In this blog post, Carrie Dunn looks at the outreach work of Legacies of War, one of the AHRC Engagement Centres based at the University of Leeds researching events from the First World War.
‘Legacies of War’ is the umbrella name for a series of research projects focusing on the First World War Centenary at the University of Leeds, including three strands of work supported by the AHRC: the initial titular project, which was followed by Leeds Stories of the Great War, and then Discovering First World War Heritage. Led by Professor Alison Fell of the University of Leeds, academics with research interests in different aspects of the First World War have collaborated with community groups around the area to explore what happened during the war and its long-term consequences.
The team have also been helping to coordinate a series of events and activities that are taking place across the city now and over the next four years in a variety of venues, commemorating different aspects of the First World War. “There are six core academic members of the team,” explains Fell. “We’re not military historians, so we had a desire to do something beyond the trenches, something home front-based, and also something that had the potential for European comparison because a lot of us work primarily outside of Britain.”
Fell has led the theme of‘Yorkshire and the Great War’, one of five thematic strands, looking at different elements of the war’s impact on the city and the county more broadly. “I’ve learnt a lot – there are aspects of World War One I genuinely knew nothing about,“ she admits. “I’ve got to know a lot more about British history – I’m primarily in French studies, so that was probably inevitable, but for me it’s been really interesting.”
Fell’s involvement with community projects has also led her to reflect upon her own research interests and practices as a cultural historian. One of the most significant, she feels, was a link-up with local young people exploring records of refugees relocating to Leeds during the war. “One of the projects that has been most closely linked to my own research is about Belgian refugees into the city, and I was working with two secondary schools and with some university students on it,” she says. “I did some research in the archives in Brussels, and I helped some of the schoolchildren and their teachers and the students do some research in the local archives, so we were trying to get both perspectives – the people in Leeds and the Belgian refugees.”
She began to notice that the young people were approaching the source materials in very different ways, looking for very different things to her.
We were trying to get both perspectives – the people in Leeds and the Belgian refugees
“That was really interesting!” she exclaims. “I was interested in the experience of mothers with their children, and in education; and what they were interested in was crime and romance, mainly! A lot of them were interested in the idea of fitting in as a teenager in a new culture. They didn’t have the background knowledge that a historian would if they’d been researching this stuff, but they did have their own life experience, so to help them answer the questions they were asking, I looked at different sources than I might have normally.
“I’d just never thought about how they might approach the sources. That interaction was really fulfilling.”
It has also been a hugely positive experience for the community groups working with Fell and her colleagues, such as the Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery, who have been involved with Legacies of War from the very beginning.
The cemetery opened in 1875 and features four memorials and several buildings that have been listed for historical preservation – but it is also of significance to those interested in World War One, with 138 burials, a war graves plot and two screen walls recording names of war dead.
Founder Andrea Hetherington and her group work towards the upkeep of the cemetery and also offer guided walks. Since becoming involved with the project they have also had the opportunity to work with academics on various pieces of research, and Hetherington feels that personally the relationship has been invaluable.
“The Legacies of War team have made such a massive difference to me,” she says. “When I started to work with them, I’d just been made redundant and was at quite a low ebb. My background is in law but now I’m doing lectures and guided walks and I’m writing a book at the moment. They’ve been really helpful and enthusiastic and it’s led off in all kinds of directions for me.”
The Legacies of War team have made such a massive difference to me
As well as the successful research outcomes, Fell feels Legacies of War is also proving to be an opportunity for personal professional development in external communications, marketing and partnership working – areas that individual academics may often neglect while working within their institutions.
“I realised at an early stage, for these projects to work and to reach into different parts of the community that a university wouldn’t normally work with requires skills that academics often don’t have,” she says. “We had a project officer from an outreach background – she was absolutely vital. There’s a skills deficit [in academia] in terms of trying to understand how you would get people to trust what you’re doing, and deal with all the paperwork, like risk assessments, so academics can be confident to go and work with community groups. The AHRC has been doing this via the Connected Communities programme, and now we’re all working to learn new skills.”
And she would urge other universities to overcome their reservations and look into the possibility of doing similar work with local groups. “When we had the first meeting, there was a lot of anxiety around the newness of the project,” she confirms. “There were questions like, ‘Is it going to allow us to do research our bosses are going to like? Is it going to be REF-able?’
“But there’s a lot of knowledge out there, and it does all feed in. And it has given validity – because it’s an AHRC grant – to something that we wouldn’t normally have time to do. I’ve found it really valuable.”
Legacies of War at the University of Leeds is a First World War Centenary project for 2014-2018. The project will work with people and organisations in Leeds, the UK and internationally to explore the legacy of the First World War.