A Pop-Up Museum – Giving Voice to Intangible Heritage

A Pop-Up Museum – Giving Voice to Intangible Heritage

By Tot Foster, 31st July 2022

In this blog post, Tot Foster takes us on a journey to visit Pete Insole, the Principal Historic Environment Officer for Bristol City Council. Together they explore historical artefacts and local people’s memories of St Nicholas’ Market, currently on show at a pop-up museum. Pete’s approach to heritage foregrounds rich storytelling and the voices that once echoed across the market stalls.  

At the end of June I went to visit Pete. He was sitting in an untenanted shop in St Nicholas’ covered market – getting on with his day-to-day emails but welcoming in anyone who cared to spend some time looking at the artefacts and memories that are beginning to populate the walls and floor space. Pete has rummaged through the cellars below the corn exchange and brought up posters, signs and an old wooden trading counter as a start for a pop-up museum.  

I asked him about why he was there: “We are co-curating a museum here, a display, it’s about creating a space together….Some traders say there’s not a lot in here at the moment… but it’s more about trying to inspire people to talk about the place.” So Pete’s presence is vital; he encourages those who come in to bring photos, to write their memories of the market on cards which are pinned up, or to just chat for as long as they want and leave their memories for Pete to document and add to the display. For new and younger visitors Pete’s enthusiastic conversation causes them to look around with a fresh eye. Some of the market traders have been multiple times to see how things are evolving. “The people who work in the market have their own interest – they bring stuff; ‘you might be interested in this we found behind the filing cabinet’.” So even the artefacts on show are ‘pop-up’ – no-one has valued or displayed them before and everyone is welcome to handle them. Pete has been brought a ‘tatty plan’ that shows where and whom had each stand in the 70’s – not an aesthetically pleasing object but something that makes connections; between the personal stories, the businesses and this place.  

But what does the pop-up museum hope to achieve? The market managers gave him the space as it’s not good for business to have vacant shops and they hope for extra footfall. From the historical environment perspective Pete’s interest is in the intangible heritage of the place. As a researcher on Connecting through Culture as we Age one thing really stood out to me. The importance of older people to the success of what Pete refers to as the ‘market story shop’ – it is older people’s stories that are it’s lifeblood. And Pete’s intention isn’t simply to record for posterity, it is to cast new light on a historic building so that when change happens – and the market has seen many drastic changes to its fabric and use – they are made in consideration of the huge value of the human relationships that the market embodies. “We’re interested in that near past that doesn’t get the same level of value as a Grade 2* listed building – the human connections about a place. …We want to highlight how rich a place it is in terms of memories and stories”. Pete says that by understanding the connections with a place we learn how to not throw away the baby with the bathwater when it comes to urban development. Pete nods at the famous ‘nail’ outside, and the Rolling Stones concert in the 60’s held in the Corn Exchange, but he also mentions the recent run on rubber ducks at the toy shop, the discounts for nurses from the BRI and the Chataway Café where traders met up to chew the fat in the 80’s. “It’s about not destroying what’s there…it’s getting more appreciation for this place rather than taking it for granted”. ”We’ll end up producing a booklet about the market – not a long story about building but about the people who have created the place we see today.”  

You can find the pop-up museum in the covered market opposite Treasure Island Sweets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until the end of Summer 2022 – there’s no fixed end date, just when it gets too cold for Pete to work there.  

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