Last semester, Year Three History students and their tutors on the module, ‘Between Private Memory and Public History’ visited a Southampton space not usually open to the public, Unit 31. Unit 31 — sited on an industrial park between West Quay shopping centre and IKEA — is Southampton City’s Management Centre and houses some of the many objects that the city’s museums, including Southampton’s Sea City and Tudor House. There are no display spaces in Unit 31, however, in this blog post, student Shihab Abdulgadir and tutor Dr Jon Conlin reflect on the visit, and on the work that ‘memory objects’, such as those housed in Unit 31, do in constructing identities and histories.
Unit 31 is an archive of items from Southampton and her inhabitants’ past. Step inside and you’ll find yourself amongst a myriad of items, ranging from the logbooks of ships long since broekn up to the wedding dresses of brides who have lived and died. While our module asks us to reflect upon our personal relationships to objects, Unit 31 felt akin to being inside a stranger’s house. A collection of objects, alien to me, with which I had no tangible connection.
These objects are not worthless. Rather the value behind them lies largely in being able to understand and connect to the history behind them. Unit 31 illustrates the need for narrative to enable us to understand and appreciate the past. In Unit 31 the items lie bare until they can be used for an exhibit that can paint a more comprehensive, compelling vision of the past that we can experience, allowing us to see the items as more than material. One item that did stand out – the deck chair from the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic— was shaped by the narrative told by the curator about visitors climbing on it (as in the scene in the film Titanic) to take selfies. The curator’s story allowed the item to hold a cultural value; the movie created a significance for it.
Relics of the past are important for what they may represent historically but also culturally, they provide a physical manifestation of a time lost to that clasp of time. If my visit to Unit 31 taught me anything it was the value of being able to craft an immersive history so that we can re-experience and appreciate objects for more than their material or superficial worth.
Dr Jonathan Conlin
Unit 31 is also a record of Southampton’s diverse history across many spheres. Mangles, bicycles, toys, cash registers, a dentist’s chair; all aspects of the city’s life have their relics here, in the three storeys of industrial shelving and warren of cabins. Many items are in wooden crates, adorned with small photographs of the treasures within.
This is a record of Southampton’s distant and not-so-distant past. The cabins provide climate-controlled storage for works on paper, textiles and metal objects. Cherished uniforms and an impressive collection of wedding dresses offer more than a record of life in Southampton, they also reflect its citizens’ changing views of themselves and of their own histories: of what was disposable, and what should be cherished.
Unil 31 is a cross between an attic and a closet, except it is the city’s attic, the city’s closet: full of objects which ceased to fulfil their main function, yet retained such a hold on their owners that the latter could not bear to throw them away. Viewed in this way, perhaps the barrier separating the objects we see in museums and those we cherish in our homes seems less substantial.