Thursday 17th April 2014

I arrive at the Cromwell Green entrance today and use my pass to get into Parliament for the first time on my own – It works, I’m in!

This morning Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist, is taking me on my first tour of the Parliamentary Archives.

I’m led through a series of red-carpeted corridors that twist and turn, reminiscent of an old hotel and then up in a wooden-clad lift which pops me out into a small space forking off into the archives offices. Here, lining the corridors are glass-fronted bookcases with leather bound journals carefully ordered by year. There’s carpet everywhere! Mari meets me. We shake hands and immediately we’re back off down the corridors to Victoria Tower – through a secure doorway and another small lift. We leave the small spaces behind and enter a Victorian ironwork masterpiece.


The Victoria Tower’s spiral staircase (Image: Parliamentary Archives)

A purpose built archive is held within the tower, with a spiral staircase connecting all the floors. A masterpiece built by Barry, but generally ignored by the public for the smaller tower of Big Ben. Everyone loves the sound of a big church bell. Why? Is it a way of experiencing architecture in an instant – through sound?

Mari talks to me about the archives, their function and the challenges it faces now with digitization. We head off to look at the Act Room on the first floor. What an amazing place! Thousands upon thousands of documents on velum scrolls, piled high in this tightly controlled atmosphere. Each roll has a small colour coded paper tag attached, marked with a code for the Monarch and the year of their reign.


In the Original Act Room, Victoria Tower (Image: Mat Clark)

I think Melanie and Mari knew that this space would interest me visually. The circular scrolls, the tower and its spiral staircase all share a nice resonance. I wonder what other treasures this building has in store?

Mari has selected some items for me to look at back in the reading room. This is where I will be researching from now on. Mari shows me a Women’s Suffrage petition from Dulwich ladies school. It’s one of the few existing examples of a petition with signatures in Parliament. She shows me the banner that was unfurled from the ladies gallery in 1908 while the women there chained themselves to the railings. Simply made with a bamboo pole stuck through a sewn top hem, crumpled, (perhaps because at the time who ever took it down felt that it should be screwed up and tossed away), but intact, perhaps because a member of staff thought it could be a piece of evidence. Now it’s a piece of UNESCO history.

112 suffragette banner low res

Suffragette banner unfurled from the House of Commons Ladies’ Gallery, 28 Oct 1908. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/3/1

Next, I have an appointment with Camilla Aitken from the Curator’s Office who is also an official guide for Parliament. She was to give me a personal tour of the building. By asking several people I somehow found my way to the entrance to meet her.

The tour really opens my eyes to the complexity of this building and the huge amount of symbolism it contains. As Camilla leads me through the public areas, I’m already searching for potential spaces that could be suitable for an artwork. Worryingly, for such an enormous place, there seems to be little room left! I begin to get the feeling that this could be a very tricky building for me. I remain calm and keep listening to Camilla telling me the stories of the palace. I must learn to just listen and learn, and not jump ahead of things. ‘That’s the whole point of the residency’ I keep silently reassuring myself.


Central Lobby, Houses of Parliament (Image: UK Parliament)

Come back on Saturday 30 July 2016 to read Mary’s interview with women’s suffrage expert Elizabeth Crawford…


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