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Stress: Using Oral History Interviews

Felicity M BWinkley11 November 2015

Profileby Felicity Winkley 

This post is associated with our exhibit Stress: Approaches to the First World War, open October 12-November 20.

 

 

A visitor to Stress last week commented that the objects on display weren’t what she expected, that she had anticipated they would show much more directly the obvious effects, or stresses, of the First World War on men, women and children.

I wasn’t surprised by this response. We knew when we curated Stress that the interpretation of the objects was more convoluted than most traditional museum displays – the object labels are longer than best practice advises, the visual links between the cases difficult for the visitor to immediately grasp.

Part of this is owed to the fact that the objects have been chosen from the UCL collections – geology, pathology and science specimens among others – rather than from a military history assemblage. In equal measure, it is also because the objects have been chosen not only because of their relevance to the exhibition, but also according to the individual research interests of the curators.

One element of the exhibition breaks this mould however – the audio installation which plays two oral history interviews from the archives of the National Army Museum, recollections of two individuals who served in the First World War. For me, this part of the exhibition provides the visitor with the most direct link to the conflict – an immediate and very powerful ‘place-setting’ via the experiences being narrated, quite apart from the objects on display.

Although the audio is on a permanent loop, no matter at what stage you join in the story you are transported: with Adelaide Marian Davies, who served with the Women’s Army Aux Corps in France, you can picture the scene as she describes the dances held for troops at the Front, where it was forbidden for her rank to dance with the officers; with L/Cpl Billy Meade, you might join him at the Dardanelles, Ypres or later at the prisoner of war camp where he tasted Schnapps for the first time.

The Oral History Listening Post at Stress

The Oral History Listening Post at Stress

The resonance of these anecdotes illustrates just why oral history interviews are important, and why they are such a useful element to incorporate in exhibitions, or indeed many kinds of research. As opposed to much of the written historical record, oral histories are collected directly from the source and feel so much more authentic for it. For the purposes of my PhD, I used a ‘go-along’ interview technique, which involved talking to respondents whilst walking, in order to glean accurate insight to their experience of being in that environment. More recently, I volunteered as an oral history interviewer for the London Bubble’s After Hiroshima project which explores the responses of Londoners to the dropping of the first atomic bomb on 6 August 1945, both in the immediate aftermath and throughout the peace movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Oral histories lend themselves to many situations, not only to provide a means for gathering unique, illuminating and personal records and reflections, but also – in the process of their collection – to involve a wider community in research and offer an opportunity for participation in history and heritage in practice. We were thrilled to be joined on the Stress opening night by the family of Billy Meade, including his daughter (now 84), who had never before heard his recording.

The Power of the Image – Museum Engaging and Visual Sources

KevinGuyan1 September 2014

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

In the first of two blog posts exploring Student Engagers’ experiences of using images when sharing research in museums, Kevin Guyan discusses the enthusiasm he has experienced and the two-way conversations created from photographs of homes in the 1940s and 1950s.

I was conscious of the importance of visual material in the sharing of my research since commencing the PhD process, with photographs possessing the power to transform dense moments of a presentation into something more accessible and engaging. However, a recent change in direction in my approach to engaging across UCL Museums has illustrated the power of the image even more than I had first imagined.

I am a PhD student in History and my research explores the ideas of experts planning the design of social housing in London in the decades following the Second World War.  I specifically question how planners understood men’s actions and behaviours within the home and attempted to reconfigure these performances through design and planning.  To summarise these ideas in a visual form I brought with me to the museum eight photographs: architects, planners and Royal attendees at the 1943 County of London Plan exhibit (below); images from the Live Architecture exhibition at the 1951 Festival of Britain; designs from the 1940s for how living spaces should be arranged and photographs of ‘model homes’ from the 1950s.

 

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and an assortment of postwar planners at the County of London Plan exhibit. University of Liverpool archive [D113/3/3/40].

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and an assortment of postwar planners at the 1943 County of London Plan exhibit. University of Liverpool archive [D113/3/3/40].

Upon display of the images, the heightened level of response from museum visitors surprised me.  Without the need for me to even look particularly inviting – visitors assembled at my table and questioned, ‘Well, what do we have here?’  This expression of interest enabled me to explain the Researchers in Museums project, give a brief outline of my research and explain why I am based in the museum for the afternoon.

The images offered a starting-point for conversation, with several of the visitors quick to draw links between the photographs and experiences from their own lives.  One visitor asked questions on racial differences in postwar domestic practices, citing a BBC documentary on the historical significance of the Front Room for black families in the latter half of the 20th century.  Another visitor examined the current arrangement of their own home – questioning where Dad relaxes after a day at work, in which room children do their homework and the location of where meals are eaten.  Memories of previous homes also featured in our conversations, with one visitor proudly sharing the forward-looking mindset of her Father who would always assist with the household chores or assist the children with their homework in the living room.  People were thinking about their own homes, both past and present, in a new way, while also educating me on their experiences and opinions towards my research.

