The Adventurers at the Lightbox

On leaving the Shah Jahan Mosque on Friday 12 April, the Adventurers spent an interesting afternoon at the Lightbox gallery and museum in Woking. When we visited, there was a retrospective of the bold figurative work of sculptor Elisabeth Frink in the temporary exhibition space (Frink studied at the nearby Guildford School of Art in the 1940s).

 
Elisabeth Frink piece
In the permanent display spaces, stories of local life and characters are told through a mixture of oral histories, text, still and moving images and objects. Transport, religion, sport, death and the military all feature in a thoughtful thematic arrangement of exhibits. ‘Behind Closed Doors’ provided us with information about the Brookwood Hospital which started life in the 1860s as the Surrey County Asylum for Pauper Lunatics. A chilling set of medieval-looking devices of restraint in the display cases triggered a discussion among our group about how attitudes to mental health had shifted over time, from manacled inmates in Victorian asylums to psychoanalysis and Freudian therapeutic techniques in the early twentieth century to care-in-the-community from the 1950s.

Another thought-provoking set of display panels told the tale of the Brookwood Cemetery, established in the 1850s by the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company to provide a satellite or overspill burial space in the suburbs for metropolitan corpses. In a morbid subversion of the concept of the excursion or daytrip, the London & South Western Railway opened a private station alongside Waterloo station ‘proper’ from which coffins and mourners departed for burial services at Brookwood on dedicated single-stop trains throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Outside the Lightbox

The Lightbox (opened in 2007) is a relatively new gallery and museum that offers a fine example of what can be achieved when local historians, artists and cultural activists campaign to initiate accessible heritage and cultural activity on a single, central site in a region. Havering Museum in Romford (opened in 2010) provides a similar story of successful ‘community history’ activism. In both cases, well-designed and inclusive public spaces have been created in consultation or partnership with local audiences, organisations and government and with the support of national funding bodies – most notably the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is too soon to say whether this grass-roots approach to gallery and museum provision can deliver a sustainable model of success. For now, it certainly seems to be working, in large part thanks to the inspiring vision and dedication of small groups of passionate local history enthusiasts.

You can find out about the Lightbox Gallery opening hours and exhibitions here: http://thelightbox.org.uk/home

To discover more about Woking’s unexpectedly rich and curious history (and to comprehend the vital contribution of volunteers in the recording and promoting of local stories) click here: http://thelightbox.org.uk/oralhistory

To explore the parallel experience of Havering Museum, visit: http://www.haveringmuseum.org.uk/about.php

To learn more about the extraordinary story of Brookwood Cemetery, read this: http://www.demorgan.org.uk/blog/brookwood-cemetery-and-london-necropolis-train

The Adventurers at the Shah Jahan Mosque

On Friday 12 April the Adventurers caught a train from Waterloo to Woking to visit the oldest purpose-built mosque in Britain. The Shah Jahan Mosque was built in 1889 as a centre for the study of Oriental languages and cultures. It was also intended to provide a place of worship for Islamist visitors from abroad. Its founder was a Hungarian-born scholar and traveller fascinated by the ‘exotic’. Dr Leitner (1840-1899) had a theoretical interest in a broad range of religions and philosophies. To encourage inter-faith tolerance and understanding, he planned to establish a mosque, church, synagogue and temple on the same Woking site – but an absence of funds and Leitner’s ill-health and premature death prevented this curious scheme from flourishing.

Shah Jahan Mosque

Today the Shah Jahan Mosque is a thriving centre of Islamic worship and activity, visited weekly by thousands of Muslim men, women and children. To promote awareness of Islam in the wider community, tours of the historic site are offered to school and student groups. On the day we visited, the Imam welcomed us into the beautifully-decorated mosque before taking us on an informative guided tour of the prayer rooms. These are situated in unassuming single storey-blocks alongside the ‘proper’ mosque, which is now a listed building but far too small to accommodate the numbers attending daily prayers in 2013. You can find out how to book a visit to the mosque here: http://www.shahjahanmosque.org.uk/education

Following our tour, we had almost two hours to spare before Friday prayers (the practising Muslims in the group had been invited to attend the service). With torrential rain falling, we reviewed our original plan to walk back into Woking to explore the town centre and instead headed for the shelter of a nearby retail park where we familiarised ourselves with the contents of Argos and Pets at Home. Some of the group took the opportunity to get their faces painted at Hobbycraft.

Hobbycraft

After Friday prayers at the mosque, we returned to Woking town centre to visit the Lightbox museum and gallery. A separate post on this will follow shortly.