Re-imagining memorials

Last month, I accepted an invitation from Kate Tiernan to undertake a ‘residency’ at her studio at Platform in Southwark. Kate and I have worked together before, most recently on a walking project using art and contemporary archaeology to look at the built environment.

As destruction of Confederate memorials in the USA was a frequent topic in the news at the time, I decided to devote my time to looking at memorials in Southwark and to investigate a little how we might, as creative archaeologists, approach a contemporary landscape in which existing memorials may be considered relatively good or bad, things deemed worthy of memorialisation may be ignored, and where people can, perhaps, intervene to create their own memorial sites.

I wanted the four days of the residency to develop collaboratively, so we structured it to start with some walking and observation, then on successive days to discuss what we had seen and work out how to address it. On the last day we went out and had a go at making memorials. Time being short, we didn’t go so far as to actually create memorials to real things, but we did experiment with memorial acts, creating memorials out of things and in places that are already there and waiting to be used.

Kate recorded the two discussion sessions and I’ll post about them when the recordings are available. Until then, here are some pictures of memorial spaces we discussed and the ‘memorials’ we made in them.


Here we are on our walk looking at this (broken?) light installation under the railway bridge on Southwark Street. We were mostly taken by the visual similarity of the installation to those cemetery cremation walls, although this, of course, lacks name plates and any other offerings.


So we went back to make some. Tesco flowers and masking tape for a temporary memorial.


People who weren’t us stopped to join in. I did the first one and the flower slipped as I was sticking it on. Everyone else copied the angle on theirs.


We devised this one after Saini Manninen talked to us about craftivism. There are a number of key points to craftivism as a memorial act, including the highlighting of traditionally female labour and the importance of the time invested in creating what you do. Here we did some pre-fab craftivism, transforming a set of railings with some collars left over from re-use of shirts in pillow making.


Lastly, stemming from some discussion we had about performance and labour, we tried doing some cleaning to turn a space conducive to a variety of uses (the raised platform, the seating, the god view along the street) into a memorial space. We didn’t do much, just cleaned a single row of ceramic bricks.


The space as encountered on the Day 1 walk.


Cleaning. I did help, honest.


The end result.



As I said above, I’ll post the recordings of the discussions when I can and probably a slightly longer , more analytical piece of writing at some point. Keep an eye out.


Coming soon – Reimagining Memorials – 13-16 September, London

There have been some really interesting conversations going on in and around archaeology in response to the removal of memorials related to the Confederacy in the USA. Most of the conversations I had ended with people really interested in the idea of reinterpretation of existing memorials, using the opportunity of an object’s physical presence in the landscape to say something different to what that thing might have been intended to represent.

I thought this would be an interesting thing to have a go at, so Kate Tiernan and I will be ‘reimagining memorials’ next week as part of a residency at Platform in Southwark. Join us! The residency is part of our collaboration Centre for Social Archaeology.

Rethinking Memorials

The week will start on Wednesday 13th when we will undertake a research walk around Southwark. Our aim is to start defining what contemporary Southwark means and what the things are that make up that identity. There is no set route for the walk so participants can take a turn at leading us somewhere interesting or important.

On Thursday 14th, we will start to turn this research into a plan of action, starting with a debate on what Southwark is. What is Southwark’s memorial landscape and what story does it tell? What do we think of individual memorials? What should be remembered but isn’t? Why does it matter?

Friday 15th will see us getting practical as we work out how to reimagine existing memorials and make new ones! Political archaeology, however small scale, is about doing. We will learn how to do. The session will end with a strategy and methods for intervention to create a new, ephemeral, temporary heritage in the landscape of Southwark.

Lastly, on Saturday 16th, we’re going to go and do it. We will put the last few days into action, reimagining memorials, proposing new ones, and generally turning the heritage of Southwark into a contemporary act.

These should work as stand-alone events, but please come to more than one!

Tweet me for more information @James__Dixon


Coming Soon – Archaeology of Austerity walk for London Festival of Architecture

Next Sunday, 4 June, Kate Tiernan and I, in our first joint venture as the Centre for Social Archaeology, will be reprising our exploration of austerity and inequality in Tower Hamlets. We previously ran it as part of the Public Archaeology 2015 cross-London politics walk back in December 2015. The walk is taking place as part of the 2017 London Festival of Architecture.

LFA2017 Logo

Originally developed as a reaction the 2013 report of the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission, the walk uses contemporary archaeological field practice to see what evidence we can see in the landscape for inequality and the impacts of austerity, and how the different narratives we can build from that evidence sit within the past, present and future of the borough.


Participants will walk with us from Canary Wharf to Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel. The central task of the walk is to collect evidence for a particular sub-theme, which will be given out to participants at the start, as in the image above from the previous walk. In collecting sounds, signs, flora, smells and more, we take this archaeological investigation beyond the perhaps more typical observation of architecture and other features and replace it with an investigation of the whole built environment; the life that happens in and around the buildings of Tower Hamlets as well as the buildings themselves.

