The Subject Index: An incomplete history of Peckham 1900 – 2014 is a collaboration between artist Anna Best, Peckham Platform and the Local History Library and Archive, Southwark (SLHA) – a public resource on Borough High Street. Spending many hours in the archive, Best has extracted material about Peckham and it’s environs (including pamphlets and ephemera, press cuttings, books, films, index cards, maps and photographs) and will bring her collection to the gallery on Peckham Square where the archive will be recreated.
The Subject Index is a document that has been created by the SLHA, which describes the categorisation of the archive. This index is alphabetical and based on the ‘dewy decimal system’; it is the primary method by which visitors navigate the archive. Best’s interest in the index is that it appears to be a rational system for navigation but in fact is subjective and depends on the choices made by the archivist whose responsibility it is to file the items. The poetic nature of the words that form these categories will be explored in the exhibition.
Best likens the project to an “embassy – one territory camping in another”. In this case, an archive – replete with filing cabinets, archivist’s desk and a photocopier – will occupy the gallery. Visitors to the exhibition will not only find items of historical interest to look at – they will also find gaps in what the archive does not represent. Best said:
“Working in the archive, I’ve been fascinated by the gaps in our view of reality. An archive may look seamless but in fact it is not; anything that is not mentioned has the appearance of not having happened.”
The collection brings to life the significance of Southwark’s role as a hotbed of activism around social issues in the 20th century, including the trade union movement, protests, theosophical debate, race and gender equality and social justice. However, amongst the histories less represented are artefacts relating to the lives of women, universal suffrage and psychoanalysis. Predictably, there is a preponderance of material about men in public life.
As a response, Best work will explore women’s biographies in the archive including Mary MaCarthur, Annie Besant, Ada Salter and Una Marson. These women represent the small number of female public figures and as such Best will highlight their achievements through a text based artwork.
Once the exhibition ends, the loaned material will return to the archive accompanied by some of the selected ‘deposited’ items representing the lives of local people today. If the archivists deem them of interest, they will join the permanent archive for posterity. Emily Druiff, executive director of Peckham Platform, called for people to take part:
“It’s really exciting to have the gallery temporarily transformed into an active archive celebrating the unique histories of Peckham. It’s a very public opportunity for everybody to address the skew of history. Help us fill the gaps and ensure your life is represented in Peckham’s archive.”
Visitors to the Local History Library and Archive during the exhibition will find any items on loan to Peckham Platform replaced temporarily with details about visiting the exhibition and how to see the item at the gallery.