Here the video, the slides and text from my lightening talk at NDF.
Many many thanks National Digital Forum (#NDFNZ) for the opportunity to speak, and share the story (so far) of the project. I hope I conveyed the importance of these stories, and I’m thrilled so many people enjoyed the talk. They seemed to like it – so much it was talked about more on Twitter in NZ than the weather!
What I forgot to express, in the nervous excitement of the day, was my gratitude to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage who have granted me funding through a New Zealand History Trust Award to help write a book about the flat names project. I am working on it.
Kia ora koutou. I’m Sarah Gallagher. I work at the University of Otago but what I’m going to be talking with you about today isn’t anything to do with my day job. It is an all-consuming collection that I’ve been researching for over ten years. In fact I’ve spent over a quarter of my life working on this. I think it’s worth doing because it depicts a unique and ephemeral expression of student culture in Dunedin that I think is worth preserving.
Dunedin, for those who don’t know, is the site of New Zealand’s oldest university and has a campus environment like no other in the country where a great part of the surrounding suburb of North Dunedin is rental accommodation. The majority of our students come from out of town and this is their first experience from living away from home. You can imagine this makes the place ripe for lots of liminal activity.
The Dunedin Flat Names Project is a collection of names that have been painted, drawn, stencilled, spray painted onto a variety of objects: bits of board, fence palings, beer boxes, ] head boards, surfboards, whiteboards and skateboards.
They are flats with names like: The Cock and Swallow, Libido’s Bar and Grill, Footrot Flats, Hogwartz, The Shrieking Shack, The Changing Rooms, Hyde Street RSA, The Hilton, Bedrock, Sifta Rosa, The Lodge, DSIR (The Department of Student Inebriation Research), The Jolly Rodger, The Brick Shithouse, The Heap, The Manor, The Wardrobe, Bonnie Doon, Beaver Lodge, The Greasy Beaver Lodge, The Muff Inn … and as you can see here, The Beehive.
Take a good look at this sign.
Now, notice anything different? The signs change but the names often stay the same.
Named flats are ever present in Dunedin, largely they follow the season of the academic year, but there are some that have taken root, there are several that have been around for quite some time.
This started out as a very analogue project for my MLIS it grew from a collection of photos taken on a Pentax ME Super, to a digital camera, smartphone and Facebook community through which I that started collecting stories and creating a context for this rag tag collection of named flats. It’s also involved researching the collections of libraries and archives, conducting personal interviews, and surveying the Facebook community.
My objective is to create an environment to house the photos, stories and context around these flats, long after they have gone but this has had it’s difficulties. The main challenges have been the ever-changing digital environment and trying to find a thing that meets all these needs. I adopted some tools early on, like Flickr, and Facebook back in 2007, obviously they have changed and this has caused some issues.
This slide gives you some idea of the size of the problem. It represents my attempt using Google maps to plot the locations of the named flats over time and link these to images in Flickr and the relevant community in Facebook… but it’s not ideal and the result is messy. I’m still looking for the perfect solution.
So imagine you’re new to Dunedin, you might be a first year student like I was back in 1991, and you move into a flat and name it. It seems like a cool thing to do, you kind of do it subconsciously because it’s in your environment, you walk past these flats every day as you walk through campus down Castle, or Leith, Hyde, Clyde, Dundas and Howe Street, you just don’t know that this has been going on for a long long long time, since before you were born, before your parents and grandparents were born, maybe even your great grandparents …
The oldest flat I’ve come across from the 1930s, a bunch of divinities students along with trainee doctors dentists and teachers who didn’t want to live with grumpy landladies and couldn’t afford halls used their entrepreneurial spirit to club together enough money for the rental of a house and a housekeeper.
According to one of the original “Bachites”, whom I’ve corresponded with, here were only 2 rules at the Bach: you had to be poor, and you had to piss straight.
They created a home – the flat had a name, a name board, a photo album, a trencher for graduation, traditions, and evening prayers. They also had letter head. Naming the flat was a big enough deal to design a coat of arms, create a motto in Greek, and have it printed.
There is evidence of flats having letterhead into the 1970s and of course today some have a Facebook Page.
Some also had personalised phone numbers, like Smersh HQ (1960s) which was named after the KGB head quarters in the then popular James Bond novels by Ian Flemming.
Similarly, 30 year later, Moes, on Clyde Street took advantage of the new name numbers available through Telecom. Like Smersh HQ before it, Moe’s took it’s name from a popular culture source. In this case, The Simpsons.
Moe’s is an example of a flat that has had many sign changes since 1997. No matter how many times it’s removed by landlords or property management, it returns. This latest sign, a personal favourite – reminds me of Bart’s skateboard.
Flats like Beehive and Moes have become legends in Dunedin, they are sought after because students want to live somewhere with a meaning. They want a home, they want an identity and they want to be part of the Dunedin story. And that’s what I think is at the heart of naming flats.
To conclude, I want to show you this image. It’s an illustration from the Orientation magazine of 2010. It depicts the intersection of Frederick and Clyde Streets – for those of you that know Dunedin you’ll notice there’s something not quite right about it.
This really sums up for me what naming flats and creating homes is all about.
What’s interesting about this scene is that it’s an imagined landscape, cobbled together from a collection of well-known flats from Clyde St, Dundas Street, and Hyde Street.
I spoke with the designer about this image and she said it was created more for the parents of the students that year than for the students themselves. Perhaps it was to welcome them home.