The intention was always for the High Times blog eventually to become a collecting place for stories of Church High’s history and the people who studied or worked in the old school building. But, as with the Ancient Mariner telling his tale, this could only be done once the record of the changes to the Tankerville site was complete. What I didn’t expect was that it would take so long for it to happen. My apologies. A lot has happened in the intervening time since my June 6th post about the demolition of the old Central High building. I’ve left NHSG. My Dad has had a stroke. But my voice is back now.
There has been plenty of time this summer to muse on things past and what life throws our way when we are busy making other plans. Many things have had to be put on hold because of hospital visiting, but I did manage to get to the Edinburgh Book Festival to hear NCHS Old Girl, Nancy Campbell (published writer and printmaker) give a talk about her most recent book, ‘The Library of Ice’ (2018). It was lovely to see Nancy doing so well at such a prestigious venue and also to be able to meet up with her again after such a long time. It was a nice feeling for me when she recognised me in the audience and a rather odd one for Nancy as she signed my book ‘To Christine’.
Meeting Nancy after so long and the fact we greeted each other as if we last connected only yesterday, brought to mind the wise words of writer William Faulkner, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’. Something intangible connects us to people from our past, because they are already so closely woven into ourselves and our life story. Jamaican political activist and orator, Marcus Garvey, was probably musing on a similar notion of shared identity when he wrote that ‘a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots’. It is our Church High roots which bind us all.
On the train home from Edinburgh, I started to read Nancy’s book. In her Introduction, ‘The Broken Mirror’, I found one of the passages she had read out loud, her first walk around the Upernavik Museum: ‘The morning after my arrival, I walk through the cold museum building, peering into vitrines at the scanty evidence left by earlier visitors. I admire the ornate lettering engraved on a barometer and the entries in a logbook from one of the whaling ships that looted this coast in the eighteenth century. The first European explorers named Upernavik the ‘Women’s Island’. No one knows why for sure …. I almost walk past the tiniest object in the museum, the pride of its collection. It’s a copy of the Kingittorsuaq Runestone, a piece of soft slate into which a short text was scratched by three Norsemen around eight hundred years ago and left in a cairn on a neighbouring island. Only the men’s names survive.’ (p. 6-7). It resonated with me because of my own delving deep into the past history of Church High and the Tankerville building. It also made me very proud of the education that enabled Nancy to write this way.
Nancy was writing specifically about the very remote museum in Greenland where she had taken up the post of artist-in-residence, however, her observations could be true of any museum anywhere. Historical facts may survive and random artefacts still exist, but without a voice or a story or the memories to link them together, breathe life into them once again, then the past will remain cold, inert. How much did the image at the start of this post speak to you, I wonder? Did you recognise it? Or could you work out what it was? It is a photograph of the Old Girls’ Display Cabinet in the Waiting Area in Reception at Church High, as it appeared when first created. Without a personal memory of 2002 or the Alumnae article below, there is no way of knowing now that it displayed Old Girls’ books.
The School’s history has always been an important part of Church High, whether it was being recorded in the Jubilee or Centenary books or re-enacted by the Juniors in their plays. In my time, both Junior and Senior schools had a glass display case for artefacts in Reception and also a trophy cabinet, but it was only when I read the earliest NHS School Magazines in Tyne & Wear Archives that I realised how far back in School’s lifetime this respect for history – both natural and social – began. The School once had a Museum. A very quirky little museum admittedly, but clearly something very important to Miss Gurney’s girls in their quest to share knowledge and to understand the living world around them more thoroughly. A museum clearly not too unlike that described by English translator, children’s author and poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland: ‘When I was a boy, I took over the shed at the bottom of the garden and displayed fossils and potsherds and coins in it and proudly called it my ‘museum’. His childhood curiosity about items from the past clearly fuelled later retellings of traditional tales, shaping the way he viewed the world around him. It seems the same was true for the NHS girls in 1906.
Miss Ram and Miss Edmunds had clearly been passionate in instilling their curiosity about the living world to the Newcastle High School girls because by the next issue of the magazine it is clear that the museum had enlarged greatly from ‘a few stuffed birds and shells’:
Indeed, by 1914, the museum’s artefacts had grown in such an impressive way that the Governors had kindly provided the School with ‘a glass cupboard with adjustable shelves’ fit to adorn a main corridor. The same kind of pride of place as the modern day cabinet.
The collective sharing of knowledge was obviously as important then as today and this is the role this blog will now take on. An accessible voice and resource – an online display cabinet, if you like – to help breathe a little life back into facts, artefacts and Church High persons now fallen into disregard or a disconnect by dusty time. The English word ‘museum’ derives from the Greek mouseion “place of study, library or museum, school of art or poetry,” originally “a seat or shrine of the Muses”. And ‘to muse’ means, of course, to think on. If from now on this blog could act as a form of online museum for Newcastle Church High School, then I will feel it is a job well done. Because, in the beautiful words of the American novelist, Nanette L. Avery, ‘a museum is a place where nothing was lost, just rediscovered’.