Doris the heckler at Speakers' Corner 1968. Photograph: Chris Kennett
Doris the heckler at Speakers’ Corner 1968. Photograph: Chris Kennett

Do you believe in the freedom to speak your mind in front of other people? Sounds From The Park (SFTP), currently at the Bishopsgate Institute, focuses on one small part of London where the principle of freedom of speech is held as sacrosanct: Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, a haven for left-wingers, right-wingers, Communists, weirdos, eccentrics, trade unionists, radical thinkers, religious fundamentalists, and all manner of in-between.

More than just an exhibition, SFTP mixes photos and field recordings together to weave a beguiling and inspiring feel capturing those gathered at the podium. A number of black-and-white photos show a range of characters heckling the gathered crowds, from the 1970s right up to the present; one shows an intense debate between a Palestinian and a Jewish man. Meanwhile, an accompanying audio guide contains twenty-nine interviews with speakers, who recount their interest in taking the podiums, along with actual samples of the speakers in action.

SFTP is culmination of a 14-month project commissioned by On The Record, a not-for-profit co-operative devoted to audio and historical samples of London life. Initiated by two oral historians, Rosa Vilbr and Laura Mitchinson, On The Record have uncovered a mountain of audio gems which paint a picture of London’s vibrant history just as compelling as photography and film on their own can do. Working with skilled volunteers, they have trained members of the public in oral history and techniques such as digital storytelling.

“We aim to create participatory projects that involve more people in uncovering previously overlooked aspects of heritage”, Vilbr says. “SFTP was our first major project and has been our greatest achievement – recording and sharing an important part of London’s social history and exploring a fascinating site of political, religious and eccentric discussion and performance. Because we are an oral history organisation, we were fascinated by collecting oral histories of what is essentially a diminished tradition – outdoor public oratory and debate”.

The choice of Bishopsgate Institute as the venue to house SFTP was no accident: “We worked with Bishopsgate because it is dedicated to the history of free speech, labour movements, and progressive movement”, proclaims Vilbr. “The idea was to show the many meanings Speaker’s Corner has held for many diverse people over time. Another key theme is the dialogue and interaction that has historically taken place there – it’s not all about speakers shouting at people. Hecklers answer back, disrupt and question”.

Meanwhile, Vilbr has been involved with projects in Hackney as part of a background in community development: she was involved with a project called the Hackney Housing History Project, which explored oral histories of the borough.

“One of our directors lives in Hackney and we work here whenever we can”, she enthuses. Recalling last year, she remembers: “We ran digital storytelling workshops in May 2013 for adult learners from Hackney that were very popular”.

In addition, they are currently developing a project later this year researching the history of Centerprise, once one of Hackney’s principal community centres. They are also working with Campaign Against Arms Trade on a separate project called Selling to Both Sides, in which the arms trade during the First World War will be documented, along with the accompanying resistance to it. Both should be essential viewing – and listening too.

Sounds from the Park is at the Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, EC2M 4QH until 30 April.

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