AN AUDIO/VISUAL ESSAY
Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology
The University of Manchester, May 2017
Victoria Baths is a Grade II listed heritage building on Hathersage Road, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester. It was opened in 1906 as a showpiece public swimming, baths and wash-houses facility for the citizens of Manchester. Due to unmanageable costs, it was closed down for public use on 13th March, 1993. Following a vigorous campaign to protect the Baths from demolition, a milestone was reached when the building won BBC’s Restoration in 2003 winning £3 million pounds which enabled it to begin it’s first stage of restoration.
This audio/visual essay explores how the past, present and future continue to intersect and reshape each other within the walls of this Edwardian structure through human-mediated processes of restoration, archiving, art practice and eventual hopes of re-opening at least a section of the Baths in the long-term future.
“You decide how far you want to go. No one wants it in showroom condition.”
- Adam Daber
Volunteer, Victoria Baths History Group
These photographs follow restored, partially restored and unrestored surfaces of the building in what used to be the living quarters for the Superintendent and his family, the main entranceway, and the pool area.
Above and Below : Rooms belonging to the Superintendent’s living quarters, First Floor
Adam: “...the underlying principal of any conservation is that its reversible, so you’re using processes that can be reversed later on, and good conservation architects will do similar – they will restore sympathetically. But they’ll also do it in a way that it’s clear what the new piece and the old piece were, so anyone looking in future won’t be misled. And there’ll be some people that think “What’s this tatty old wallpaper doing hanging off a wall?” so they’ll go in with a steamer and take it all off, but its telling the story at the moment, that’s how it was."
“My Aunt, Uncle and Cousins lived at Victoria Baths, the ‘Hitchen Family’ so I assume my Uncle was Superintendent. My cousin John, who lived there used to scare my sister and I with tales of ghosts in the building and even now at 54 I remember how ‘spooky’ the building could be on an evening. I also remember Lesley my older female cousin would dive into the pool from the balcony!!!"
Kay Winstone-Clarke, 2011
Above: Benches in the balcony, tiles of the main entranceway, and poolside shower cubicles
“It’s a bit like being a detective quite a lot of the time.”
Above: Shelves holding catalogued and archived materials
Below: Door to humidity controlled archive room.
The History Group at Victoria Baths comprises of just two volunteers: Barry Johnson ( left) and Adam Daber who meticulously collect, maintain and organise a storehouse of photographs, written memories, documents, sound recordings and objects that form the Victoria Baths Archive.
Below: Participants. Judges and Medallists, Inter Town Gala, First Class Pool, 1973
(Pictures courtesy of David Montford)
“...I remember coming to the Baths for lessons and the end of year school gala when I attended St. Josephs technical high school for girls.One year I tried to enter the gala with chicken pox! I looked forward to it so much. Not being the brightest girl in the class, it was my turn to shine! I magine my horror when, on the day before the gala I went down with chicken pox! I tried to hide the pox marks from my family but all in vain. I cried so much. Victoria Baths was a very happy place for me when I was growing up in the 1970s.”
Maria Mooney, 2006
“I had reached my mid 20s without ever learning to swim and was taken to the VB by a well-meaning work colleague and his sons. unfortunately, although deeply impressed by the surroundings, they were probably wrong for me at that stage of my swimming development! The water felt cold, the empty baths echoed, and the lads kept climbing on me - result: misery...although my initial attempts to swim at VB were unsuccesful, this [is] just the sort of baths that I now seek out on my travels...”
(approx. mid 1970s)
Steve Ankers, 2016
On 25th April, 2017, Victoria Baths hosted ‘OCEAN’ a collaborative performance conceptualised and composed by Manchester based mixed media artistes Elizabeth Ditmanson and Gavin Osborn. The piece, created specifically for the building incorporated live music played on the trumpet and the violin by Gary Farr and Gemma Bass of the Manchester based chamber ensemble ‘Vonnegut Collective’ which was interweaved with recorded sound and oral testimonies of men and women who had recounted their memories of the Baths for the Archives. Taking the audience on a walk through the different rooms and levels of the building, and interspersed with readings of specific memory pieces, the piece utilizing sound and image, played out as an intensely evocative sequence of history and memories attached to building now emptied of its watery atmosphere.
Above: Gemma Bass before the performance
Above: Garry Farr in a still from 'Ocean'
Below: Gemma and Gary in conversation with composers Ditmanson and Osborn at a conference after the show
Elizabeth: “[I felt like] I really don’t want to make this place about something that’s not what it is. I just kind of want to let it be and if I can’t do that then I want to make something that evokes its past or evokes what it symbolizes or...and then I also had a stage where I realized that I could never really be certain that I was justified in doing that, like why am I the right person to be claiming that I know how to restore this place, like why do I get to fill the Female’s Pool with some female voices that may or may not have ever been in that pool, you know, I’m making these decisions in an effort to create some sort of restored experience but inevitably that’s arbitrary too.”
Gemma: But I think sound is particularly powerful with that sort of thing, I’ve always felt like that with music generally, you close your eyes and listen to it…and it’s kind of like time travel, because not much has changed really...to have those voices in that space, they might not be the same voices but it’s people, it’s people experiencing that same thing and I thought that was kind of magic actually, standing in the pool and listening to those voices and just imagining all the people around me.”
On 14th May, 2017, Victoria Baths hosted a Public Swimming Open Day for the first time in 24 years, providing a lucky number of people the rare opportunity of experiencing a swim in one of its pools on having purchased a ticket. The filling of the pool was financed by 200 girl guides who arrived a day earlier in preparation for this special event. On this day, the sound of water rippling and splashing once again filled the air of the building. The atmosphere was relaxed and playful, and everyone, from the volunteers to the the swimmers to the spectators on the balcony wore smiles on their faces, and the sun rays streamed in through the glass roofs, as though the building itself were smiling.
This momentous intermingling of the past and present, of people and place, seems to be a great leap forward in the efforts to re-imagine the space and consistently uphold its relevance. In it’s immediate ability to create a deeply felt social engagement with the Baths, the Public Swimming Day presented a rare reification and hopes for the realisation of many future dreams for the building and all those working tirelessly towards it’s welfare.