History Matters - Annual Conference of the Community Archives and Heritage Group

Sarah Garrod and I attended the 6th Annual Conference of the Community Archives and Heritage Group, which was held at University College London on 27th June. The theme of the conference was "History Matters" with a focus on education, learning and young people in both archive and heritage projects. There were a number of inspiring presentations and a lot of points came up that are very relevant to the work of the GPI and especially to the next leg of the schools project which Sarita Mamseri will be running from October 2012. There was a lot of emphasis on the importance of collaboration and community partnerships, on the use of digital technology both to bring collections together and as an educational tool and on 'sustainable outcomes' i.e. the legacy of educational projects.

The keynote speech was given by Dr Nick Barratt. He made the point that the value of history for young people is about understanding the world in which we live, it is about identity, about knowing their links to the past. The key to making history matter to students is empathy. He also made a point about Facebook/Twitter and YouTube etcetera being the personal archives of the future - there is a need to get people thinking about what they're doing online, bringing content together, thinking seriously about the threat of digital obsolescence, and a need to get this style of history into schools.

The 2nd speaker was Geoff Young, project manager of the Making History Project, which he called a 'Who Do You Think You Are for young people with a twist'. It sounds like a very interesting and successful project, taking place in London and Lincoln schools, getting children to investigate their own family histories, using both digital technology - researching in online archives such as the Census and Births, Marriages and Deaths, making video diaries which are then posted on YouTube etc - and also physical archives. The idea is to inspire children to make history. What stood out about this project is the number of partnerships that had been established - with local universities, local archives, volunteers, celebrity supporters (the project is the brainchild of actor Colin McFarlane and has been supported by Jim Broadbent and Miriam Margoyles). Though I'm no fan of celebrity culture (do we need to have celebrity endorsement for kids to be interested in something?), it did make me think about the number of 'celebrities' attached to the GPI - of course this is more than just a superficial, short-term attachment - they are not just pretty faces tagged on to the work of the GPI - people such as Linton Kwesi Johnson or Alex Pascall have been involved, committed supporters, activists, instigators, they are central actors in both GPI and black British history. It did make me think about the next leg of the GPI schools project and how we might get those involved in campaigning in the 1970s and 80s to talk to young people now about campaigning.

I was very impressed with how some projects, such as the Herts Memories project, the Oughterard Heritage Group and the Our Oxhey project, used their websites in a very interactive, collaborative way. Herts Memories is a gateway site to a number of local community archives in Hertfordshire. Volunteers contributing to these sites were given web training and a partnership was also established with students in the history department at the University of Hertfordshire. The need for training sessions in website editing for community groups came up in more than one presentation.

In her talk, This is Our Story...Pass It On, education officer Helen Foster talked about a project she had been involved with in Edinburgh, working with the North Edinburgh Social History Group. The project began with local residents in Greater Pilton gathering material relating to the history of the post-war housing scheme and especially to the tradition of campaign groups and community activism.  They decided they wanted to take the project into schools. At this point, Helen got involved and helped to tease out the themes of the project. Again, partnerships were key in this project - a student placement from the university made a film about the project (presumably on a voluntary basis); Helen spoke of the need to find 'ambassadors' at local schools to champion the project. I also thought that the Scran website mentioned was really interesting. It is a digital image bank funded by the Scottish government, which schools can access freely. As far as I understood, the participants in this project could upload a lot of material to Scran as the project progressed, as well as then feeding the end results of the project into Scran (films made etc) and leave it there as a school resource for all schools to access and make use of in the future, which means that the project reaches a wider audience and has longer-lasting legacy. In terms of our forthcoming schools project, such a website would be invaluable- why is there not a UK-wide version?!

The project that really stood out for me was the PETT (Planned Environment Therapy Trust) Other People's Children project. The young people from Trinity Catholic School in Leamington Spa who presented the project had done amazing work and had obviously been very inspired by the journey of discovery they'd been on. They had made a fantastic video, which was shown at the conference, and had done a performance at their schooll called MAL-ER-JUH'S-TED, one of the pupils had even written a book. Their work was inspired by the stories of children growing up in therapeutic living environments in the 1930s-80s, often following a traumatic experience in their lives.  The pupils had researched the PETT archives and also interviewed people who had lived in residential therapeutic childcare about their experiences.

Overall the conference was very inspirational and gave us lots to think about in terms of our own work.

Some links of interest from the conference: