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!

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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.

Museomix Diary 4: Sunday

So here it was, Day 3: D-Day aka Delivery Day.

We had some stuff to finish off, animation, attaching the speaker to the pot and bits and pieces. (I got to help Emma with the animation for the interlude section – bubbling blubber – great fun!) We also tried to update the website, and Mark, our tech team-member, worked really hard to finish the programming for the sensor. It was finished, and worked, but unfortunately too late to use the sensor on gallery.

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Programming at work – the sensor would trigger these arms to start the main poem & animation or the holding animation.

We did manage to get the animation and audio on gallery and I had the pleasure of being there to hear the feedback. It was generally very positive. It was great seeing wide-eyed children peer into the pot and adults lean forward into the object to get closer to the audio and animation. Through the guided tours we were also able to give people some background information on the concept and how we could see it being used in reality.

Usefully, not all of it was glowing praise and we did get some constructive feedback. We knew the sound quality wasn’t great and if rolled out there should be back-up speakers to transmit the audio more clearly (in fact one of the coaches tried to get us an extension to plug two speakers in at the same time, but, alas, it did not work). I think the coaches did understand that we saw the value in using the pot as a speaker, especially as you could feel the vibration through the object. (It really did come to life!)

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As well as the visitors and those part of MuseomixUK, I was so grateful for the enthusiasm of the guys that worked on the front desk of the Museum of Iron. Alongside Dominic they also felt like extra members of the team, and we really appreciated their enthusiasm for what we were trying to do.

Thankfully I was able to run round and check out some of the other groups’ creations as well, and what can I say – they were spectacular! The group with the furnace created wonderful audio and visual that put fire back in the furnace. Magic hands brought new dimensions to the large 3D model map in the Museum of Iron, it was the first time I’d used this technology and was amazed my finger could project light! The ‘It’s In the Bag’ group’s family trail looked like so much fun, and who wouldn’t want to do some interpretive dance in a museum?! Unfortunately I didn’t get  a chance to check out the groups in Enginuity, but from their presentations they had big plans for water power display, and the other group was introducing super powers to the gallery! Finally you should check out the wonderful app, Iron Insight – it’s astounding how much content they got into the app so quickly and it really brought the sites together.

All too soon it was over and on the train home I was pretty tired but so happy I was part of the #MuseomixUK weekend and become a Museomixer! I took so much from it. So thanks to Mar and all the teams of organisers, coaches, techy support and web support. We could not have asked for more friendly and imaginative guidance – you guys were the bedrock of all of our amazing creations.

Our team by our talented team member, Emma Metcalf

Our team by our talented team member, Emma Metcalf

But most importantly thanks to my team for your inspiration, challenging conversions and eager participation. I think we achieved something great (this includes Dominic and the front of house guy at Ironbridge).

Finally for more information about what we and the other groups created and what we got up do whilst creating it check out some of these links:

http://www.museomix.org/en/localisation/shropshire-2013/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/museomixuk/with/10780517864/

http://www.youtube.com/user/museomixUK

Mar Dixon’s blog looking back over the weekend: http://www.mardixon.com/wordpress/tag/museomix/

Frankie Roberto‘s blog looking at how they made the Iron Insight App: http://www.frankieroberto.com/museomix-2013

Matthew Whittaker‘s honest account of the weekend working on the Iron Insight App: https://plus.google.com/112567883397519086111/posts/fAPeJu22WiX

There are also Storify compilations of the #museomixUK see: http://storify.com/museomixUK & http://storify.com/mattdawhit/museomix-uk

For a lovely summary of the final day and all the prototypes see Virtual Shropshire‘s video below:

For previous diary entries see Thursday’s here, Friday’s here and Saturday’s here.

Museomix Diary 3: Saturday

Day Two: Dreams to Production

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Strangely I found the second day a lot less stressful. I say strangely as one of our group threatened to walk out a few hours into the day. The important point though, is that they didn’t, they came back and as a team we got on with the project.

