Exchange – Past, Present & Future, an exhibition exploring the past, present and future of Exchange Square, has been developed as part of Middlesbrough Heritage Action Zone’s cultural programme, ‘Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough’. The second exhibition to be held at Navigator North’s new base at The Masham, it combines historic research with works by ceramic artist Layla Khoo to foster understanding of the social history of Middlesbrough. The exhibition is a fusion of art, history and town planning (including artefacts and plans for the Square’s development), with historic Middlesbrough pottery and modern ceramics by Khoo. The artist is also inviting stories and photos from the public that will be used to develop a new work, displayed in 2022.
The aim of ‘Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough’ is to unearth hidden stories and explore culture and history from new perspectives, for which the The Masham is an ideal location. The Masham’s grade two listed building is easy to spot amongst the surrounding rectangular shopfronts. The distinctive green tiles draw attention to the original mosaic signage of the former hotel of the same name, set beneath a scrolled cornice. Inside, the fittings from a previous life as a sports shop have been easily adapted to its new role of gallery space: shelves hold ceramics and metal supports act as hangers for information panels.
Visitors are encouraged to bring their own memories, knowledge and tales that might never have made it into an official history of the building. The exhibition opened at the start of the annual Open Heritage Days, this year with a focus upon Edible England, so stories about the legendary excellence of the hotel’s hot chicken sandwiches took on particular relevance. Inspired to see more of Middlesbrough, I spent time in Exchange Square, visited the Teesside Archives (on one of its last openings before it moves to the Dorman Museum) and took a heritage history tour with Christine Corbett from the Archives. Between expeditions I ate lunch in the restored Christie’s Brasserie at the Zetland Hotel, surrounded by Victorian and modern reproduction Craven Dunhill ceramic tiles.
The gallery’s location at the entrance to the Hill Street Shopping Centre makes it easily accessible. I met people who had come into town to shop but had stayed to visit the exhibition and chat.This exhibition encourages people to talk. When photos and artifacts spark memories or ideas in visitors, members of Navigator North are on hand to explain the exhibition and to listen to stories. Older visitors contribute memories, whilst everyone can express their hopes for the future. Whilst I was in the gallery numerous conversations took place. They often started around the history of the area but then progressed to talking about the exhibition itself.
It easy to define modern Middlesbrough through new developments such as Teesside University, MIMA and retail outlets, but hidden amongst these developments are historical gems and the area to the north of the A66 still maintains much of its original architecture. Exchange Square lost the Royal Exchange building when it was demolished in 1985, one of the casualties of the roadway infrastructure. The history of the building is documented in the exhibition, but the large stone Middlesbrough crest which was salvaged when the building was destroyed is particularly captivating. Having been in storage for decades, it now has pride of place at the entrance to the exhibition. The large motif gives some sense of scale to the vast building upon which it was mounted.
Exchange also celebrates the many phases of the Commerce Building, which still stands across from the site of the former Royal Exchange. Photographs, plans and a timeline present a narrative of change. Navigator North are keen to hear from people who have links to the building as they are still researching the many businesses and organisations it has housed.
Redevelopment work in the square should start in October. Remnants of the Royal Exchange still persist in the form of carved faces that were cornerstones of the building. These will be given more prominence in the new design. A photo of workers building the original square in the 1860s is shown alongside an image of workers in the twentieth century. A third photo shows the modern day empty square. By the time the exhibition closes in November it is hoped this third image will be replaced by a photo of workers employed in the redevelopment. A reminder of the importance of human labour to the development of Middlesbrough.
The most noticeable aspect of the current Square is the statue of Henry Bolckow. The ironworks established by Bolckow and Vaughan laid the industrial bedrock of Middlesbrough. Bolckow went on to become the town’s first mayor and first MP and the exhibition marks the 140th anniversary of the statue’s erection. According to the information on display, the Daily Gazette in 1881 declared Bolckow ‘not a Christian or a philanthropist, only a money-maker’ and so not deserving of a statue. In an age when we are reassessing public statutory this will doubtless spark reactions. What is clear is that Bolckow’s success was built upon the hard labour of Teesside’s miners, ironstone and brick workers.
Alongside the historical exhibition is work by artist in residence Layla Khoo. A ceramicist, she is drawn to the medium of pottery because of its historical connections and Middlesbrough has a long and rich history. Displayed alongside Khoo’s ceramics are examples of Middlesbrough pottery as well as original bricks that were used to build the town. Khoo has invited people to share stories about Middlesbrough pottery, steel, bricks and the Exchange Square buildings by emailing her or bringing them into the gallery.
Khoo finds inspiration for her process in found objects and historical narratives. She is based in North Yorkshire and has held residencies at the Bronte Parsonage, Nunnington Hall and Whitby Museum. Some work from these previous projects was on display, including a group of miniature moulded horns, part of the Change in Attitude exhibition at Nunnington in 2020, highlight the threatened extinction of the black rhino. I found ‘Hands of Glory’ (2020) from her Whitby residency particularly poignant. Here Khoo made casts of a mummified human hand from the museum’s collection that was purportedly used in burglaries, which I found to have an intense sensual beauty.
The same mixture of gruesomeness and poignancy pervades some of the stories that people have been telling about Exchange Square and The Masham. During my visit, a man was pointing out buildings that used to be nightclubs in the Square. He talked about a violent underworld bouncer who was stabbed to death in a fight. For him, the club was also a place of good memories, as he had met his wife there. A homeless man told Vicky Holbrough (co-founder and director of Navigator North) about how he had seen a police officer lay a wreath outside the building at Christmas. Newspaper archives suggest this may have been in memory of Inspector John Burney, who died on Christmas Day, 1920. He broke up a fight outside The Masham and received head injuries that would lead to his death.
By the end of its opening day, the exhibition had already changed. A display of bricks, produced and used in Middlesbrough, sparked a conversation with a visitor who had been collecting bricks and transforming them into gifts. By the afternoon he had returned and gifted two bricks from sites previously unrepresented. Exchanges were already happening. I visited on the exhibition’s first day and will return to see how it has changed before it closes in November. This is an exhibition that is intended to grow organically; information and stories will be exchanged and Khoo will produce new work through her interactions with the people and history of Middlesbrough. I left hoping that the exhibition will play a small part in elevating the appreciation of both art and history of the town.
The exhibition is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday 10am – 4pm until 27 November 2021 at The Masham, 27 Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough, Tees Valley, TS1 1RL .
Debbie Rolls is a writer based in Bradford.
This article is supported by Crystallised.