Dr Kenny Brophy | Digging the Festival: The archaeology of the Glasgow Garden Festival

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Dr Kenny Brophy’s paper centred around an ongoing project being carried out by himself, Lex Lamb and Gordon Barr on the archaeology of the Glasgow Garden Festival (1988). The Festival took place on what was then post-industrial wasteland on the south bank of the Clyde in Govan. Brophy, introduced by Dr Andrew MacKillop, is a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. His current research and practice focuses on: Neolithic and early Bronze Age Scotland; exploring the contemporary relevance of prehistory; and encouraging and maintaining archaeology’s strong public engagement potential through various projects – including the one covered by this paper. Indeed, MacKillop closes his introduction by highlighting that Brophy’s work crucially brings together archaeology and contemporary urban studies.

The ongoing project explores the material legacy of the Festival, working towards putting together an archive and other research outputs in order to acknowledge and document the festival’s rightful place in Glasgow’s recent history. Brophy here addressed what at least some in the room may have been thinking: ‘what has an event this recent got to do with archaeology?’ (Indeed, MacKillop had light-heartedly quipped at the beginning of the evening about his uneasiness given that he remembers attending the festival!) Brophy proceeded to give a compelling run down of the notable archaeological research dealing with post-ww2 events – sometimes termed the ‘archaeology of living memory’, but an approach Brophy prefers to designate as contemporary archaeology. Brophy argued that recent scholarship in this field has embodied more of a ‘social conscience’, taking advantage of the contemporary element to prioritise community engagement.

Brophy, Lamb and Barr initially connected on Twitter, recognising their mutual interest in the festival’s legacy. A website and database followed (link below). What became clear early on in the paper is that archaeology is only one aspect of the project, which draws on an impressive range of methods and theoretical approaches. Brophy, Lamb and Barr display a refreshing adaptability depending on findings and insights offered by informants. Investigation of the ‘physical and material legacy’ of the festival requires tracking down buildings, structures and artworks, drawing on existing archives (Mitchell Library), and gathering merchandise and memories from festival organisers and attendees. For instance, Brophy detailed how his involvement in the project stemmed from a photograph of a giant head in a tree in an Erskine (a Glasgow suburb west of the festival site) scrapyard; the head turned out to be Richard Groom’s ‘Floating Head’ which had been designed especially for the festival. After Brophy wrote a blog post about this, the head was re-floated in the Clyde. Following this, tip offs and stories from the public gave the project momentum, with the ‘RBS Children of Glasgow’ fountain also discovered languishing in a Council Depot bush.

Brophy then turned to the archaeological element of the project, which is twofold. Firstly, they have an interest in the myriad depictions of archaeology displayed at the festival. Such exhibits included recreated Roman buildings, and a stone circle (constructed at the behest of Strathclyde and Dumfries and Galloway Councils respectively). With little physical evidence remaining of these temporary structures, analysis is reliant on material such as festival leaflets, photographs and public informants. Secondly, a number of archaeological methods are being employed in Festival Park, the only section of the original site which has not since been developed. Thus far, excavation has centred around an area of the site which housed a replica Bowmore distillery, an industrial peat-cutting exhibit, and a ‘Highland restaurant’. Some structures, such as the replicated ruin of an Antoine bath house and a waterfall, have left more of a trace. For example, excavation of the site of a man-made Lochan turned up coins, some of which date from the 1970s, possibly offering a tangible connection to the festival, perhaps even the result of someone having made a wish! Other items discovered include tile fragments, decorative pebbles and ‘lots of screws and nails’ relating to the dismantlement of the site. Walkover surveys are continuing to draw attention to the physical legacy of the festival, including 117 black-and-white painted bollards (along the path on the edge of the Clyde) and signage.

Brophy also highlighted the potentially less obvious tangible evidence left by the festival: vegetation. Due to the display of exotic plants in exhibits, the site itself is now inhabited by numerous plant breeds which would otherwise not be there. Furthermore, at the end of the festival, people were allowed to take plants home from the site, extending this plant-y legacy beyond the festival site to gardens in Govan and surrounding localities.

Brophy finished by outlining future directions for the project. Archaeological method and analysis is continuing with walkover surveys, geophysical surveys, excavation and post-excavation analysis. They are currently applying for more funding from Glasgow City Heritage Trust, partly with a view to developing a heritage trail and improving information availability on-site, via digital and/or physical means. Unsurprisingly, the project’s strong community engagement agenda is a strong impetus going forward, and Brophy’s enthusiasm for this aspect was evident. They recently hosted a successful open day on-site where members of the public shared objects, photos and memories. Also, the project will shortly begin carrying out a series of oral history interviews. Brophy strongly advocated for the importance of these forms of evidence for a site not only within living memory, but also where conviviality was key. Brophy also sees these interviews as an opportunity for them to continue to explore the ways in which they can make sense of the ‘ephemeral traces’ left by the festival.

The Q&A following the paper was testament to the multi-layered nature of an impressively interdisciplinary project, centring both on the way certain local authorities chose to represent themselves through exhibits at the site and what went unrepresented (e.g. Glasgow’s colonial legacy). Enthusiastic audience engagement also reflected the relevance of the project’s engagement with an event still prominent in Glasgow’s and its inhabitants’ memories.

Here is a link to the project’s website: https://www.glasgowgardenfestival.org/

Twitter @AtGF1988

Niall Ingham

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