As part of the 2015 Being Human festival, Dr Samuel Merrill postdoctoral researcher in digital sociology at Sweden’s Umeå University, and visiting fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Centre for Study of Cultural Memory, led a group of people on an urban exploration of Senate House. The extracts below are taken from reviews provided by two of those ‘explorers’.
The Senate House revealed project involved a number of public tours and a ‘talking underground’ event on the broader potential of urban exploration, hosted in its subterranean northern heating chamber. It was well acclaimed and, in all, probably provided the chance for just short of 100 people to see beneath one of the most iconic buildings in London’s Bloomsbury quarter.
Shortly afterwards, I offered a reflection on some of its insights within the context of the contemporaneous Parisian terrorist attacks on my research blog. But for the remainder of this entry I want to share some of the thoughts of those who attended the tours and panel discussion as participants and audience members. The following extracts come from accounts provided by Dr Hilary Orange, an honorary research fellow at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology and Dr Peter Oakley, a research leader at the Royal College of Art.
‘I am curious about the entry points into urban exploration, the biographies of introduction – how did you get involved? Conventional “adventure” experiences can be bought online, but somehow I doubt that there is a Groupon voucher for the urbex gateway experience for the uninitiated or an urbex field school (“book here for soft forays, all fully insured”). Without the opportunity to take part in a “gateway experience” I sense an expectation that I should just go it alone. I live in a small town with negligible abandonment that is surrounded by military camps. I regularly hear explosions in the woods near my house. I pass a boarded up office building when I walk into town. I could walk around the back and see if there is a way in. But I know what a 1990s office interior looks like. So I line up excuses – military, guns, boring office spaces. The truth is that the burden to participate is on me (rather than the practice being exclusionary). The truth is that I choose not to walk around the back of the boarded up offices. To see what is there (“Stay on the road. Keep off the moors. Beware the moon lads”).’
‘The Being Human festival’s invitation to tour the subterranean spaces of Senate House, a building I knew, or perhaps more accurately partially knew, was an opportunity too good to miss. The tour presented some visual surprises and, more subtly, some profound insights into how distinctive the material culture of a building such as Senate house is in relation to less individualistic examples. The first revelation, which became apparent in the first underground rooms we visited, was the extent to which parts of the building never intended for general access had been constructed with as much care, and careful selection of materials, as its more public spaces. This was epitomised by the ubiquitous teak doors and door frames as well as the tiled walls. This continuity of materials throughout Senate House stands in stark contrast to the material divergence in the customer and staff spaces in contemporary grand hotels, or the passenger and crew spaces on ocean Liners. In these cases social status and the consumer/provider divide is starkly apparent in the level (or utter lack) of decoration and the quality and type of materials employed.’
If these insights have piqued your curiosity check out the project’s website where besides Hilary and Peter’s full accounts you will find much more information about the project including individual reflections, tour photographs, and audio recordings.
Dr Samuel Merrill is a postdoctoral researcher in digital sociology at Sweden’s Umeå University, and visiting fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Centre for Study of Cultural Memory. He is primarily interested in questions of memory, landscape, heritage and infrastructure, particularly within the context of a broadly conceived underground (spatial, political and cultural).