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Museum project inspires London history through a lens

Teenage students and collaborators on the Breaking into the Museum project (photo: Meena Julien)
Teenage students on the Breaking into the Museum project were tasked with finding an interesting object in the collection to explore (photo: Meena Julien)

By Will Cantopher
BBC London

A teenager imagines himself shrunken inside a miniature 3D model of a Hackney terrace, another recreates a gin-soaked night in an 18th century debtor's prison, while a third, enthused by a wall-sized Suffragette embroidery, writes an open letter of praise.

These are some of the responses to emerge from a creative project involving 16 to 19-year-olds based at the Museum of London.

All have been captured on short-form video with the help of museum personnel and professional filmmakers.

Watch: Breaking into the Museum by Lloyd Kofi Anarfi

The project, Breaking into the Museum, invites participants to find an interesting object in the collection to explore.

Administered by parent organisation Manifesta with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the initiative began in spring 2010.

Working in the recently launched Galleries of Modern London, a 14-strong group from a north Kensington sixth form college set aside a half term break to take up the challenge.

Showreel of perspectives

Each teenager was given instruction in handling camera and sound and in developing story ideas inspired by their chosen object.

Shooting took place inside the Museum of London and in various locations across the capital, including Trafalgar Square and Brick Lane in the East End.

Anais Mika (photo: Meena Julien)
Before this project I just didn't give a damn about history...
Project member Anais Mika

With themes ranging from issues to do with race and class to political struggle and women's rights, the films produced by the group form a showreel of differing perspectives on 400 years of London history.

They also show how young people from diverse cultural backgrounds set about engaging with the notion of heritage through objects held in a metropolitan museum.

"Before this project I just didn't give a damn about history. I thought the past doesn't concern me," said one of the participants, Anais Mika.

"But when I chose my object, which was the Brixton riots painting [by Mike Hawthorn, dating from 1981 - 1987], I was so surprised to learn that these riots happened just a few metres from where I live."

"Generation that will shape the future"

Items of female dress held in the museum's 19th century collections provided the starting point for a film by another group member, Cassandra Gokool-Mely.

Watch: Hottentot Modern by Cassandra Gokool-Mely

In Hottentot Modern she proposes a link between the body shape of African women and examples of Victorian fashion design, ending with stills of Beyonce and Michelle Obama.

Gokool-Mely's colleague, Yasmin Gideon-Albert, chose one of the first mobile phones, the Cityman 900.

"'When I first heard about this project I thought it was going to be boring as it's a museum and well, I don't really go to any," she said.

But the teenager's film is an engaging skit pitching the brick-like phone to today's market, making huge play of its cumbersome size and a memory capable of holding a mere thirty - "that's three-oh!" - contact numbers.

Watch: Retro Brick! by Yasmin Gideon-Albert

Other objects to inspire the group were a Hackney carriage, complete with speaking tube connecting driver and passenger, and Charles Booth's descriptive map of London poverty in the late 19th century.

Hailing the project's outcome the Museum of London's David Spence said, "This is the generation that will shape the future of our city, and our galleries should reflect their stories.

"I hope to see more of their work in the future."

The museum is currently investigating the possibility of presenting all 14 films on a loop beside their associated object.

Meanwhile, screenings have been promoted at various festivals and overtures have been made to the Community Channel.

In 2011 the Breaking into the Museum project will travel to France and Portugal, working with city museums in Paris and in Lisbon.

To see all the films made by the group, visit the Manifesta website here

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