Celebrating the working lives of the Thames Gateway


Working Lives of the Thames Gateway reception. Jonathan Eudall

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the new exhibition at the London Guildhall Art Gallery, Working Lives of the Thames Gateway. I was there for Culture24 and my review of the exhibition can be found here.

The exhibition is the result of a three-year oral history project focused, as the title gives suggests, on the working lives of people who lived and worked in the Thames Gateway area, an area that was once the industrial heartland of East London. As a volunteer on two oral history projects (see my previous post) I found this exhibition particularly interesting.

Listening Point, with snippets of oral histories. Jonathan Eudall

It is popular for exhibitions to use and integrate oral histories into their narrative, but this exhibition is slightly different as it is based on an oral history project. Consequently the objects and panels were supporting the oral histories and the historical research done in tandem with that.

With two listening posts at either side of the exhibition offering snippets of a total of 16 interviews, and transcript extracts as part of the panels I was very aware that the history on offer was only a fraction of that contained in the over 250 interviews conducted.

I get the feeling the exhibition is only an introduction to the work done by the Eastside Community Heritage group and their volunteers. The exhibition itself does cover some interesting aspects of life working in the Thames Gateway, the sense of community and recreational activities organised by the companies, but it is understandable that the output of the project is an exhibition, a book, a documentary and an education pack.

Image of Chemicals and Engineering panels. Jonathan Eudall

It really highlighted for me the difficulty in presenting a thought-provoking and engaging exhibition on such a large topic with a massive source base, but with restricted money and space. With this in mind I think the exhibition does very well, and its setting at the Guildhall is striking, the use of images on the windows really draw you up to the landing. Also the juxtaposition of the exhibition with the portraits and busts of kings and queens is interesting, its like two historiographical traditions having a stand-off, top down vs social history. For me social history wins every time.

Hopefully in the coming months there will also be some events that can explore some of the related topics of the Working Lives of the Thames Gateway in more depth, or maybe I’ll just have to buy the book.

As a final point, here’s a link to an interesting blog asking: What is the Thames Gateway? An interesting point regarding the framework put upon this oral history project. Boundary choices are always interesting for defining a history project’s standpoint, and as the Thames Gateway is designated area for regeneration it could be seen as a nostalgic look at an area before it fell into decline, or perhaps seen as slightly more forward looking and political objective. I’m defiantly going to have to get the book to decide.

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