Listening to traces of history

Richard Parry, St James’s Creative Director, introduces the new free exhibition ‘Stories of St James’s Burial Ground’.

Background Shape
Church Window Mask

An exhibition opens in the Church this week which offers a window into the lives of parishioners who would have once graced the cobbled streets of St James’s. The exhibition comes in the wake of the excavation of the St James’s Burial Ground in Euston as part of the High Speed 2 (HS2) project. The Burial Ground was active between the years 1788-1852 and began because the site in Piccadilly had simply run out of space. Archaeologists working in Euston have uncovered 40,000 individual human remains and it is one of Britain’s largest ever digs. The team have in turn worked with hundreds of volunteers to create what has been termed the ‘Zooniverse’, a database documenting the people and the items they took with them to the grave.

But what does it mean to reconvene with these lives now?

When St James’s first opened its doors in 1684 the church building was at the apex of a new upmarket quarter for the wealthy of the capital – a fact that has many respects remained constant. And yet its parish also stretches across into the resolutely more earthly hustle and bustle of Soho. What the burial ground and its inhabitants point to is that St James’s is a church for central London, and those people buried there are from many diverse walks of life.

The archaeologists and curators at Museum of London and Archaeology have selected five excavated individuals who each help us to build a picture of those who lived and worshiped in central London two centuries and more ago. The five people each carrying divergent lived experiences have each been brought to life, re-rendered as though from a 3D printer and with an accompanying audio.

This exhibition is a chance to delve further into the history of the church, the area of Piccadilly and of a period of history. Staging it at this time of year means there is a tangible relationship with Easter – I will leave others to unpack that from a theological perspective, but I will simply point out that the exhibition takes a pause for the first week of April, Holy Week, to return again from the 11th after the Easter weekend.

The walls of historic buildings, such as churches, can be said to hold traces of the sounds and feelings of people from the past.  At St James’s this means the lives of generations who have worshipped and met together here for services over three centuries and more. This exhibition gives animation to that thought. We hope it is by turns moving, enjoyable and enlightening to all who encounter it.