Store room Stories
On the 7th Floor of the tower of Portobello School, Edinburgh. March 2nd 2011
Conversation with Pat (in the Home Economics Prep room)
“I do a s**t job” Pat said, but undoubtedly there’s pride taken in it. “I chop and prep onions and mushrooms, sort out pots and pans in the mornings each day.” She gestures to the view beyond the four large windows that look out over the Firth of Forth, on a beautifully clear day, “This is what keeps me sane!”
“I love standing here, this is my place, my saving grace! I can chop at the work top here and look out…I can see weather fronts coming over and even tell you what time the ferry comes in!” The prep room for Home Economics is seven stories up in Portobello School. The view from the window looks over an impressive array of functions, buildings and transportation nodes spread out in the landscape. The neighbouring school playground can be seen, the kids are playing football on the 5 a side pitch. A train races through the scene. The Portobello town centre is visible and beyond that, the Firth of Forth.
My gaze moves across the panorama to the site for the new school, which is visible from the window, adjacent to a golf course about a mile away. “I don’t want to change school,” explains Pat. “The new school will be low rise, I can’t imagine doing this job with just the view out of a small window on to a playground. The teachers are looking at the plans for the department at the moment. The original store room proposed by the architects was positioned in the centre of the classrooms…with no windows at all! That was instantly rejected!”
Have the architect’s consulted with the department? “Yes, but we’re still losing a lot of space. They’ve also separated the functions of the store rooms so I’d have to constantly move between them. As you can see, we use the lot of it!”
Every inch of shelf and cupboard space is filled with containers that hold pots, pan lids, cookie cutters, icing nozzles… Weighing scales waited patiently on shelves alongside food stuffs; tins of tomatoes, vats of flour, vegetable oil, gravy granules and many stacks of disposable plates. There is also just about enough floor space for two TVs and several trolleys containing trays with files and even lap tops, that sit in close proximity to a giant tub of dried pasta.
I am fascinated with all these objects and the stories they tell and are yet to be a part of. Everything in this store room is currently living an intermediate, dormant existence. These objects have made it here, their fate looming on the horizon, but they have not yet been called up to the front line of service.
As I take some photos, I notice how the room has acquired a domesticated atmosphere. Pat has populated the room like her kitchen at home, there are fridge magnets and mis-matching mugs. There is a calendar, with beautiful black and white photographs of historical events in Edinburgh, several images of an old calendar have been cut out and stuck to the wall around the door.“These are great,” I say. “Aren’t they!” Pat replies, “I wish I had kept the labels of exactly what they are.” Nevertheless, Pat tells me about but them, and appears to have remembered the stories of most of them as if she’d taken the photos herself. Clearly, they represent familiar experiences and are beloved images of her home city.
There is a fluency and pride evident within the room. A joy and familiarity of being in the space. Another teacher walks in, “Have you heard the story about the mouse-mat!?” Obliviously, I had not. Pat told the story about the photographs that were taken in the room one morning, as part of a gift for the old head of department who had got promoted. “We were all photographed with our things. I had my sauce pans, others had bottles of champagne and other objects. We took the photos of us standing in a Calendar Girl’s style pose. We collaged them together – we each have a the collage, but we made one into a mouse mat as a gift. She laughed hysterically, you should see it, it’s still on her desk downstairs!”
Do you see much of the other departments? “We don’t really leave the staff base at break times, there isn’t enough time to go around the school. We’re all good friends in the department. We don’t really see other staff because they’re on a different floor, the building is poor for socialising with other staff and departments.”
It occurred to me that this was a perfect example of the concept I hope to capture in my investigation. The power objects have in the spaces we occupy and the interaction with our day-to-day lives has a meaningful effect on the way we use spaces and socialise within them. The photos taken on the morning Pat described were funny because of the associated memories of the objects that connected people and past memories of times spent together. The mischievous element served to celebrate the memories of a friend, in a ceremonial fashion, and the story is forever ingrained as part of that simple mouse mat.
Another teacher comes in and joins the conversation about the amount of space. “There’s a lot of floor space in this school, but we’re a big department because we’re a successful one. It seems like the architects have designed a Home Economics department to meet the requirements of a school for ‘x number of students’, instead of designing for Portobello School!”
As the transition to the new school begins, the question arises…What will become of rooms and places like this? Can the present school capture these experiences that people have within the building and transfer them into the new school, and inform how it is used? Or, does the act of moving to the new school building simply signify a death – the end of the era of Pat’s store room perfection? New buildings can never replicate every situation of the ones they replace. However, the space helps to conjure people and events, that turns a building into a place of memory and signifies the magical property of Portobello School.
It might be impossible to replicate, but the theory is there…can the new department become a place to experience, capture and remember?