Arnos Vale Cemetery and Julia Vogl call on public to shape sculpture this Museums at Night

By Ben Miller | 14 May 2014

Influence artist Julia Vogl's designs and take a tour of a 19th century cemetery in Bristol this Museums at Night

A photo of a tree silhouetted against a dark blue sky
Museums at Night starts with an artist's workshop and continues with after-dark tours at Arnos Vale Cemetery© Courtesy Arnos Vale Cemetery
There’s a chill of the macabre at Arnos Vale, the Bristol cemetery established in 1837 – the same year as London’s Highgate burial ground – on a 45-acre site which, with memorials to 300,000 people, holds nearly three-quarters as many people as its modern-day city.

For the past year, organisers have been working with the brilliant installation artist Julia Vogl on a new kind of memorial. An unlucky result in Museums at Night’s Connect10 competition meant venue and visionary narrowly failed to be united by public demand at last year’s festival, but their mutual disappointment at not working with each other saw them link up in the aftermath of the programme.

A photo of a multicoloured art installation
American artist Vogl made a multicoloured work out of recycled bottles for Museums at Night 2013© Julia Vogl
“She’s an utter delight,” says Felicia Smith, of the cemetery’s Trust, issuing a “call to arms” for visitors to meet Vogl and be part of an evening which will help shape a prototype of a resin-cast sculpture which is expected to be completed this June.

“This is a unique opportunity to work with an internationally-acclaimed artist.

“It’s a chance to join in a really interesting and thought-provoking discussion about what cemeteries mean to people today and what they think the future of them will be.”

It all takes place inside a restored mortuary chapel.

“It’s glorious inside,” says Smith. “It’s got beautiful decorative plasterwork ceiling and memorial plaques for some of the great and the good.

“It’s got a big vaulted window and high class ceilings on either side. It’s a really atmospheric room to be in.

“We’re going to have a discussion in there and then the actual workshop itself involves people being asked to reflect on their experiences of cemeteries: what kind of things go through their minds if they’re standing in front of a grave of someone they don’t know, and if they were to think of their own future, and they were buried in a cemetery and someone visited their grave, what would they want that stranger to think about them?”

The questions the finished memorial might ask visitors will be decided by coloured chocolates participants will put into the sculpture.

“For tomorrow night we’ve got a beautiful glass container that’s almost in the shape of a Victorian urn that you would see on top of a grave.

“It’s transparent glass and basically people will contribute either gumballs or Quality Street-style brightly coloured wrapped chocolates into it.

“Depending on what questions people answer from the workshop, the colour of the urn will be built up.

“That’s going to be kind of a prototype for the actual sculpture, which will be in cast resin but with coloured stone chippings which you tend to find on modern graves.”

Death, as it turns out, is further removed from this place full of stories than you might suspect.

“One of the things that we find is that a lot of people are looking for a safe space in which to engage with the subject matter.

“There aren’t many spaces in our culture today that allow people to talk about death or end of life or their own decisions around these kind of things, except for in cemeteries, and people can take quite a lot of comfort from that.

“What we also find is that people have this association of cemeteries with death, when actually cemeteries are entirely associated with a celebration of life.

“People don’t tend to die at cemeteries – they die elsewhere, but their remains and memories are in cemeteries, so they’re a massive celebration of life.

“Mostly, the stories emphasise the way people lived and what they achieved and stories around that, rather than just focusing on death itself.”

The characters within these grounds ensure the tours taking place this festival will remain gripping.

“We’ve got some really fascinating individuals here,” reflects Smith.

“For example, we’ve got some time-travelling graves – people who were buried elsewhere, that churchyard closed, and they were reburied in Victorian Arnos Vale.

“It was very common – Victorians used to like to move their ancestors around quite a lot at their own convenience, really.

“So we’ve got some 17th and 18th century burials in a 19th century cemetery.

“We’ve also got the tale of a chemist who was basically one of the founders of CSI.

“He was one of the first medical professionals to testify in a trial, where there was a lethal dose of arsenic found in the remains of someone who died in suspicious circumstances.

“There are lots of interesting topographies on site. Different sections were allocated to different religious denominations.

“It was a business that was open to all. But the Anglicans were buried in a particular section and then what were called the dissenting faiths were buried in a different section

“We have quite a rich seam of stories to share with people, and we’re always discovering new stuff along the way.”

The cemetery’s working status means that past and present collide. Burials, internments and ash scatterings still take place there, making the new sculpture – envisaged as a drape-covered Victorian stone urn, augmented with colourful stone segments – an important addition.

“Tomorrow could be crucial in visitors telling us how the sculpture should be.

“It’s going to come out in the discussion tomorrow night, so we’re really excited to see how it’s going to develop.

“Plus, people get to eat chocolate and sweets as part of the workshop – so what’s not to like, really?”

  • Future Memorial Artist Workshop takes place on May 15 2014. Tickets £5. Visit the event online for more. Night at the Cemetery guided tours take place for children and adults on May 16 2014. Limited tickets available - book here for the 6pm-7pm tour and here for the 7.30pm-9pm tour.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Hundreds of events take place for Museums at Night between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter@MuseumsAtNight.

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