Post by Dr Michael Eades, Cultural Contexts Research Fellow. The first post, about Locating Bloomsbury, can be found here. 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.
In my last blog post I talked about public engagement, and the specific aims of the project Bloomsbury Festival Cultural Engagement Project that I have been developing over the past few months during my time in SAS. In this post I want to continue this discussion by discussing these ideas in relation to something that has constituted both one of the biggest inspirations and largest obstacles in this project: Senate House itself.
For those of us who work here, it’s easy to forget just how intimidating Senate House can be. Semi-concealed on the Russell Square side (from which, coming from St Pancras and Euston road, I first encountered it), it suddenly leaps out at you when you cross the car park and, unequivocally, looms at those who approach it, imposing on the casual visitor the sheer weight of its architecture. The Crush Hall is aptly named. It feels a bit like it might crush you.
Surely one of the most beautiful buildings currently serving in HE, therefore, Senate House must also surely be one also one of the most formidable. It’s a monolithic structure. Evelyn Waugh famously described it, in his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags, as a ‘vast bulk’, ‘insulting the autumn sky’. Graham Greene called it a ‘high heartless building with complicated lifts and long passages like those of a liner’. Both writers noted too the building’s atmosphere of secrecy and intrigue, with Waugh suggesting that ‘all the secrets of all the services might have been hidden in that gross mass of masonry’.
A Secretive Edifice
Waugh and Greene, like many other leading writers of the era, had dealings with Senate House during its wartime incarnation as the Ministry of Information. At that time (1939-1946), the building employed a huge number of people who worked on censorship (in the basement), on the coordination of the press (in the Beveridge Hall), and on the production of literature, film, posters and pamphlets designed to lift the morale of the nation. We might, in a word, call it ‘propaganda’.
Senate House’s cultural legacy still hinges around this context. It is remembered particularly of course for its (much mythologised) role as the inspiration for George Orwell’s nightmarish ‘Ministry of Truth’ in 1984. ‘It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete’, Orwell wrote in that book, ‘soaring up, terrace after terrace, hundreds of metres into the air’. Senate House here becomes not only a place of censorship, but, like other pyramids, a kind of gigantic tomb: an edifice within which knowledge, ‘truth’, is conclusively interred.
Establishing a Ministry of Communication
Our project aims to address precisely this issue. We want to open up new perspectives not only on Senate House, but on the School of Advanced Study itself. Drawing on some of the research facilitated by the school—and bringing it into contact with work by local artists, filmmakers, and others—for Bloomsbury 2013 we will be subverting Senate House’s ‘Orwellian’ history. We want to create not a ministry of ‘truth’, or even of information, but a ‘Ministry of Communication’.
More details of what this will involve will be released in due course, but the programme will feature, among other things, workshops and displays by local ‘parkour’ athletes, literary readings and workshops, and a number of critical and artistic interventions that respond to the forbidding (but also beautiful) architecture of the building itself.
Of course, we’d love others from across SAS to join in with this, and are still very much open to ideas. Please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch, or follow the project as it develops on Twitter: @BloomsburySAS.