If you’ll excuse some trumpet-blowin for a moment, I have a piece in the current issue of Selvedge about the doll-art of Tabitha Moses. I find Tabitha’s work incredibly suggestive for many reasons, especially her thoughtful engagement with stitch as both process and mark. I urge anyone who’s interested to have a look at the catalogue from her superb exhibition at Bolton Museum, The Lost and the Found, in which Alexandra Wolcowicz’s photography goes some way toward capturing the powerful effect of objects like ‘Untitled’ (2006).

Anyway, in the course of researching the piece, I rediscovered Annie’s room. For those of you who do not know, Annie’s room is a talking point of the Edinburgh attraction Mary King’s Close, which has opened up the fascinating world of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century streets hidden beneath the Royal Mile. Many tourist attractions in Scotland seem to feature a wee Annie as a matter of course, but this particular Annie is particularly interesting. In 1992, just after the rediscovery of Edinburgh’s hidden city-beneath-the-city, Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, visited a tenement in Mary King’s Close and in one room reportedly felt the tugging hands of a girl abandoned there to die in a plague year. Gibo comforted the restless ghost with a tiny tartan doll, leaving her a curiously nationalist playmate.

(The doll originally left in Annie’s room by Aiko Gibo)

Since then, numerous visitors to what quickly became known as Annie’s room have done the same. While the original doll is now dusty and showing signs of age, she has been joined over the years by hundreds of new companions. There are Barbies and beanie-babies and several Raggedy-Anns. Stuffed animals jostle alongside plastic infants; painted wooden soldiers smile up at porcelain princesses.

(miscellaneous gifts in Annie’s Room)

As well as toys, visitors also leave money for Annie (which is charitably donated by Mary King’s Close, and which, in the last year alone raised a staggering ten-thousand pounds for the Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital). So what are we to make of this shrine, this spontaneous memorial to the ghost of a girl no-one remembers? Are we moved or repelled by Annie’s room?

When, as a tourist myself several years ago, I first visited Annie’s room, I remember that I was most definitely repelled. The shrine seemed completely grotesque to me. Lying in that cold tenement for a decade or more, some of the toys had taken on the appearance of textile objects abandoned at a landfill site. They were ugly things, making an interesting space, an historic site, ugly too. And my immediate reaction to the story behind the shrine was to regard it as a laughable testimony to a ludicrous superstition. I have no truck with ghosts or saints, a world beyond or an after-life, and the impulse that would lead someone to leave a commemorative object for the ghost of a child who probably never existed seemed to me odd and incomprehensible. Why even bother?

But when I recently enountered Annie’s room again, I discovered that my reactions had completely changed. I’m certainly not saying I suddenly believed in Annie’s ghost, or even that I found anything remotely admirable or appealling in the strongly-held belief that a ghost innhabits that room. I still think that’s all superstitious nonsense. I also continued to find the shrine ugly, both as object and as space. But even though I do not really understand the motive for the placing of the objects, there seems to me now to be something particpatory, celebratory, even radical about Annie’s room. It is a spontaneous act of commemoration, a popular and populist and incredibly democratic act of making in which everyone might play a part. Annie’s room is perhaps folk art at its best, a thing in process, an object in a constant state of becoming, being made and re-made anew every time another visitor adds their contribution. The whole ghost business now seemed weirdly incidental. . .

(the shrine)

. . . and what’s interesting when one begins to look closely at the piled-up array of gifts in that dark tenement is their many different associations. Some have been left with evident care (a pricey bébé) others with apparent thoughtlessness (a screen wipe). So many of Annie’s toys seem just misplaced or random: plastic binoculars, a Westlife CD, an enormous grinning bear. Together, though, these things have transformed a space that is supposed to be terribly spooky and lent it a spectacular ordinariness. Annie’s room has a materiality in which there is a pathos that exceeds, or defies, the uncanny. Like the dolls of Tabitha Moses, the toys in Annie’s room are, in the end just part of the everyday world of things.

(thanks to Lisa Helsby of Mary King’s Close for the tour and the chat)

6 thoughts on “Annie’s room

  1. my freind said that when he wnt to the close some one saw annie crying in a corner. the guide said it was because some one had left a westlife CD.


  2. Congrats on the article, oddly enough, I just read it in Selvedge today and it inspired me to google Tabitha Moses and I found your fascinating blog. I’ve not visited Anne’s Room before, I must do so when I go up to see my parents in the summer.


  3. What an interesting piece here… also, congratulations on the Selvedge article!

    I love your comments about the radical, participatory dimension to Annie’s room. I too have little truck with ghosts/superstitions but am nevertheless intrigued by how alluring/compelling ghost stories are for other people. It is as though somehow, as in with fairytales, the imaginative aspect of a ghost story speaks somehow of real and actual things that are otherwise difficult to articulate. Kind of like the ghost in Beloved by Toni Morrisson… how superstition in that book is actually about real things…

    I wonder how many people now feel part of the Annie story because they left something there?

    I wonder what decisions lie behind the pilgrimage or what moves people to identify with and wish to become part of such a project.

    I am obsessed with books and projects about things and how we feel about them/interact with… we ought to swap a reading list!

    Thanks for another insightful blog post.


  4. can you reproduce your piece here? i’d love to read it and selvedge doesn’t seem like it’s willing to give it up.

    can you account for the weirdness that has turned mary king’s close into a ghostbuster place? i googled around trying to get a better idea of what it really is and there are whole websites devoted to excruciatingly detailed transcripts of tape recordings made there which allegedly “hear” ghost babble. that’s bizarre.

    the shrine resembles a lot of shrines i’ve seen, especially, for example, the location of a child’s death in a traffic accident. teddy bears proliferate. ron rosenbaum wrote about this some years back in the NYT mag, about the shrine and the cards and the strangely barbaric msgs the cards had on them at the site of a murder of children. (his subject is “radical evil”, supposedly invented during the nazi genocide.)


  5. Congratulations on the publication of your article! Thanks for letting us know. I have recently discovered your blog and read it from beginning to here, and I’ve been carrying it with me and thinking about much that you’ve said over the last few days. I’m really looking forward to reading some more of your words and pondering and savouring them on paper!


  6. Wow, a piece published in Selvedge! i’ll have to make an effort to buy a copy now. This feels rather uncanny to me, as at the beginning of the week, I met a photographer who just happened to have been the person who took the cover shot of Issue 15…


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