Radical history today: come and meet the Raphael Samuel History Centre

kathleenmcil:

I’m going to be at this on Monday, so please do come along if you’re interested in the RSHC New Historians’ Network!

Originally posted on RSHC New Historians' Network:

The Raphael Samuel History Centre is a four-way partnership between Queen Mary, Birkbeck, the University of East London, and Bishopsgate Institute. In the spirit of its founder – the socialist historian Raphael Samuel (1934-1996) – the Centre is dedicated to fostering radical history in and beyond the academy. Its members work in many areas, from London history and ‘heritage’ studies to histories of sexuality, memory studies, psychoanalytical history, history and public policy, and the history of feminism. We have many postgraduates among our members.

Come and meet us! We are holding an open forum on Feb 9th at 5.30 pm in the Arts 2 Building, 4th floor Senior Common Room (Queen Mary UL, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS).

Barbara Taylor (QMUL director of the RSHC) will speak briefly about the Centre’s work, followed by short presentations from two or three of our pgr members, then general discussion. Wine and…

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The Post Office in Everyday Lives in the First World War

“Last Post” panel with my research!

I’ve been researching the Post Office and its workers for a few years now. This research has obviously focused, prominently, on the nineteenth century and my PhD. Yet, thanks to the collaborative nature of my PhD, I’m able to venture into other aspects and time periods as requested by the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA).

Last year, unsurprisingly, I started to looking into the Post Office during the First World War. Due to the size and nature of the Post Office at this time (largest single employer in the UK, and the “friendly” face of government in every town and city) it has been fascinating.My research took me into the lives of the workers as I found reminiscences and oral histories and could compared these to the official records and reports. Experiences were varied and complex but involved men, women, boys and girls from all over the country.

As a result of my research I contributed to the ‘Last Post” exhibition displayed in physical form at Ironbridge, and also online here. I also gave a paper at the Anglo-American conference and a longer paper at the BPMA as part of their public talks programme.You can download my talk, along with some of the other fascinating talks in the series, as a podcast from here.

Most recently I’ve written a short blog for the new website for the ‘Everyday Lives in the First World War’ Research Centre. You can find it here. This is an amazing project that will look to further our understanding of what life was like at home for people during the conflict, from food to theatre, it’ll cover all sorts of topics and work with a range of groups and people in the process. You can find out more about the centre here, and do contact them if you’d like to get involved!

So, 2014 might be over, but it’s only the start of the First World War centenary, so keep an eye on the ‘Everyday Lives’ project for events, and if you’re interested in hiring the “Last Post” exhibition do contact there BPMA. You can find out more here.

I’m currently doing some work the BPMA on their war memorials collection, and I look forward to sharing more about that at a later date!

MuseomixUK 2014: Some reflections and a chart

MuseomixUK 2014 6-9 November 2014

MuseomixUK 2014 6-9 November 2014

It’s over. After months of planning, countless emails and a few trips to Derby, it’s over. MuseomixUK 2014 ran from Friday 7 November through to Sunday 9 November with a showcase of the prototypes on Monday 10 November. And what a weekend!

Lots of carbs and caffeine saw us through the long days and I’ve been in awe of what the teams made. It was odd not being on a team this year, but it was nice to be allocated to one team to keep them informed of their deadlines and help progress where I could. This meant I didn’t really feel ownership of any of the prototypes, but I did get a better idea of what was going on elsewhere rather than being in the bubble of a team. I was also looking after evaluation which meant I got to work with Derby Museum, as well as our student volunteers, to develop a visitor evaluation. I was also attempting to monitor the changing emotions of the participants, but more of that later.

Team “Museums as Conversations” see their Tumblr here: http://museumasconversation.tumblr.com/

Firstly, I want to mention the team I worked with. They were ‘Museums as Conversations’, and as a facilitator I was very fortunate that the team worked very well together from the start. I’m not saying it was plain sailing from the get go. Saturday morning was a particular challenge as the team wrestled with their ideas and how they could be realised into a physical prototype. In that, I am also grateful to Dominic and Fraser from Mixed Reality (one of our sponsors) who helped talk them through the variety of tech possibilities. But I have to say that once that got their idea, and agreed, I did very little. I helped put together a to do list, gave them jobs and off they went. I was occasionally asked for tape or post-it notes and had a sing-along, but apart from that they got on with it. Amazing!!

