‘Virtual Belle Vue’: Photography, Community and Memory

Founded in Manchester in 1653, Chetham’s Library is the oldest public library in the English speaking world. Now both a library and an accredited museum, Chetham’s has a vast array of collections spanning decades; from medieval manuscripts to engravings by William Hogarth. One of its more modern collections consists of ephemera from Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, a venue that opened in Greater Manchester in 1836 and closed its final attraction in 1987. At its height the legendary Gardens were home to the third largest zoo in the UK[1], as well as an amusement park, speedway, dog racing track and circus. It was also renowned for music and sports, hosting the Halle Orchestra and annual brass band competitions, as well as championship boxing matches. In recent years, Chetham’s has amassed a Belle Vue collection that contains thousands of photographs, as well as newspaper clippings, postcards and more obscure objects, such as the logs of zookeepers. In March 2014, The Esmée Fairburn Collections Fund awarded £45,000 to the library for them to “work with local historians, community groups and academics to research and digitise the Belle Vue collection and develop an online virtual exhibition.”[2] The Virtual Belle Vue project was thus funded to be a collaborative effort between Chetham’s library staff, interested academics and the Manchester public. It therefore acts as an interesting exploration of the relationship between photography, history and community memory.

One way to begin considering Virtual Belle Vue is through the 10 photographs that The Manchester Evening News chose for its report on the project in early 2015. They are all from the 1960s and show crowds of people in the theme park:[3]

Hist351 Essay Image 4

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes disparages colour in photographs as “an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses)”[4], suggesting that colour serves only as an attempt to mask the deadening quality that photography exercises upon its subjects. Colour photography in this case does, however, prove important in analysing the relationship between photography and memory. Susan Sontag suggests that photographs “help people take possession of space in which they are insecure” and as a result of this, claims that photography has developed “in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism”[5].The vibrant but hazy colouring of these images is indeed evocative of a very particular era in the history of photography and the history of the British tourism industry: the 1950s and 1960s Kodak era of snapshots and seaside family holidays. Elizabeth Coulson, development manager at Chetham’s, refers to Belle Vue as a place where “people who were coming from other parts of the country could […] buy a ticket for Belle Vue with their train ticket”[6], highlighting that Belle Vue was certainly a boon for Manchester’s tourism industry.

Another image chosen by The Manchester Evening News shows former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, addressing a crowd at the Trade Union Conference centenary that was hosted at Belle Vue in 1968.[7]

Hist351 Essay Image 3

The muted green of the trees and the multicoloured crowd seem dull and unfocused in the background in contrast to the vivid yellow crane that suspends the political elite above them. This image demonstrates Belle Vue’s cultural and political importance by showing the glamour of past celebrity visits, as the park was variously visited by Prime Ministers, as well as sporting heroes, popular entertainers and even Queen Elizabeth II herself in 1961. The Manchester Evening News reported on Virtual Belle Vue as a “nostalgic project”[8] and the 10 photographs that they selected out of the thousands available to them construct a particularly romantic, sentimental narrative of the Belle Vue Gardens through their content (celebrities and theme parks) and the formal qualities of the photographs themselves (colour).

In contrast to this warm, nostalgic idea of Belle Vue, other images from the Virtual Belle Vue collection tell stories which are rather more negative. The Manchester Evening News did not use any images of the animals in the zoo, such as the one below of keeper Phil Hernandez with Mary the Elephant:[9]

26 March 2014

Roland Barthes suggests that “the noeme of Photography is simple, banal; no depth: ‘that has been’”.[10] In other words, due to its nature of exact mechanical replication, photography ‘proves’ that a moment existed with a certainty that other mediums, such as painting, cannot claim. Some images in the collection therefore offer damning glimpses of past events at Belle Vue that are difficult to deny. No doubt this image was intended to advertise the simple pleasures being a child enjoying an elephant ride, but we know instinctively that this photograph could never be taken at British zoo today due to changes in law and what our culture defines as ‘animal cruelty.  Also, the symbols painted on Mary’s head and the clothing of the zookeeper are reminiscent of the sort of characterisations of the East as exotic and exciting that were criticised by Edward Said his seminal 1978 text, Orientalism, as a racist Western construction. The Manchester Evening News reported that “visitors to the Belle Vue website can add their own comments to the archived material should they spot themselves or a relative enjoying a leisurely day at the fair.”[11] Images such as this, however, unfortunately show individuals engaging in what is received in the present as cruelty and racial insensitivity. Manager of the Virtual Belle Vue project, Kathy Whalen Moss, acknowledges the tensions between the positive photographs of Belle Vue as an important part of Manchester’s history and the collection’s other, more embarrassing images, by suggesting that the project is “a chance to talk about your stories, experiences and memories at the park, good or bad.”[12] (Emphasis my own)