Why did they consider walking out? I’m not entirely sure if I’m honest, but on reflection I think it might have been related to a lack of knowledge and understanding of what certain jobs would entail. For many of us making what we thought was a simple suggestion to the exhibit could result in a lot of work for others, I’m specifically thinking of programming here, but this could apply across job roles. From personal experience when people suggest an exhibition’s period should increase (say covering 1800-1900 instead of 1800-1850) they don’t often appreciate the amount of extra research that will need to be done.

An important lesson was learnt.

But a member walking out wasn’t our only problem. Others felt we weren’t being innovative enough, and again they probably had a point. This would not be the first time an animation with a voice over would be used in a museum. However, thanks to Mar and coaches, I think we were able to come to a consensus that innovation is relative and an exhibit like this had not been seen at the Museum of Iron before. Moreover, I strongly felt that giving the pot a voice and using it as a conduit to tell the story was innovative. Someone the previous evening had mentioned ‘Take One’ as an example of museums and galleries using an object as a gateway to other stories and collections. We were certainly using that premise, but we had developed it so that the pot would be telling it story, gathering people around it to hopefully think and reflect on purpose it was designed for and how that placed Coalbrookdale in global history and economy – you can tell I was loving our idea and our pot.

In any case, I really enjoyed the day. We got on with the exhibit, and I really this felt like the most creative day.

Projection in the pot

Projection in the pot

A part from the management of roles and expectations our first hurdle in regards to the exhibition was the question of projection. Could we project an animation into a black cast iron pot? To our complete surprise you could! No only that, but it looked really good!

For me the next question was content. It was quickly apparent that as we were looking at audio the content could not be much longer than 30 seconds to hold visitors’ attention. I was working with Laura and after reading aloud the text I was putting together, we thought it all sounded a bit dry and boring. The realisation that Coalbrookdale rhymed with whale resulted in the decision to write a poem rather than straight narrative. This was one of our eureka moments, as this would work a lot better with an animation, not that we knew what the animation looked like yet, and it could convey ideas and messages quickly and succinctly.

By the end of the day we had most of an animation and two poems. Two, because as well as writing our very simple poem we enlisted the talents of Matthew Ward, aka @HistoryNeedsYou. He leant us his voice and took our poem at a starting point to write a far more sophisticated version. It really is beautiful, and you can find it here. However, subsequent discussions within the team led to the decision that we would use our simple poem, partly because we hoped the simple language might make it more accessible to children but principally because it was shorter.

Consequently Emma and Caroline used our lyrics to create the storyboard for the animation. We were very fortunate to have the talented Emma on our team and her artistic vision really brought the project together. You’d never guess that none of us had done animation before, but Caroline and Emma set to its creation with fantastic results.

After a day of stress and worry we had a day of productivity. We also started to reach outside the group for help, and we have to say thank you to Dominic from Mixed Reality – whose technical and practical knowledge was indispensable. Dominic also provided something that began key to our display – the speaker! It was something we hadn’t even considered, but this clever device used the surface it sits on to amplify sound, if we attached this to the pot, the pot would become a speaker! Genius!!

Below is the video that Ralph put together for the evening presentations. I should also mention that Mark was working hard on the programming for the sensor throughout the day. Unfortunately this was a lonely job and I (unhelpfully) kept telling him how useless I felt that I couldn’t help (doubly unhelpful).

Well I hope the video gives an idea of what were were trying to achieve, and here is a link to all the other prototype videos here.

For previous diary entries see Thursday’s entry here and Friday’s here.

Museomix Diary 2: Friday

Day One: Ideas & Emotion

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The Iron fountain made for the Great Exhibition in 1851, the furnace is in the background

We were up early and raring to go. After the delight of receiving badges, colour coded medals (mine was pink for content), coffee and a muffin, we were off on tours of the site.

