Milton Keynes Central Library is one of those institutions which reflects the generous public-spiritedness of early 1970s Milton Keynes – a publically funded organisation with a focus on building and serving their community, especially working class people and people on lower incomes. MK Library service has many local branches, however even when I lived in Bletchley, the Central building was my library of choice. The 1981 building is Grade II heritage listed, but unlike the Shopping Building across the road it has a kind of unassuming air to its design.
I used the MK Central Library most extensively as part of my PhD research when I visited in 2014 and 2015. Their Local Studies Centre, housed within the Central Library, is a great resource which makes the kinds of materials that are often stored in archives even more accessible by storing them on open shelves and in many cases having them available to borrow.
Late last year, I was enthusiastically retweeting Milton Keynes Library who were showing off their amazing collection of Milton Keynes merchandise celebrating the town’s 50th anniversary in 2017. When they contacted me to offer to send some merchandise to Melbourne, I was very grateful and looking forward to receiving perhaps a tea towel, or perhaps a postcard, in the post.
What I did not expect was a huge care package of Milton Keynes pride to turn up at my door in Melbourne. I was definitely very touched and moved when I opened the box and it spilled open with a wealth of beautiful programmes, cards, tote bags, stickers (and some very nice tea towels.)
Most of these designs use variations on a single line drawing image of symbolic images of Milton Keynes. The choice of symbols are very interesting, both individually and read together. Some of them are recognisable to people outside the town, albeit presented in a different context: for example, The Concrete Cows are included not as a “joke” but as a loved local mascot.
The inclusion of trees wasn’t surprising – as much as media coverage of Milton Keynes has often focused on anxieties about its low density presenting as “urban sprawl” or as “concrete” spilling over the countryside, the town’s overwhelmingly green streetscapes are a source of local pride.
There are some other sources of local pride which have not filtered through to the national media consciousness in the same way: the Peace Pagoda, built by the Buddhist community at Willen Lake, and the dome of the ecumenical Church of Christ the Cornerstone.
I am especially fascinated by the inclusion of a public bench as part of the imagery as something to celebrate about MK – in these times of increasingly hostile architecture, and even in a town where much of the main public space is enclosed in commercial buildings, I see great power in celebrating the inclusive openness of a public bench seat.
Read together, the message of what Milton Keynes wants to celebrate in its 50th anniversary merchandise is clearly not built around any single monumental building or any single image – there are red balloons and concrete cows, there are shopping buildings and places of worship, but there are also relatively humble symbols of public space like trees and benches, which aren’t easily dated to any particular time. They are more generic symbols of an accessible community, and yet they are obviously resonant enough in Milton Keynes that they are used to promote a major civic celebration.
This highlights the ongoing gap in experiences which motivated my PhD research to begin with – the gulf in experience between what Milton Keynes is like to live in, and how it is perceived elsewhere. These communal and civic images aren’t necessarily ones that resonate with most media responses to Milton Keynes from the past 51 years, though I do think that the MK50 media coverage brought more of that to life than has been seen previously. Regardless of this national media coverage, seeing what the town has been celebrating about itself over the past year has been very heartening, and a huge thank you to Lisa for sharing these amazing resources with me from the other side of the planet.
If anyone from Milton Keynes is aware of the artist who put together these designs, please let me know – I would like to credit them and maybe shoot them an email about their thought process in putting these fantastic images together.
(There were some older treasures from Milton Keynes’ promotional history included as well which will get some special attention in a future post.)