Astronomers were fortune-telling the lives of stars and planets, Casanova was keeping track of his romantic conquests, Anne Frank was growing up and befriending herself in an attic during the Second World War. From the Babylonians to Bridget Jones, no one can resist the temptation of documenting.
Look no further than in the East Wing of Somerset House – this is where “Dear Diary – A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants” unlocks and unravels almanacs, diaries, vlogs, apps and other attempts of pinning down the fleeting revelations of everyday life.
The exhibition is created by King’s College London’s Centre for Life-Writing Research in partnership with The Great Diary Project, with the support of the Department of English and presented by Cultural Programming at King’s. “Dear Diary” is curated by Professor Clare Brant from the College and Dr. Polly North from The Great Diary Project. The exhibition is running from 26th May until 7th July, from 11:00-17:30, Wednesday to Sunday.
Despite the shameless name-dropping in the first paragraph, diaries are not some sort of privilege reserved to those whose names belong in history books, and the “Dear Diary” exhibition highlights that. “Anybody’s diary is as important as anybody else’s. We do have a couple of famous people’s diaries, but they all have the same weight and importance as other people’s.”, Kaye Mahoney, Cultural Programming Coordinator at the College, tells me.
In fact, VIPs’ diaries like Samuel Pepys’ or Benjamin Franklin’s make an appearance in this exhibition as ideas rather than guests: they are facts glued to the wall put in honorary black boxes. The diarists we encounter are, with a few exceptions, absolute strangers. It is their words that feel like old friends. They are VCPs – Very Common Persons doing “whatever common people do” like in the Pulp song – and documenting all of it: falling in and out of love, drinking tea, going to the dentist, counting calories, wanting to escape boring conversations. “Let’s hope in my next diary I turn into a princess”, writes an anonymous VCP sometime in the late 1990s. It is fortunate for us that her wish did not come true, or else the author would be in a black VIP (Very Important Princess) box and we wouldn’t get the chance to utter the sigh of “So relatable…” while reading her words.
However, self-documenting goes well beyond notebooks with “Dear Diary” scribbled every two pages. Starting from the concept of “the quantifiable self”, logs expand the idea that “everything is a diary”: through lifelogging, your Data becomes a self-portrait. Different logging tools are displayed, from the web browsing history to apps which monitor your sleeping cycle or the calories burnt (for example while wandering around the “Dear Diary” exhibition). But don’t be fooled: logs are neither exclusively digital, nor boring. Ms. Mahoney draws my attention to her personal highlight of the exhibition: a “sneeze diary”. This log belongs to a gentleman who writes down what he’s doing every time he sneezes, for example “eating quiche”. Ms. Mahoney says this is her favourite diary because it shows “randomness, commitment, humour”. If that’s not the Holy Trinity of personality traits, I don’t know what is.
The two crowd favourites of the exhibition could not be more different, yet strangely complementary: one makes you laugh, the other breaks your heart. The first is a video of three women reading their teenage diaries. They recall their first crushes , or more like “crashes”, as they lament, and remember “what it was to be me”, as Joan Didion states is the purpose of notebooks in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”. This self-revisiting exercise turns out to be a funny and extremely relatable account of growing up and girlhood. The second installation reveals another driving force of documenting: empathy. I’ll let Audrey Hepburn’s character in the movie “Funny Face” explain the concept: “Sympathy is to understand what someone feels; empathy is to project your imagination so that you actually feel what the other person is feeling: you put yourself in the other person’s place.”
No wonder the display is called “A Day in their Shoes”: a video montage constructs the stories of refugees, describing life as War forces you to live with each foot in different country, neither of which is Home. The call for empathy could not be more striking, nor more challenging. Nor more relevant, for that matter.
The “Dear Diary” exhibition is a gallery of self-portraits. And, like any art gallery worth visiting, it leaves you with more questions than answers. Why do people keep diaries? And why are we interested in reading other people’s diaries? Is there a trade-off between authenticity and having an audience? Does the digital age make it harder to keep in touch with ourselves? How come our quantifiable performances have become more interesting to us than our thoughts – is it laziness or a just a natural preference for hard data in an increasingly digitalised world?
Here’s an amusing musing: why don’t you start your answers with “Dear Diary”?
To find out more about this exciting King’s project, visit deardiaryexpo.co.uk.
Credit to Fung-Wah Man for all photography used.