After these brilliant tours by the Ironbridge staff I had the conflict of whether to pitch an idea or not. I soon had a couple of ideas, but nothing fully formed. However, cometh the hour, either a similar idea was pitched or an idea was pitched that I wanted to be involved in. Either way I talked myself out of pitching. Rubbish me, but lots of respect to those who did pitch.

There were at least three projects I wanted to work on, and was fortunate that two of those merged (workers and objects). Bingo!

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The team!
From top left: Mark, Emma, Me, Ralph. Bottom left: Caroline & Laura
From @MuseomixUK

I was in a team (#MMUK3) and we were going to focus on objects and try to tell personal stories from them – bloody awesome!

After this excitement the rest of the day was hard work, in fact, at times, it felt like a full on struggle, and, to be honest, I was a little amazed we had something to present on by the end of the day.

Reflecting on the day from my cosy bed that evening, I think I can appreciate how much creativity there was around the table. But there were times it felt like we’d hit a wall, awkward silences and steely looks, it seemed nothing could get a team consensus. We’d all (including myself) be picking problems with almost every idea. It felt like the tech guy didn’t like tech, others were becoming obsessed with the Great Exhibition and we couldn’t see the people in the stories. The coaches called on the librarian and curators to help us and at times I was convinced we were the problem group – the one’s who needed ‘special’ help.

However, it did all help, and something I’ve learnt from that day was that it does help to talk ideas through. Even if the ideas are picked apart, deemed in practicable or without the ability to translate a narrative, it was wonderful to hear new ideas and see people get excited about an exhibit. I also realised that I’m not very visual, I think I rely a lot of text, audio and perhaps physical. I was always going back to the content and the physical presence of the object – these are clearly the areas important to me, but it was great seeing others conjure images and concepts from physical & visual. I suppose this is the benefit of having people with different backgrounds working together.

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The Whaling Pot!

In any case we did it, we had an idea. Inevitably it was something we had started with – the Coalbrookdale pot. Finally, I think it was returning to the low-lit gallery that helped. It felt like we were discovering these objects for the first time. The large whaling pot at the entrance of the museum had a presence for us and gave us something to work with.

On top of that all the talking (and silences) had helped us determine some principles. We didn’t want tech to get in the way of interpreting the object – holding a device to look at an object would take away from being close and looking at the object yourself. Also, we wanted something tactile, we were talking about mechanical levers to get the animation in the pot going, but ultimately we wanted people up code and personal with the pot. If we could get people to reach in or put they’re head in the pot we were winning.

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The initial idea on paper.

So, we were able to present an idea at the end of the day to everyone else, and even got some positive feedback from the coaches. Things were looking up.

Now, was the development the hard part or the easy part? I’d find out on Saturday!

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The evening presentation from @DianaPitchers

See previous diary entries here.

Museomix Diary 1: The Prep

Museomix at Ironbridge – graphic from one of the sponsors KASCEN

Months ago I had seen a few tweets related to something called Museomix, a movement started in France to remix museums. This looked like great fun and seemed to fit with an interesting podcast I’d heard by Muesopunks on Design Thinking. I was intrigued and wanted to be involved so completed the online form to apply. To my amazement I was successful, and, all too quickly, November arrived and I had to pack for this experience.

How on earth do you prep for an event/workshop/activity/thing you don’t really understand. I thought pack warm & pack comfortable. So socks, jumpers, jeans and big boots were high on the list. My foot was recovering from a sprained ankle a couple of weeks previous, so Ibuprofen was also thrown in.

I also had the impression that tech was important, so laptop, tablet and USB sticks were added.

But then the panic set in. I was supposed to be a content person, bringing knowledge about a museum I had never been to before.

I found this short podcast from the BBC History magazine: http://www.historyextra.com/visit/ironbridge

But really, I thought, I should bring some books.

So I packed my essential reading list:
Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory
E.P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class
Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum
And as a last minute decision Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England.

With these books and jumpers, what could go wrong?