Through which the light passes: Some days in March at the Ragged School Museum

That buildings have memories is a long-held perception. The ‘method of loci’, or ‘memory palace’, is a mnemonic device that can be traced back to use in ancient Greece and Rome, when poets, philosophers and thinkers applied the visualisation of spaces and places as a means of storytelling that connected to memories and opened doors to the imagination.

While the memory of a building could be said to reside in the mind of those who have occupied and experienced the place in some way, it is widely felt that a building has its own memory held within in its fabric, a patina and physical remnants of use. “Walls have ears” we say – and “rooms bear witness”.

The building at 46-50 Copperfield Road, East London, originally three canal-side warehouses, has absorbed more than 150 years of changing occupancy and purpose, storing histories that are both real and invented. Having become vacant in the late 1870s the premises were acquired by the doctor and missionary Thomas Barnardo, to become a ’ragged school’ where children from Mile End would be offered basic free education. Barnardo’s Copperfield Road Free School remained open until 1908 after which the building took on various industrial uses, mostly for the manufacture and trade of textile and clothing.  Saved by local residents from demolition in the 1980’s this resilient building had its memory of being a charitable school reimagined. In 1990 it became the Ragged School Museum. Once again children were occupying the rooms, examining objects that could have been there in the past and being encouraged to play out stories of what life in the Victorian ragged school might have been like.

Now, in the first quarter of 2021, the building is standing ready, awaiting a period of repair and refurbishment. The Museum’s regular activities have been put on hold until this work is completed.  In its in-between state, 46-50 Copperfield Road has become a place for the imagination and for dreaming; where the movement of light can be tracked and memories flutter out of from dark corners to haunt corridors and stairways. Though no visitors move through them, the rooms are rarely still. Light passes through them from East round to West and ceilings are patterned with the moving reflections coming from the surface of the water in the Regents Canal. Stand close by the windows and the water birds can be heard, cooing and calling and flapping their wings

During the summer of 2018, while preparing for his exhibition, Light triggered, in the rooms at the top of the building, artist Antoni Malinowski became absorbed by the special quality of light and its angles of penetration. The layers of colour revealed by the flaking and peeling paint on the walls added to his impression of the building being a warehouse of time and memory.  Taking advantage of the Museum’s temporary closure he returned to the space where he had previously installed the paintings for his exhibition and began a painting directly onto a black partition wall. On its surface, already thick with paint and the evidence of past configurations of windows and doorways, he painted a notation of the rhythms, movement and colour of light as it fell across the wall. Over a period of days and weeks, from winter to spring, the changing light patterns caught by his brush strokes formed a composition of shapes and spaces. Diverse black and interference pigments are combined to refract and reflect light causing it to act at the front the human eye where the dance of colour continues. It is call ‘through which the light passes’.

This act of drawing light out from the darkness of the upstairs wall led Antoni to propose that the Museum should invite other artists to experience its atmosphere and substance. The building would offer each of the seven invited artists its store of memories, a space haunted by day dreams where the imagination can flow.

Oona Grimes’ thoughts of Victorian work places and childhood connected with her recollection of Vittorio De Sica’s 1946 film Shoeshine (Sciuscia), about two Italian street children left abandoned after World War II and dreaming of owning a horse. A dream that goes sadly wrong. Shoes found in cupboards reminded her of her granny who had brought home tins of Cherry Blossom shoe polish from the factory where she had worked until she was well into her 80’s. In Oona’s film, Horsepolish, the children’s dream horse is brought in to the museum along with memories of her grandmother’s gifts of polish and her cinema recollection of children left to shine shoes. Shot in the present, her black and white film has a dramatic feel of the past. The horse with its rider and passenger approaches the building and goes past and around it to enter through the canal-side door. Inside the building shadowy figures move against the light and booted feet clatter up the bare flights of stairs. Accompanied by silent movie-like music, the horse’s passenger enters a room that is clearly marked by industry, piled up with boots, shoes, brushes, cloths, buckets and tins. She sets to work scrubbing and polishing, calling up ghosts and enacting past stories. The film is projected in the canal-side room where the horse had entered the Museum and it is seen on tablet screens, placed on the lids of the old school desks in the classroom upstairs.

The title that Jefford Horrigan gives to his installation,3 Hearts, 3 Lungs and 30 Ears, itemises his cut-out, pen, ink and watercolour drawings. The 30 ears are different shapes and skin-tones and are very obviously drawings; the hearts and lungs are strongly coloured and diagrammatic, reminiscent of educational wall charts. When applied directly to the green walls of the small first floor rooms, the anatomical elements become part of the fabric, connecting with the scratches, scars and peeling that the walls have accrued over time. The colours of the drawings sing out from the pock-marked verdigris. Jefford’s screen work, 6,000 Days in March, is a Still-Life. A blue and white patterned water jug and white bowl is in the foreground of the screen. A man, wearing a black jacket and white shirt, is in the background with just the trunk of his body and his hands in view. He pours water from the jug into the bowl and wets a blue and white cloth. Unbuttoning his jacket and shirt he washes parts of his body with the cloth then rebuttons his clothing. Placing a hand inside the water jug he retrieves a smaller vessel, with identical patterning, that has the shape of a heart. The jugs and the cloth are placed back in a still-life arrangement and the man leaves the room.  The jug with its damaged top and hidden ’heart’ had been retrieved from one of the Museum’s abandoned spaces. Having been transformed these objects are returned to the room, appearing on-screen and as a physical presence amid the hearts, lungs and ears.