We will also be adding a couple of stops along the way for walkers to hear more about the uses of site-responsive archaeology.

At the end of the walk, participants will put the evidence they have collected to use as we put together competing ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ narratives for Tower Hamlets and question the usefulness of particular kinds of evidence in developing an understanding of Tower Hamlets that can effect change in the present and future.

We hope walkers will take away a new, deeper understanding of this part of Tower Hamlets, but also a new way of looking at the contemporary built environment that can be applied elsewhere.


Sunday 4 June, 10am – 1pm, meet at the west exit of Canary Wharf underground station, between the Santander bikes and Reuters Plaza.

Hope to see you there!

Coming soon: HOUSERULES, 6 May 2017

Please come to HOUSERULES on 6 May, 2-6pm. Details here:


I’m going to be seeing how far I can get with following archaeological processes in non-archaeological (but not too distant) ways. The stages will look something like this:

1. Bounding

Exploring the limits of the site by reproducing the site boundary as a textual narrative. An alternative to red lines and mapping.

2. Understanding

Tracing lines through the site, interactions between the site and non-site, things going on regardless of the site’s existence. An alternative to metric survey.

3. Representing

An experiment with temporary, ephemeral archiving.

Coming soon: House Rules, 6 May 2017

On Saturday 6 May I’m going to be taking my ‘experimental field practice’ research to House Rules, an occasional, nomadic experiment in working creatively within bounded spaces. We’ll be working under the Eastway where it crosses the Lee Navigation. Watch this space for more details.


HOUSERULES embraces indeterminacy; bringing, but also questioning, freedom, action and play into the context of a given space. Each particular location will come with its own set of ‘house rules’ and will be the starting point for each artist’s response through his or her own artistic ‘lens’.

HOUSERULES invites artists from various disciplines to contribute. The individual works take on a variety of media, including dance/movement, film, installation, sculpture, written/spoken word and sound, all coming together to form a temporary situation of creative energy.

Coming soon – FAÇADISM: PRESERVE OR RENEW?, RIBA, 22 November 2016

On Tuesday 22 November I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion on façadism at RIBA, part of the events programme for their current exhibition We Live In The Office by Giles Round. Other participants include Gillian Darley and Will Wiles.

Mid-point of a facade retention project at St Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington D.C.

Façades are interesting things. I’ve written before that ‘façades are for art historians’ by which I mean (or, rather, meant) that in buildings archaeology and built heritage, we put too much weight on principal elevations, architectural styles and architects’ intentions, so much . Archaeology is the stuff that happens behind them.

But also, façadism is an archaeologically fascinating phenomenon and one that needs to be understood and critiqued both to understand the nature of contemporary change in the built environment and to try to check the adverse impact of certain kinds of development on peoples’ lives.

The phenomenon has archaeological signatures of its own of course, as Sarah May and I wrote about in reference to Sheffield back in the mists of 2005.

Please let me know if you have examples near you. Façadism done badly and done well!

The event itself is ticketed I’m afraid, but you can get one here:

Coming soon – What’s the Future for the Past?, Cambridge Festival of Ideas,29 October 2016

On Saturday I’ll be at Cambridge Festival of Ideas taking part in a panel on the future alongside long-time compatriots Rachael Kiddey and Sarah May considering pasts, futures and the varied presents in between. I’ll be talking about Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie’s Prospection and our recent art-archaeology fieldwork on the North West Cambridge development site where I’ve been working for three years. The gist of my work there – carried out as part of a multi-disciplinary research team – has been to avoid standard archaeological recording and instead allow the site to impact on my own practice. On Saturday I will talk a little about this work and some of the concepts arising from it under the tentative (and maybe undeservedly grand) title, A Visual Manifesto for the Archaeology of Construction, and featuring such fun as the juxtaposition of different stages of completeness, erratics, seepage, palette and my favourite: construction pastoral.

Construction pastoral?

Here’s the abstract for the event. Tickets available here:

Who or what decides what data, what objects, will survive to tell future generations what we were like? How do we know what should or could become the ‘heritage’ of the future?

‘Prospection’ is a visionary art project tracking the development of the new NW Cambridge development and its inhabitants, by artists Karen Guthrie & Nina Pope. With their team of archaeologists, sociologists and creatives, they will visit NWC annually for the next 25 years, recording its places and people and storing these for posterity at Cambridgeshire Archives. Now into year 3, the Prospection team’s records have ranged from archaeological surveys to short films to soil samples.

Inspired by ‘Prospection’, this event presents a panel of leading heritage experts including Sarah May (Research Associate, UCL Institute of Archaeology), Rachael Kiddey (Research Associate, University of York & Editorial Assistant at the Independent Social Research Foundation) and James Dixon (Museum of London Archaeology) who will present a thought-provoking array of fieldwork and research exploring what the future holds for the past and what the past holds for the future.

The panel will be followed by refreshments and a chance to browse the boxes of the first two years’ findings of ‘Prospection’