Museums As Conversations map and projection

Museums As Conversations map and projection

And what did they make? It was a tactile 3D map of Derby with particular places of interest available to be selected by pushing them down on to a touchscreen. This activated a projection displaying historic information on the building and a twitter feed that represented memories of that location submitted by the public.

The central point of the prototype was that it stimulated and invited memories from the public.Consequently the group envisaged that a final product could have an interface that allowed people to contribute memories there, through a keyboard etc. The history of locations could also be connected to museum objects, so visitors could simply enjoy learning the history and seeing personal connections or use this as a stimulus for their memories or thoughts. Beautiful!

The other teams were also impressive and it would take me too long to explain them all, so if you want to know more please see their Tumblr sites:
http://museomixuk.tumblr.com/teams

Before I mention the evaluation process I was also looking at over the weekend I should also say a huge thank you to Dr Cath Feely and her five students from Derby University who gave up their time to help us. There were times when there wasn’t much to do, but having them there for the sudden ‘we need this’, ‘can you get this’ and as roving reporters was brilliant. They were also essential to putting together the brochure and tour for the public on the Monday, and they led some tours on the Monday and helped me monitor and think about evaluation. One of the students was keeping blog over the weekend, see here.

Talking about evaluation, the important part of this is yet to come, and we’ll be sending out a post-event evaluation to participants soon. This will be the most important part for our feedback for our sponsors, the Arts Council, but we have also done a couple of other this. A pre-event evaluation for a baseline of thoughts and feelings. Also, over the weekend I put together a visitor evaluation for the public on Monday. A quick look at this shows that the prototypes were very positively received and words to describe the exhibits included:
Intriguing; Fun; Interactive; Tactile; Thought-provoking; Alive; Inspirational; Innovative; Crazy; Left-field; Exciting and Future!

I was also using emotion boxes to attempt to monitor the emotional rollercoaster of MuseomixUK.

Emotion Boxes at MuseomixUK - they always started with one small block to encourage others

Emotion Boxes at MuseomixUK – they always started with one small block to encourage others

This is probably not the most scientific method, but from the feedback of a few participants over the weekend, many found them therapeutic. Many people called for a tired box, I said I knew they were all tired and didn’t need a box to tell me, and other said the size of the blocks really mattered to them, so they’d put in a large block for inspired and a small one in frustrated. I hadn’t planned to account for the volume of the boxes, but may include it an anecdotal in my final evaluation. So far I’ve standardised the results and made this graph. What do you think??

MuseomixUK 2014 Emotion Boxes Standardised Graph

MuseomixUK 2014 Emotion Boxes Standardised Graph

Waiting for MuseomixUK 2014

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I’m sitting in a cafe in St Pancras station waiting for a train to Derby. I booked a cheap train so now have some time to grab some food, check out twitter and maybe do some work. I say maybe because I’m actually writing this blog, I’m hoping it will be some sort off therapy to understand my feelings of participating in MuseomixUK again. If your been following my blog for a while you may remember the monumental weekend last November when I became a Museomixer. You can find my diary of the weekend here. If you don’t want to read it, I can sum it up as an emotional rollercoaster. There were massive highs and real lows (my team almost fell apart), I was actually nervous about keeping the diary, very aware that it was a very one-sided account of a weekend that was very much about a team. This year I’m looking after evaluation and also going to help facilitate teams to understand the process and meet their deadlines. I’m really excited about this, but also very nervous. It feels like a lot of responsibility but I can’t wait to try and get a grip on how MuseomixUK affects others. By preparing for the evaluations I feel I’ve been able to get to grips with what lies at the heart of MuseomixUK. It’s hard to put into words but as an academic I’ve tried and I came up with this:

MuseomixUK aims to challenge how people view museums and themselves through openly promoting trans-disciplinary collaboration and building a supportive community.

