Living With Institutions

It is always interesting to hear Westway Trust Chair, Alan Brown throw out his now standard Wellcome Trust defence/diversion. He parades his governorship of Wellcome for us each year to insist that we are very lucky people indeed.

So taking a visit to the Wellcome Trust's current exhibition 'Living With Buildings' is a genuinely confusing experience.
Walking through the doors on Euston Road, everything about the Wellcome Trust Collection screams out a certain way of working.
It is a far better funded, better oiled version of what the Westway Trust apparently wishes to be.
It is an institution.
It exists to support itself and its objectives.
It gives a certain sense you may (I know I do) get within most of the UK's larger institutions, whether galleries, museums, theatres or any other number of cultural institutes.
It is that type of space that cannot help but dwarf you, patronise you, put you in your perceived place.
It says "We are the best. This is the best."
Whether it actually is or not is beside the point entirely.
It is all about them. Probably more so than it is ever about the temporary exhibits or performances that bring life to the space.
And these same institutions wring their hands (albeit briefly) wondering why certain demographics don't frequent them.
I don't wonder.

And so I enter this insitutional space to see the exhibit 'Living With Buildings' that includes the grim urban realities of Grenfell and East London's Balfron Tower (Sister tower of Trellick).

I enter knowing that one of the governors of the Wellcome Trust is also - inexplicably as far as I am concerned - Chair of the Westway Trust. He has been for the past three years.

It is quite odd - but eerily and quite sickeningly familiar - to view this exhibition that claims to explore the relationship between urban environments and health, whilst having an up-close experience of the abusive and health-destroying dynamics that exist within and around the creation and ongoing governance of such spaces.
There is this sense that the viewer exists outside of the exhibit, even though many of us walking around are an indespensable brunt-bearing part of the exhibit. We are the ones whose health and wellbeing is being affected by this built environment.

In one of the only sections that brings unequivocal humanity into the space, an 8-minute film on the ex-residents of Balfron Tower reels out all the familiar themes. Ex-residents speak their minds on the manipulative and dishonest decanting of residents from their homes; the sudden and unexpected impossibility of return; votes that didn't seem to add up; the joys and despairs that came from living in social housing; property developers taking over; the assymetrical warfare of urban development.

A section on Grenfell includes a short film of Lancaster West residents and a short clip from Grenfell Speaks featuring Melvyn; and a single blog post from Grenfell Action Group.

Elsewhere the exhibition presents the conception of the Garden City and West London's Bedford Park - the garden suburb.

The program of the exhibit states: "This exhibition examines some of the ways in which architecture and the built environment interact with the concerns of health and wellbeing".

So I am left thoroughly confused as to why the Westway is entirely missing from the exhibit.
At the time of its construction it was Europe's largest elevated motorway and Britain's longest continuous structure.
Its creation was era-defining (in fact, it began and ended its own era!). It was a fundamental chapter in London's development and response to its population.
Its relation to and impact on the health and wellbeing of the local area is at the core of its existence - its relationship is what is vehemently disputed, its impact is what is not.

Did I mention the fact that the Chair of the Westway Trust sits as one of 8 governors at the Wellcome Trust?
Did nobody make the connection?
Was it seen and ignored?
Or was it purposely sidelined?

The more you look at it, the weirder it gets.
And the more the ommission of an enormous piece of the built environment that interacts so totally with concerns of health and wellbeing, both baffles and angers.
The disconnect is nothing short of alarming. It is jarring. And it is indicative of the institutional gaze. That gulf between lived experience and the narrowed squint of the institutional curators perspective.
A perspective which, when threatened attempts to draw you into its domain. And reduce you similarly to a narrow perspective.

We saw it in the Design Museum's recent 'From Hope to Nope' exhibition on political art and design. In that instance a number of community members (including myself) addressed it directly and significantly changed the exhibitions Grenfell-related section. It must be made clear that those significant and highly necessary changes - alterations that improved the exhibition ten-fold - only came about after the lead curator had left. It was only then that the institutional guard came down long enough to do something different.

Back to the Wellcome exhibit and West London is again represented by a 1940s poster of another of our iconic - if slightly overlooked and under-appreciated - West London spaces, Kensal House. It was part of a beautifully rendered poster series which never made the light of day. The series was blocked by Winston Churchill, who point blank refused to accept the graphic depiction of the slums of Great Britain. In his words, the depictions were "a disgraceful libel on the conditions prevailing in Great Britain before the war".
I'm guessing he never saw Roger Maine's North Kensington Southam Street photos taken after the war...

Almost 80 years later and we see similar rhetoric from a government that still refuses to see the poverty all around them and who instead criticise the reporters of this reality.
And across the privileged boards of our society's leadership we can see that this denial of truth, exploitation and dishonest telling of OUR story and perversion of our reality is everywhere.
We deserve better.

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