In 2017, Westminster Abbey invited young people from around London to respond to the stories and memories held in the fabric of the building. These young consultants reflected on their experience through a variety of outcomes creating a vibrant and eclectic body of work.
5 minute read
Britain’s diverse histories, those that are celebrated and those that some might rather forget, are embedded into the floor, walls and windows of Westminster Abbey. The Hidden Histories project brought together 11 talented 16 - 24 year olds for eight weeks to think about why some of these histories so often gone untold, or are told in ways that erase marginalised communities.
Acting as young consultants for the Abbey, the group were given detailed tours of the Abbey which explored broad historical contexts, as well as providing access to exclusive areas like the library. They also met with behind-the-scenes staff including the Marketing Department and conservators, along with members of Dean and Chapter. The young consultants were encouraged to reflect on issues of representation in the Abbey — who is memorialised in the space and who is not? Which stories and whose perspectives are left out? And what does this selective storytelling mean for the Abbey as it reflects the nation’s story back to itself? The young people were encouraged to find a narrative that spoke to them and respond creatively in their own ways, either as individuals or in small groups.
All of the young consultants produced exceptional pieces of art, prose or poetry in response to their time spent at the Abbey. You can explore these responses here:
In their respective pieces, Abdullah and Samir reflect on the diversity of the soldiers who served and gave their lives in the First and Second World War. They are placed at The Grave of the Unknown Warrior.Play video
“Lord Mountbatten is remembered for his long military career but few acknowledge his part in the Partition of India which still has negative effects in modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This poem explores my feelings about the event and my own grandfather's experience.”Play video
“My video is about the life of Esther John, one of the 20th Century Martyrs outside the Great West Door of the Abbey. I decided to draw her story, and speed up the frames.”Play video
In this spoken word piece, Kieran challenges the choice of commemorations in the Abbey. He makes a case for a memorial to David Bowie, by reflecting on the memorialisation of George Frederick Handel in Poets’ Corner.Play video
Siobhan presents a series of photographs to highlight, with black and brown bodies, the story of people who were enslaved that, in the Abbey, is told through memorials to white abolitionists.Play video
Inspired by the work of Anne Bronte and May Angelou, Flourish uses her powerful poem to draw attention to the lack of women, especially black women, represented in the Abbey and particularly in Poet’s Corner.Play video
Lara has used video to document features of her diverse friendship ground and then juxtaposed those images with text from a contemporary description of Queen Philippa of Hainault, buried in the Shrine. It invites audiences to reconsider who this woman might have been.Play video
At the end of the eight weeks the Abbey hosted a presentation evening. This gave the young consultants the opportunity to showcase their creative responses for friends, family, representatives from their organisations, Abbey staff and colleagues from across the cultural and heritage sector. They gave speeches, delivered tours, performed and presented their work in the spaces that had inspired them.
The young consultants’ responses to the project were overwhelmingly positive. They noted in particular how useful the skills they honed during the project were to them: creativity, public speaking and teamwork would extend their CVs and help when applying for university.
It has helped me to work toward being a curator. Showed me what it is like to work in a historical site. Behind the scenes of the space. Curators set up different ways that history is interpreted for the public...That's something I did here.
During the project, there was a shift in the way the group saw the Abbey and who the space is for. At the outset, the young people mostly felt the Abbey was a space for tourists, Christians and royalty. By the end, the group stressed that the church was a place for everyone and holds real value for young people.
I feel more at home. I'm always gonna feel more at home. I'm Muslim but this feels like my local church...This place is always gonna have a place in my heart for many years to come.
The young consultants also mentioned the value of collaborating and working with others who had different lived experiences and perspectives to their own. One member of the group said he had ‘never been in such a diverse group before’ and was ‘amazed’ to see their similarities. Another said that meeting everyone made him ‘realise that everyone is the same’ and ‘opened his eyes.’
The project highlighted that the Abbey was just part of the way on a journey to becoming a more representative space where everyone might feel included in the Abbey’s story. The young consultants were eager for this progress to continue.
The people that I have met have been friendly and welcoming and showed a willingness for change. But at the same time ... There is still work to be done. There shouldn’t be Hidden Histories as it is just history.
There is so much to discover in the centuries of history and in the stories of the thousands of people connected to Westminster Abbey.
Some barriers may be felt due to the age, size, faith or power linked with the building, but it is a space that belongs to all of us.
The doors are open and we're ready to welcome you in and help your group uncover the Abbey that will inspire them.
Why not get in touch with Aaron and Zahra to explore opportunities for young people to engage with the Abbey?
You are surrounded by history at the Abbey, not like a museum where it’s just displayed, but here you are standing where history has happened.