I realise I haven’t talked about what will happen over the weekend, but that doesn’t really matter at this stage. There is obviously a plan but i think the weekend will evolve as we work and create together. That’s another terrifying aspect, I don’t really know what the weekend holds: what personalities, what ideas, what technology what creations!!! I hope to blog again about my experience and my findings, and I hope you’re just as excited as me.

The Revolution will be Digitised: part 1

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We are quite clearly living through a revolution, the digital revolution. We can’t move for it, it’s infiltrated into so many parts of our working lives and leisure we’ve almost stopped being amazed or confounded by the possibilities or the consequences.

Almost, I say because I have been to the ‘Digital Revolution’ exhibition at the Barbican in London. My strongest feeling about this exhibition was that it was a lot of fun. From playing Tetris on an original Game Boy and watching how the film Gravity was made, to seeing my shadow sprout wings and shooting robots with my mind. I had a lot of fun. And that was only the first part of the exhibition!

The exhibition is spilt into three areas across the building and the first section is by far the longest with the most to say. It was a real novelty to be able to not only see but use and play with original games consuls, and as you can probably tell the Game Boy was my favourite. Why? Because I had one of course! Though novelty and nostalgia are not the only interesting aspects of the exhibition and the development of games and art feels pioneering and democratic. The best example of this has to be the system that was to become the internet, Tim Berners-Lee’s Enquire system. It doesn’t look like much but just look where we are now!

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The exhibition moves into the present and consequently the future as the screens slowly disappear and the digital world becomes more reactive. The big finale is a room in the basement which is dark a part from a few beams of light. It is quickly apparent these are more than spotlights, they are lasers and they dance and explode at your touch – so much fun!

All of this was exciting and though the exhibition focused on games and art it made me think about what these developments could mean for the wider world. The technology linked to the game using eye movement and brain power appears ideal for people with severe paralysis. Could the artwork that gave my shadow wings be used to any benefit in discussing issues surrounding body-image or self-image?

I have no idea. What I do know is that it got me excited about the possibilities for museums and how the digital revolution can help us look at the world, objects and ourselves a little differently. Museums are using digital to increasing effect and it is becoming clear that interactives no longer need to be these touchscreens on gallery, they can be much more.

I’m obviously not the first to think this and there is already great work being done to explore the possibilities. The V&A commissioned a games designer in-residence, whose final game should be released soon. I’m totally fascinated by the Battle of Bannockburn heritage centre where visitors are emersed in the history of the battle, its characters as well as its arms and armour then invites you to play out your own Bannockburn. Derby Museums have taken the ethos of creating and collaborating to it’s core in the Re:Make Museums project at the Derby Silk Mill, asking visitors to be creators and help shape the museum, they’ve even agreed to host MuseomixUK this year!

I think museums can demonstrate some of the best ways the digital revolution can work, encouraging collaborative and inclusive participation. I also think they are well placed to discuss the darker side, the issues surrounding surveillance, abuse, theft, privatisation of data and civil liberties. The issues that are not necessarily easily understood but are of increasing importance as we spend more of our working and leisure time in the digital realm. But let’s end on a positive note and get excited about the future of digital and the future of museums! Long live the revolution!

The Post Office and Sunday Deliveries – a historical perspective

The British Postman was a newspaper produced by a sabbatarian group, the Workingmen's Lord's Day Rest Association. [POST 111/52]

The British Postman was a newspaper produced by a sabbatarian group, the Workingmen’s Lord’s Day Rest Association. The image shows a postman working as local residences go to church in the background. [POST 111/52]

It has recently been reported that the now privatised Royal Mail is going to start delivering post and opening delivery offices on a Sunday. This has been billed as ‘new’ and ‘innovative’, however it would be more appropriate to bill it as ‘returning to its roots’, because post on Sunday is nothing new.

