In our latest post, Michael Noble from the University of Nottingham’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Hidden Histories Engagement Centre discusses taking WW1 history to the public.
One of the joys of working for an Engagement Centre comes from the opportunity to meet and work with interested and committed people around the country. Over the course of the centenary, I have worked, talked and collaborated with hundreds of people, of all ages, who have a keen interest in the First World War and who have used their knowledge and enthusiasm to make the commemorations a success.
But what about those people who have little or no interest in the war? Those whose knowledge extends simply to the popular images of the conflict, the trenches, the truce, the Somme, the poppy. We would be neglectful as an Engagement Centre if we didn’t make efforts to reach these people, the ones that don’t necessarily meet us half-way.
The stall in a rainy Nottingham city centre.We were fortunate in being offered the opportunity to run a stall in the centre of Nottingham as part of the University of Nottingham’s Festival of Science and Curiosity, which is an event that is primarily focused on science communication and is held in partnership with local charity Ignite Futures and Nottingham City Council.
Our brief was broad: we had to fire people’s curiosity while demonstrating the work done by the university. Most appealing of all was the fact that, being in a city centre location on a Saturday would give us the chance to engage passersby, people who had no preconception of an Engagement Centre and who would, hopefully, approach the topic from new perspectives.
For the event itself, we opted to use the WW1 artefact boxes that had been so successful when used with schoolchildren. They were tangible items, each one of which with something different to say about the lived experience of the war. They had been curated locally and designed to reflect the wartime experiences of a real person from Nottingham. This local connection, it was hoped, would attract the attention of Nottinghamites who had no interest in the war whatsoever.
We were given space on a stall, with science demonstrations either side (the home-made liquid vortex was a particular thrill for visiting youngsters), and a timeslot from 9am to 4pm. During that time we had 19 major interactions (defined as an individual or group stopping to talk about the objects and/or handle one or more of them) and countless minor interactions (defined as someone pausing to look at the display without any further engagement).
Several of the youngsters sought to apply their knowledge of history as learned in the classroom, recognising that it was a historical topic and looking for some ‘kinship of knowledge’. Florence Nightingale was mentioned several times, particularly in reference to the medical objects, though one child wanted to use his understanding of Nightingale to form a mental chronology asking, ‘was this [material] from the Florence Nightingale times?’. For children of junior school age (approximately 7-11 years old), specific references were made to War Horse, (the book, the film and the play) and the novel Private Peaceful. For these children, the war was understood in dramatic-emotional terms, as something that was ‘a bit sad’.
Some of the adults wanted to demonstrate their own knowledge, either of the First World War in particular, or of history in general. Several made direct reference to the Second World War, either through misunderstanding, ‘Dunkirk was the worst bit’, or to move the conversation onto a more familiar topic. Family histories were discussed again and again, with many people discussing the war by direct reference to a deceased relative. Pleasingly, in more than one instance, this prompted a brief conversation within the family as parents told their children of ancestors (commonly a grandfather of the parent) and their role in the war.
While different, every interaction was positive and encouraging. It was a rewarding exercise and testament to the broad public interest in this topic and I look forward to taking our work to the public square again in future.
You can read more about the Centre for Hidden Histories here.