There are some photographs of Belle Vue that are difficult to create a narrative for at all. When I volunteered at Chetham’s Library in the summer of 2015 I worked on Virtual Belle Vue. My role was to upload images to the database, Omeka, and add metadata to them (title, date, photographer, tags etc.) Every single photograph was to be transferred onto the database, even those which had little or no metadata attached to them at all, and this left some images with their photographers unknown and the date that they were taken left similarly ambiguous. One good example of this is a photo of an unidentified elderly lady, standing in an equally unidentifiable part of the park, with a snake about her neck:[13]

Hist351 Essay Image 1

At present, no members of the public have come forward to assign an identity to this particular individual or a date to the photograph. In A History of the World in 100 Objects, the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, suggests that, in comparison to textual sources, “thinking about the past or about a distant world through things [ie. artefacts] is always about poetic re-creation. We acknowledge the limits of what we can know with certainty, and must then try to find a different kind of knowing…”[14] Virtual Belle Vue can only function as a collaborative effort between library staff, who digitise the images, and the citizens of Greater Manchester who apply their memories to give context and construct narratives for these photographs. In the absence of this contextual information, images like this one of the woman and the snake will remain in obscurity. They may only be given meaning and narrative through speculation, or ‘poetic re-creation’, by considering them through comparison and contrast to the thousand other similar images of the park.

In summary, compiled together for the first time, the thousands of photographs juxtaposed in the Virtual Belle Vue database interact to create a huge plurality of narratives and stories. The Belle Vue project therefore invites residents of Greater Manchester to synthesise the photographs with their own memories – which will likely be influenced by the formal qualities of the photographs – and judge their contents with the benefit of hindsight to interpret their memories and make retrospective judgements about their feelings and memories of Belle Vue Zoological Gardens as we approach the 30th anniversary of its closure.

 

References

[1] Abigail O’Leary, ‘ Look: Never-seen-before pictures bring Belle Vue Zoological Gardens back to life’, Manchester Evening News (31st January, 2015) http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/nostalgia/digital-project-brings-belle-vue-8554242  [20th January 2015]

[2] http://www.museumassociation.org/collections/18022011-esmee-fairburn-collections-fund [Accessed: 18th January 2015]

[3] Abigail O’Leary, ‘ Look: Never-seen-before pictures bring Belle Vue Zoological Gardens back to life’, Manchester Evening News (31st January, 2015)

[4] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (Canada: Harper Collins, 1980), p. 81

[5] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 9

[6] Yakub Qureshi, ‘Entire History of Belle Vue Zoo and Gardens to Go Online’, The Manchester Evening News (8th February 2014) http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/entire-history-manchester-belle-vue-6684046 [accessed: 20th January 2015]

[7] Unknown, ‘Harold Wilson and George Woodcock with others on the platform of a fire engine lift above crowds at the TUC centenary,’ Virtual Belle Vue, (1968) http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/items/show/3160 [accessed: 20th January 2016]

[8] Abigail O’Leary, ‘ Look: Never-seen-before pictures bring Belle Vue Zoological Gardens back to life’, Manchester Evening News (31st January, 2015)

[9] Park Pictures, ‘Mary and Phil provided popular rides during the season The elephant ride at Belle Vue,’ Virtual Belle Vue. http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/items/show/854 [accessed: 21st January 2016]

[10] Roland Barthes, On Photography, p. 115

[11] Abigail O’Leary, ‘ Look: Never-seen-before pictures bring Belle Vue Zoological Gardens back to life’, Manchester Evening News (31st January, 2015)

[12] Abigail O’Leary, ‘ Look: Never-seen-before pictures bring Belle Vue Zoological Gardens back to life’, Manchester Evening News (31st January, 2015)

[13] W. R. Crookes, ‘Unidentified woman (zoo keeper?) holding a snake’, Virtual Belle Vue, http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/items/show/1003 [accessed: 20th January 2016]

[14] Neil MacGregor, A History of the World (London: Penguin Group, 2010), p.p. xviii – xix

 

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida (Canada: Harper Collins, 1980)

Crookes, W. R., ‘Unidentified woman (zoo keeper?) holding a snake’, Virtual Belle Vue, http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/items/show/1003 [accessed: 20th January 2016]

MacGregor, Neil, A History of the World (London: Penguin Group, 2010)

O’Leary, Abigail, ‘ Look: Never-seen-before pictures bring Belle Vue Zoological Gardens back to life’, Manchester Evening News (31st January, 2015) http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/nostalgia/digital-project-brings-belle-vue-8554242

Park Pictures, ‘Mary and Phil provided popular rides during the season The elephant ride at Belle Vue,’ Virtual Belle Vue. http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/items/show/854 [accessed: 21st January 2016]

Said, Edward, Oritentalism (London: Penguin, 2003)

Sontag, Susan, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979)

Unknown, ‘Harold Wilson and George Woodcock with others on the platform of a fire engine lift above crowds at the TUC centenary,’ Virtual Belle Vue, (1968) http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/items/show/3160 [accessed: 20th January 2016]

http://www.museumassociation.org/collections/18022011-esmee-fairburn-collections-fund [Accessed: 18th January 2015]

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