Historically the Post Office had always operated on a Sunday, there were a few anomalies the most significant being London, but the rest of the country were able to send and receive mail on a Sunday.This was a well defended Post Office principle during the nineteenth century, a government department that championed its convenient and efficient service for the people of Britain. The Sunday service only ended in the First World War due to attempts to cut costs and pressure on the diminished postal labour force.

My PhD looks at the nineteenth century Post Office and my recent work has focused on this Sunday service and an active and occasional powerful campaign to stop the regular postal deliveries on a Sunday. This campaign was led by people labelled as sabbatarians, who felt that God had decreed that no work should be done on a Sunday. Work included the work of the Post Office’s sorters and letter-carriers as well as the reading and writing of letters by businesses and individuals. For the campaigners they saw this as much as a humanitarian and protective issue as religious.

The sabbatarians campaigned hard, and their biggest success was in 1850, when they managed to secure the legislation they desired ending all Sunday deliveries and collections. The success was short lived as a political backlash called for an inquiry and the Act was amended to allow local postal districts to chose if they wanted the service on a Sunday or not. Individuals were also allowed to opt-out of a house delivery on a Sunday if they could not gain a majority support.

Religion was obviously important in the arguments to end Sunday work, and went hand-in-hand with campaigns to close museums, shops and public houses on a Sunday. But the arguments to keep the service are similar to the ones put forward to restarting the service today, those of convenience and providing an efficient service.

Some of these arguments can be found in the petitions that survive from the nineteenth century stored in the British Postal Museum and Archive. They are from local areas to the Post Office requesting their Sunday deliveries are re-instated. In 1897 the district of Gorton (without the City of Manchester) stated that
‘grave inconvenience has frequently been caused by the non-delivery on Sunday of important private letters (especially in cases of sickness)’ [POST 14/22].

For the people of Maindee near Newport, Monmouthshire in 1856, it was more a matter of business for a growing area.
‘Many of the undersigned are so connected in business as to require immediate attention to their Correspondence and consequently are obliged to send special messengers on Sundays for their letters, thus proving the necessity of a Sunday delivery’ [POST 14/80]

As previously mentioned London was an anomaly and had never received a general postal delivery and collection on a Sunday. It was consequently used as an example in the sabbatarian campaigns and any perceived threat to the sanctity of London’s Sunday was fervently defended. A newspaper article of 1839 stated:

‘if in that great emporium of trade and wealth, which within its circumference embraces more than the population of some nations – if in this huge overgrown capital, the seat of Government and legislation – if there the Post Office may be shut on the Sabbath, without public loss or inconvenience, it would seem to follow that it may be shut anywhere and everywhere else.’ 
[Caledonian Mercury, 21 January 1839]

However, even this was countered with arguments that Londoners simply used the post offices on the edge of the metropolis to send important messages. Furthermore, with changes made to the service to ensure provincial post offices could reduce their hours on a Sunday work had to be done in London, such as sorting and transmitting mail.

The move to reopen post offices across the country for the convenience of the public could be seen as a return to the Post Office’s Victorian values, but I feel that what the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) have stated is also significant. They welcome these changes but make clear that the Sunday work would be voluntary and on a higher scale of pay. I think this is the real legacy of the nineteenth century. Religious principal may have been the bedrock of the Sunday Labour campaigns of the nineteenth century but they were also part of a movement that promoted the welfare of the employee within the corporate aims of profit and efficiency.

Anniversary Events – what are they good for?

‘Lights Out’ project to mark 4 August led by 14-18NOW

You may feel that we’re flying high in our journey of First World War commemoration, but I’m afraid we haven’t even taken off yet.

We are currently being taxied to our take-off point, flicking through the in-flight magazine, enjoying a few themed exhibitions, BBC documentaries and dramas and perhaps indulging in a puzzle book participating in the National Archive’s hugely successful Operation War Diary crowd-sourcing project.

Hopefully you’ve taken in enough to know that Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, and it is that date, one hundred years later, that we’re scheduled for take off.