On a shelf in a dimly lit room used for storage, Katrina Palmer has placed a screen showing a moving-image work. Ragged School Trip is a first encounter with the place, in which the spaces Katrina passes through are caught unaware by the lens of her camera. Light streaks across her path, illuminating things as flickering memories before darkness takes over – a metal stair rail, a child-sized chair, writing chalked on a blackboard, an old photograph of a woman diving; the shape of an object cast by shadow on a wall. Lurking in obscurity, unformed presences are felt but not seen. Voices are heard whispering amongst the shadows, footsteps echo around the stairs. Sounds rise and fall like breathing. Inside, the building’s emotional state is palpable.  Outside, by the canal, the daylight is bright and persistent, a duck is swimming and the noise of children playing can be heard close by. In the dimness of the storeroom Katrina’s Ragged School Trip is experienced over and over again.

While the building awaits the arrival of builders, its contents are being sifted and sorted. The essential museum items have been put into temporary storage while some things still languish, awaiting their future in the otherwise empty rooms. Alexandre da Cunha has looked at these

objects – the bits of old furniture, the piles of folded cloth remnants, the redundant tools and broken utensils – pointing out some for his further attention. The room that is entered from the main door of the building on Copperfield Road was the place where visitors received their welcome and introduction the Museum. Display cases and information boards have been removed and the room temporarily stripped of its frontline duty. Alexandre has taken the things he had lighted upon into the room and introduced them to each other. For the most part the different elements are made of wood. Stools, broom handles, a barrel and fresh coconuts are among the objects assembled, reconfigured and repurposed to form new entities, titled Limbo (series). Each of these is recognisably itself while being strangely other. The coconuts, brought in to the Museum, heighten the corporal feel of the seven sculptures that inhabit the room. Though their textures evoke narratives of the past, their origin seems uncertain and their future unsettled; their state is that of transition. In an otherwise empty room next door, the curved wooden slats of a broken-up barrel have been placed in a pattern formation and spread across a blanket of differently striped cloth pieces. Lying directly on the floor, the sculpture appropriates the wooden floorboards and become a part of it.

An upper room in the museum had been divided by a plasterboard partition wall. One section had been given a false low ceiling and arranged in a representation of a cramped domestic living space. The fireplace, wallpaper, simple furniture and utilitarian objects created an impression of what the living conditions were like for many of the children attending the ragged school in the 19th century. In the other section, displays of packets, tins, boxes and jars showed present day children the household commodities and foodstuff from those earlier times. These displays and most of the furniture have been removed, though the partition and false ceiling have not yet been dismantled.  Kathy MacCarthy has placed ceramic and Jesmonite sculptures around the two spaces; in an emptied cabinet, on top of table, on the floor by a window. Inhabiting the Museum’s fictional kitchen space, the sculptures adopt an anthropomorphic stance. Clay objects sit in small huddles of twos and threes. Though they have become hard through firing, the forms retain a feeling of fleshy softness and of movement and malleability. They fold in on themselves and nuzzle up to each other, their tubular apertures probe the patchy, orange mottled glaze. In one corner, a pair of bulbous, black ceramic vessels each appear to have a long, knobbly pink shape poking out from inside them.  By the window, a tall, creamy white and pink mottled shape bends forward from its sturdy base to touch the floor with the points of its two slender ‘limbs’. Light falls across the coloured texture of its surface, echoing the pattern of the room’s old fading wallpaper.

Hélène Binet’s excavation of the Museum’s time-worn architecture reveals moments of visual poetry embedded in the space. In dusty corners, on wooden surfaces and concrete doorsteps, the curves of metal implements, a fitting on some furniture and in the shapes of falling shadows, she has discovered imagery, composed as if from a landscape of dreams. The small, square format of her photographic prints makes each image appear like a patch cut out of one time to be replaced in another. There are 23 photographs collectively titled ‘Pockets of Dreams’, most are in black and white, some contain colour. In monochrome, the contrast of light against shades of darkness lends mysterious beauty and a strange ambiguity to the shapes and textures that have been isolated from their reality. Falling red flower petals have been caught in the luminescent gossamer of a spider’s web; when colour appears in the compositions the imagination is taken over by desire.

‘Pocket of Dreams’ has been installed around a large room at the very top of the building, which during the day is full of light. Placed with musical spacing along the line where the turquoise blue dado rail meets the white of the wall above it, each framed square is a memory patched back into the fabric of the building. In the room it leads into is Antoni Malinowski’s black wall painting. He has brought back to the room some works that he had exhibited there before. A smaller scale diptych is returned to its earlier position – it was made for this wall. Two other, larger paintings have been given new space, in a rhythmic formation on the opposite wall. It is another time of the year; early spring not mid-summer. Light enters from lower angles; nothing will look or stay the same.

During that 2018 exhibition, Yong Min Cho made a performance in this room. He moved around the space, fluidly matching the pacing and movement within Antoni Malinowski’s paintings. He carried a mirror on his shoulder, held close to his face and angled to collect the light as it fell across his path. On one day in March, he will perform another work in the room, this time his movements will connect to a place elsewhere. From her studio in the North London, Liliane Lijn will, by some remote means, call out numbers to Yong Min. The numbers spiral around a conical, light sculpture that will revolve in front of her. She will select numbers at random. It is for Yong Min to choose how to transmit them. Another sculpture by Liliane Lijn is made of colourful, light-weight plastic shopping bags in the form of a dress. Yong-Min Cho had once performed with ’Bag Dress’ on a table in Liliane’s work room. It now lies in waiting, on a workbench in the Museum’s art room.

The works installed by the artists will be in the building for the last few days in March. Being the time that it is, few people can visit the Museum to experience these temporary interventions. There will be a presence on- line, in another dimension, and perhaps, these art works might be sited back in the building when the Museum reopens. Meanwhile in April, builders and architects move in to start their work. The future is unknown but the building’s memories will remain embedded in its layers of history. At times these memories will be recalled, in dreams and the imagination and revealed often, within all those rooms and spaces through which the light passes.