This deeper engagement is exactly what I was hoping to achieve with my afternoon and made clear the value of public engagement when it operates as a two-way discussion, in which both the museum visitor and myself left feeling better informed about the subject.  This approach to museum engaging also enabled me to avoid disturbing visitors keen to explore the collections on their own, with no wish to engage in conversation.  This approach therefore circumnavigated this problem, with my assortment of images acting as a magnet for those in the museum that wish to engage in a personal conversation and learn more from their visit.

The use of images has made me think further about how those working in museums could expand upon this approach.  How can researchers discuss their work in ways that go beyond talking?  I am aware of other Student Engagers that have used sounds to spark conversations – I feel encouraged to explore ways to bring the smells of early 20th century housing into the museums, or evoke conversation through the tasting of certain foods and drinks.  History is a sensory journey into the past and there is a need for myself and others sharing their research with the public to look across the senses to make their research as accessible and engaging as possible.

Movement Taster – Blockages in the system: health research in postwar Britain

KevinGuyan19 May 2014

Kevin GuyanRuth

 

 

 

 

 

By Kevin Guyan and Ruth Blackburn

This taster is from a larger presentation, Blockages in the system: health research in postwar Britain, which forms part of the Student Engagers’ Movement event taking place at UCL on Friday 23 May. What follows is a sample of the interdisciplinary work by PhD students Kevin Guyan, Department of History, and Ruth Blackburn, Department of Primary Care and Population Health, linking their interests in 20th century British history and health sciences. Movement will also relate these ideas to objects from UCL Collections as well as giving attendees an audiovisual experience of travelling on a London Routemaster bus.

 

Bus driver and conductor © Transport for London

Bus driver and conductor © Transport for London

 

The links between good physical health and exercise have only relatively recently been established. In the postwar decades there was particular interest in investigating heart disease: an increasingly common ailment with causes that were poorly understood at the time.  Jerry Morris (1910-2009), Emeritus Professor of Public Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and commonly referred to as the father of exercise epidemiology, was the first to establish proof that the frequency and severity of heart disease was reduced among workers who did more active jobs.

He made this discovery in the late 1940s by conducting an innovative and efficient ‘experiment’ that studied the behaviour and indicators of physical health in several thousand London Transport employees; particularly focusing on health differences between bus drivers and conductors. The selection of the two study groups was critical for the success of the experiment. This is because the bus drivers and conductors were very similar groups of people in most respects (e.g. age, socio-economic status and diet) but differed in terms of the amount of physical activity that was undertaken whilst at work.

By studying differences in the rates of cardiovascular disease between these two groups the ‘bus men study’ showed that the additional physical activity that bus conductors undertook whilst at work was associated with a 50 per cent reduction in heart disease. This finding was the first real evidence to demonstrate that being more active brought substantial health benefits and highlighted the importance of exercise as a public health intervention.

It is now time to position Jerry Morris’s study within the wider context of postwar London, showing that his research on the health of London transport workers was a product of its time and is an interesting example of broader changes in how ‘experts’ were understanding and explaining human action and behaviour.

Morris addressing the 1954 World Conference of Cardiology in Washington DC © The Telegraph

Jerry Morris in 1954 © The Telegraph

The decades following the Second World War experienced a widening of ‘expert knowledge’, particularly within fields linked to the physical and social health and well-being of citizens.  The esteem of qualities associated with experts also underwent a shift: moving from the predominance of highbrow cultures (for example, the humanities) to also include masters of science, skill and technology. This period was witness to the rise of the scientific and technical expert.

The belief that experts were striving for a ‘New Jerusalem’, a utopian ideal removed from the realities of postwar austerity, often distract discussions of British planning.  However, there was undoubtedly a political dimension to these projects, reflecting the politics of the Left, Fabianism and the Labour Party. It is not coincidental that Morris was a Socialist and championed the need for state intervention to improve the welfare of the population throughout his life’s research. In his work, the line between science and politics is often blurred – expressing the view that positivist forms of science work in tandem with socialist principles.  In this political vision of a New Britain, the rational and modern nation would require the successful management of health and disease.  Morris and his expert knowledge of epidemiology would therefore position him as a central figure in this imagined future.

This interest in the political led to what is arguably the most interesting development in his work: his definition of the individual. Morris did not focus on moral deviancy or communities positioned on the edge of society; nor, in his ‘bus men study’, was his primary focus the influences of class or social situation.  Instead, his chief research interests were individual actions and ways of living, removed from their social and economic contexts.

By moving the focus of one’s likelihood to encounter disease away from social class or community and instead considering the activities that individuals perform, although throughout his life’s work Morris was deeply interested in how socioeconomic factors affect the activities people perform, the ‘bus men study’ differed from the approach of scientists before him.  Importantly, the fluid nature of modern life was also acknowledged and the need to view subjects as ‘changing people’ operating in changing social environments. As experts grew more willing to challenge the influences of social class and instead consider the complex effects of social and biological relations, ‘ways of living’ emerged as a primary factor in the study of health and disease.  The offshoot of this finding was groundbreaking: a call for the reform of everyday lifestyles. With this conclusion, Morris’s ‘bus men study’ should not only be viewed as a key text in epidemiology but also as part of a wider shift in 20th century Britain over the role of scientific expertise and definitions of the individual.

Health and the male body

Health and the male body