A Prism into the Past - The Art of Archiving

4 September 2015

20 young people from South London explore, retell and celebrate one of London’s forgotten spectacles: Crystal Palace.

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In today’s technologically fast paced life, how can we viscerally connect and gain access to the Capitals past? History apps and Google asides, how about a trip to an archive? For the digital natives amongst us, an archive may seem like a Dickensian idea, but this is exactly what a group of young Londoners have been exploring in Crystal Palace.

The Crystal Palace was a cast-iron and plate glass building originally erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibitions of 1851. Created by Sir Joseph Paxton, the Crystal Palace was the original wonder ground of London, a place to marvel and experience the extraordinary, from fine art to traveling circus troupes. At the time, this was the first building of its kind to be made up of cast plate glass, its defining feature which made this one of the iconic landmarks in the capital, and one of the greatest architectural achievements in the industrial revolution. In 1854 the Crystal Palace was enlarged and moved to Penge Common until it’s destruction by fire in 1936. It is this site and story of wonderment which has inspired these 20 young people from South London to retell and celebrate one of London’s forgotten spectacles.

A prism into the past

The 20 young people whom we engaged in the project were from Brit School and were made up of 15 and 16 years olds. The ambition of this heritage project was to involve professional theatre makers and archivists to create a site specific performance which would take place at Crystal Palace Overground Fe

The first phase of the project took place at London Metropolitan Achieves. The London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), which contain London’s history from 1067 to the present day, represented a key dynamic to the project, connecting young people with a tangible research experience. This is something which can be considered a rarity in today’s 21st century digital age as one participant explains:

“If we have to research something, it’s easy, you look it up on your phone! You can find something out in seconds…that’s what’s great about Google and Wikipedia.”

Undeniably, the speed to which information can be accessed is quite incredible, especially if we can use our phone’s search engine as our own personal archive, but what about the visceral experience which can’t always been translated through the pixels of a smart device? The LMA offers members of the public the opportunity to come into contact with some of London’s most treasured and delicate artefacts, from Shakespeare’s signature to original maps of the plague ridden capital. Contained within the pristine white walls and metal cabinets, lie memoirs, maps, artefacts and photographs from London’s past. This physical connection with these objects was something quite sacrosanct one participant mentions:

“There was something really special being in a place where you’re actually touching history…you appreciate it and it’s not just a set of dates, it’s real!”.

As part of the young people’s induction into the archives, they participated in heritage skills training and creative enquiry workshops to develop their independent research skills as well as investigating catalogue searching and the process of archiving. The archives stimulated an array of conversations which centred on drawing comparisons between what the area that was and what it has now become, both geographically, culturally and economically,

“The first Crystal Palace would of attracted more of a West End type of audience”
comments one participant, “…but when it got moved to Penge Common it became more of a fringe venue, which was more accessible to the local community who couldn’t afford to see things in the centre of town”.

Leaving the archives, the young people felt that the best way to present their ideas and to share what they had uncovered in their local area, was to recreate the feeling of being at the grand reopening of the Crystal Palace of 1854, “which would have been like the glass version of the 02!”. Over an intensive week of devising, the young people worked with Emergency Exits Arts to piece together their wonder ground which encompassed the vaudeville, cabaret and street performers which would have occupied the Crystal Palace during these times. Like the artefacts back in the archives, the young people handled the stories and memories with a great deal of care and sensitivity, not wanting to do the story or the place any injustice, as one participant noted, “these memories are fragile and we don’t want to break them especially as they belong to someone else”.


On Sunday 28 June 2015 the young people formed their troupe and occupied the spaces of Crystal Palace, in amongst musicians, dinosaur doctors and vintage fayre stalls. The performance which the young people shared took on a spectrum of shapes, from one and one audience moments to promenade storytelling, each part of the performance conveyed a moment which was inspired by what came out of the archive.

It took six seconds to search Wikipedia, and it took three visits to the achieves to research Crystal Palace. The verdict? Digital research undeniably wins in the speed stakes, but the archives triumphs in terms of inspiring active engagement and investigation, which was encapsulated by one participant: “The archives allowed me to touched real history, and not many people can say they did that!”

For more information on the project please contact Ross Bolwell-Williams (Youth Arts Producer).

To see the project in action, please go here

“A Prism into the Past” was funded by a Heritage Lottery grant, and was a partnership project between Emergency Exit Arts (an outdoor arts company that creates unforgettable events and participatory experiences using visual performance, processions, puppetry, music and pyrotechnics), Crystal Palace Overground Festival (a free community arts and culture festival run by a team of dedicated volunteers) and the London Metropolitan Archives (Archive hub which is home to an extraordinary range of documents, images, maps, films and books about London).