliberate destruction – as well as death and sacrifice incorporated into its design from early times to the Second World War and foregrounding recent racial, religious and linguistic conflicts. Yet there remains an attempt to sketch a coherent timeline of influences and events within the texts and their arrangement, if not spatially.
Yet the varied materialities of the park contradict and challenge this coherence. I would also emphasise the way the design ‘calls out’ beyond the park, with boards explaining the complex history of the site displayed for those passing by on the pavement. Despite claims to the contrary, the park does still sit in tension between a homogenising temporal narrative that seeks to demarcate different cultural and religious influences into particular chronological horizons, and the aspiration towards the celebration of local and national heterogeneity that is the mantra of multicultural Britain.
There are three commentaries on this design that prompt my archaeodeath attention.
- First, archaeologically retrieved fragments were used as part of the open-air display. I have seen this elsewhere, including in Exeter and Chester, and it is a striking way in which fragments can form an artistic display and evoke the passion to learn more about them individually. They should have added ‘Now visit the Museum of London’ more clearly to the display. Also notable is that the display merges indistinguishably artefacts from the dig and those gifted by local people: the display merges past and present in this regard. The assemblage is more than archaeological finds, and less than archaeological finds since none are labelled. Their power to present the past is both enhanced and diffused by this manner of presentation.
- The retention of historic gravestones and tombs in the park are regularly utilised as active components of links between past and present, as discussed for Birmingham Cathedral here. They should be regarded as key, not as window-dressing for the newer ‘invented’ fragments and designed elements of park design. They have the power of forging links to other times and past individuals’ and communities’ aspirations for commemoration. The detail of the closing of the churchyard following the 1855 London Burial Act is outlined, but the memorials themselves are not. It is a pity that these are not foregrounded at all in the displays, which focus on the churches as buildings for worship rather than the place as for the burial and commemoration of the Christian dead.
- The replication of monuments from elsewhere replicates a recent trope of British conflict commemoration as seen as the National Memorial Arboretum. The 1999 Shaheed Minars Martyr monument is a memorial to the 1952 deaths during language protests in Bangladesh: it claims to directly replicate the form of a monument in Dhaka designed by Hamidur Rahman in 1957 but demolished and rebuilt following Bangladeshi independence. The abstract design represents a weeping mother and her four children. Replication as a commemorative strategy is a powerful way of conflating geographical distance. In this environment, the tension creates is that the attention of the new design was about making this place significant, when of course the different dimensions of this place are networked worldwide to various peoples and cultures.
For me, this was a short, inspiring and thought-provoking space. I am not from the area, and I have no particular attachment to it. Yet the park speaks to me on many levels as an archaeologist and a UK resident regarding the complex, eclectic and heterotopic nature of urban parks and the aspirations of heritage practitioners and landscape designs to submerge and meld these into a narrative and spatial order.
This leads to a further critical archaeodeath perspective. Recently Natasha Powers and colleages address in the Chris Dalglish edited book Archaeology, the Public and the Recent Past how the archaeological project in the park put care and attention in its location of trenches and screening of the dig to avoid the public interacting with the remains of the dead. The desire to afford respect to the dead and shield the living from them might be expected in an urban context amidst a community with many diverse attitudes and responses to the dead.
The desire not to disturb and display the dead the park during the dig is understandable. Equally however, the downplaying of the tangible presences of the dead above and below ground in this space is perhaps open to question and might be seen as impoverishing the rich narratives of this urban space and the communities it has served over the centuries. MOLA have produced stupendous work on London’s medieval and post-medieval dead, and further work is ongoing, especially with the excavations taking place as part of the Crossrail project. Moreover, in the 2010/11 dig, brick vaults were uncovered and significant unspecified amounts of human charnel material. Also, hints of a Roman cremation burial was among the oldest discoveries encountered. While this last fact is mentioned in the text of the display (although the actual evidence for an early Roman cremation seems circumstantial in the evaluation report), the overal low profile of the material traces of the dead, interpreted for what they are, prompts me to consider the redesign of the park as being as much an act of archaeological forgetting as remembering.