Visit : Chetham’s Library

printed ephemera from the belle cue archive

Words and images : Olivia Wedderburn

This Friday, first year Textiles In Practice students on Unit X’s Moving Image brief explored Manchester’s historical Chetham’s Library. Chetham’s is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, built circa 1421 as accommodation for the priests of Manchester Cathedral, and later instated as a library by proprietor Humphrey Chetham in 1653. The library hosts some of the oldest and rarest books in the UK, and is also home to many archives, namely that of the Belle Vue Pleasure Gardens, which students were exploring. The archives range from photographs of Hollywood starlet Gracie Field, to ephemera such as brochures and flyers detailing the exotic realms of the pleasure gardens, established in 1850 and eventually closed in the early 1980’s.

interior of chethams library

Students had half an hour to engage with the archives, during which they photographed and noted down areas they felt were interesting and potentially relevant towards their brief. Led by a dynamic tour guide, Cathy, the students questioned the history of Belle Vue, especially intrigued by its development from high class entertainment for the bourgeoisie in the 19th century, to its Coney Island-esque amusement park aesthetic of the 40’s, and eventually its rock and roll status after bands such as The Who and The Rolling Stones played there in the 1970’s. All of this geared up to a talk by librarian Michael Powell, who would discuss with the many Textiles students the very nature of Belle Vue and how it descended from luxury to lock up in the 1980’s.

interior of chethams reading room

Students were particularly dumbfounded by the beautiful architecture and attention to detail that adorned the reading room in which they explored the archives, in particular writing notes at the same desk Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had done many years before. They were informed that prior to the building of a school, the bay area hosting the desk they wrote on looked over a horrific slum during the cotton famine, and this was believed to have fuelled much of the discussion and inspiration behind Marx’s famous work, The Communist Manifesto. Not only had they been able to engage with archives that encapsulated a Manchester very different to the one we experience now, they also got to engage with a space that hosted the minds behind some of the most important critical theory ever written. Not bad for a research trip!

printed ephemera from the belle cue archive

Although it is early stages of their brief, students revealed that the nature of the archives and the chance to interact with these objects and images made for some interesting research ideas and potential collaborative efforts, as handling the archives opened up discourse and dialogue they wouldn’t normally engage in. The delicate and intriguing nature of the items displayed encouraged students to question and discuss the importance of archiving ephemera, perhaps further encouraged by the close quarters of the reading room and the rich historical interior it displayed.

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