Material City - Art Meets Archaeology At Bristol's Broadmead Shopping Centre

By James Dixon | 23 April 2007
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a view of a city centre with building work taking place to the right of a pedestrianised street area

Broadmead is being regenerated. Picture © James Dixon

Archaeologist James Dixon reflects on contrasting ways of working, seeing and recording in the two disciplines of art and archaeology after taking part in an innovative project at Bristol's Broadmead Shopping Centre.

Three artists, three archaeologists, 24 hours and one shopping centre … part of the University of the West of England’s (UWE) Situations programme, Material City; a collaboration with the University of Bristol’s (UoB) Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The aim of the project is to produce conversations (real and metaphorical) between artists and archaeologists on ways of encountering urban places.

The brief: to encounter and document the Broadmead district of central Bristol between 5pm Friday March 30 and 5pm Saturday March 31. A day (and night) in the life of a city.

Broadmead is being regenerated. New flats, shops, restaurants, car-parks and a cinema are on the way with an aim to put the revamped area in the top five shopping destinations in the UK. But of course that’s in the future. Broadmead has a past and a present. It has inhabitants. People are using the area on a daily basis leaving it rich with memory, experience and things; graffiti, rubbish, signposts, shoes…

The Broadmead Fieldwork Project and forthcoming symposium Not Yet … Art and Archaeology in the Context of Urban Renewal mark the end of a two-year programme of talks and events.

a photograph of a shopping street with an ice cream van to the left and a large crane and building work in the distance

New flats, shops, restaurants, car-parks and a cinema are on the way. © James Dixon

The Fieldwork Project itself aims to look at contrasting ways of working, seeing and recording across and between the two disciplines, not theoretically but on the ground among real people, buildings and spaces working directly with the fantastically complex messiness of city life.

To the participants, slight direction was given. Artist Pablo Bronstein and archaeologist Dan Hicks (UoB, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology) searched for ‘The Past’, Richard Wentworth and Sefryn Penrose (Atkins Heritage) stayed in ‘The Present’, and Lottie Child and Sarah May (English Heritage) looked into ‘The Future’, ably assisted by student volunteers from both UWE and UoB and the Barton Hill Writer’s Group.

The group met at Bristol’s Arnolfini at lunchtime on the Friday, the project beginning with an introduction by the project directors Claire Doherty (UWE, Situations) and Dan Hicks. Short personal introductions by the invited artists and archaeologists followed which stretched to hearing a little something from each of the volunteers.

Following this, we relocated to the 16th floor of Castlemead in the middle of the new development for an introduction to the site (complete with scale models) from the project’s public art consultant and one of its project managers. Shortly after 5pm, the participants and their mixed groups of volunteers were set loose in Broadmead.

I spent that evening with Sefryn Penrose interviewing as many people as possible about their memories and daily experiences of the area, the added jollity of Friday night in town making for some memorable encounters.

a photograph of a partially built tower with a crane next to it

The aim is to put the revamped area in the top five shopping destinations in the UK. © James Dixon

Re-convening in the morning to pick up even more volunteers, we all set out again. I spent a couple of hours with each of the archaeology groups. Firstly, I was with Dan Hicks looking at re-writing the Pevsner perambulations of 1958 and 2004.

We began by walking the 2004 published route through Broadmead before the group split into two. Volunteers from the Barton Hill Writer’s group went to produce their own version of the walk while Hicks (with PhD student Lisa Hill) investigated the way in which Pevsner himself had encountered Broadmead in the 1950s.

Between Sefryn Penrose and Sarah May I was able to look variously at boundaries, gateways, treasure and the future for local communities. Of the artists, Pablo Bronstein sent his group out armed with cameras to record physical expressions of the 1980s, Richard Wentworth and his very diverse group focussed on their individual, personal takes on Broadmead and Lottie Child looked into ways of subverting the area and its restrictions, official and cultural.

With such a huge area, number of participants and diversity of approaches, it is impossible to do justice to the weekend and its outcomes here. The fieldwork weekend is, however, followed up by the aforementioned symposium on Saturday April 28.

There, the three artists, three archaeologists and the project directors will present their 24-hour experiences, with additional papers from John Schofield (English Heritage), Victor Buchli (UCL Dept of Anthropology) and myself, with a round up by Jane Rendell (UCL).

a photograph of two cranes above a partially completed building

The Fieldwork Project works directly with the fantastically complex messiness of city life. © James Dixon

The event will also include a screening of a film based around the project by Amy Feneck and Greg Bailey. If the fieldwork weekend was anything to go by, the symposium will be one to remember.

James Dixon is the recipient of the GWR three-year fully funded PhD studentship in Contemporary Art and Archaeology in the Context of Urban Renewal. His PhD is jointly supported by Situations (University of the West of England) and the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol.

For symposium information and more on the fieldwork, see

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