The opening of the refurbished Imperial War Museum on 19 July will mark our acceleration down the runway but we’ll know we’re in the air during the government planned memorial services in Glasgow, Westminster and Belgium, as well as the 14-18NOW art project ‘Lights Out’. An art event designed to echo Sir Edward Grey’s ominous words “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

With at least four years of commemoration activities, this is a long-haul flight bound to have a mix of blockbuster in-flight movies and turbulence. But what will it all mean by 11 November 2018. Where will we land and will it be a safe landing?

In an attempt to make some sense out of this an AHRC research network has been set up between the Universities of Birmingham, Cardiff and Sheffield and involving heritage partners Historic Royal Palaces and National Library of Wales to investigate the significance of centenary commemoration. I recently attended one of their conferences at Hampton Court Palace and was fascinated by the topic.

Papers were given by a range of organisations and institutions including some of the big players in the First World War commemorations such as Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Imperial War Museum. (Unfortunately the BBC weren’t represented, as their input would have been fascinating, but we did discuss anniversaries on TV.) Also, refreshingly, the day wasn’t just about the First World War and we heard about plans for the Peterloo anniversary in Manchester, the Power Rangers made a surprising appearance and as a reminder that the war wasn’t the only thing to happen in 1914 the Komagata Maru Incident was also discussed, a moment often forgotten in Canadian and Indian history. The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade was also referred to continuously throughout the day.

I could spend a long time going through each paper and discussing what I took from each, but in fear that this would make a very long blog post I’ll try to summarise the main points.

– Anniversaries aren’t going anywhere, we’re obsessed with them! From two pound coins to TV they feature in public understanding of history, and have been an increasing feature in recent years.

– A parallel change in the public understanding of history has been the emphasis on experience exemplified by the success of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. This is useful for us to use aspects of family history or local history to engage with possibly new audiences, but could this mean we forsake the macro or political history? Does that matter?

– It is important to remember that as heritage organisations or universities we do not own the history we are trying to communicate. Topics, especially like the First World War or Peterloo or the abolition of the slave trade, are very personal and we need to trust people to make their own sense of this history through the gateways they chose.

– Evaluation was important to everyone involved from DCMS and HLF to the universities, museums and archives. DCMS and HLF have their desired outputs and will try to measure success against these. I was introduced to the logic chain, and DCMS said they would like to meta-evaluation but it sounds like getting evaluations out in the middle of the four years to inform later events will be challenging. HLF will work with Sheffield Hallam University on their evaluation.

– Everyone felt it was important that academia and heritage organisations keep up a dialogue throughout the anniversary events. Many new resources and sources will be unearthed and made available and it is valuable for the latest scholarship to be shared as widely as possible.

– Especially with so many cuts in so many areas it is great to have a lot funding available for First World War projects, as well as anniversaries more generally. HLF noted that through the First World War funding they have had a lot of first-time applicants, but large and small, new fundraisers and well-seasoned, it’s clear we’re all taking advantage of the available funding. But keeping track of the outputs and the current scholarship from all of this is difficult. For the First World War commemoration the number of organisations working in partnerships is huge and it is important to sustain those relationships after the project.

– Diverse stories are important, the fact that the First World War was a global conflict needs to be reflected in our work. There are also links outside of the conflict that can be examined and could be used for community projects, the Komagata Maru Incident is a perfect example.

– Finally there was some concern that we just move from one anniversary to the next, following the funding and the publicity to fund projects and attract audiences. It was felt there needed to be some longer legacy, that for many museums and archives the carefully prepared resources created for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade are now in drawers and cupboards. Though I don’t think we need to lament too much on this. I think one of the legacies of those events has been the success of UCL’s ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ project. It is possible that the bicentenary events laid the groundwork on knowledge to help people understand the background and importance of this database, and hopefully work like this will continue.

More events by the network are due in the forthcoming months and I will follow them with interest. In the meantime I have a lot to think about and will enjoy looking at how my work as a PhD student and museum professional can use anniversaries to promote the public understanding of history.

For future events of The Significance of the Centenary network: http://thecentenary.wordpress.com/key-events/

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