Our Symposium: Understanding Place, Memory, and Identity in the Post War City 

Last week we welcomed a handful of scholars to Hull to talk all things place, memory and identity in the post-war city. In this blog post, our PI James Greenhalgh reflects on the day and our wonderful speakers.

On Thursday 7th July we held our first symposium for the ‘The Half Life of the Blitz on Hull’, which brought together a group of scholars working on the study of identity and community in towns and cities in Britain since the Second World War. The symposium represented an opportunity for our project team, James and Charlotte, to invite a range of speakers to consider the four key themes of the ‘Half Life’– oral history, working with communities, heritage in the built environment, and Hull – to share their different approaches, experiences, and ideas. It was also a first chance to share some of our early thoughts on the direction of the project with a scholarly audience and to form a network of like-minded individuals, both in the city and outside it. The day featured a variety of papers dealing with how notions like local identity and civic pride are bound up with understandings of place and encoded in the urban landscape through a variety of everyday practices and understandings. It also explored how we can work with communities to explore the relationship between individual and collective understandings of places and their pasts, and to co-produce more nuanced narratives of post-war British cities. One of the highlights of the day was that we were able to hold it with our friends at Humber Street Gallery, who provided a great space for our presentations and discussions.  

The symposium kicked-off with a discussion of the importance of place, beginning with our PI James Greenhalgh talking about our experiences of walking with some of our volunteers and the importance of Hull’s more everyday landmarks – Tivoli House and Chicken George takeaway – in assembling understandings of what it means to be from Hull. You can read more about this in one of our earlier blog posts. David Atkinson from the University of Hull then offered an assessment of the importance of placemaking as a process in understanding the spatial history of Hull. Attempts throughout the last century to categorize and define what Hull was and is as a place have, he argued, been rather unsatisfactory and that various initiatives (of increasing size and significance) that have tried to engage, assess, and remake Hull’s sense of place, have all struggled for wider acceptance. Picking up on David’s observation that Hull is often placed as ‘a city on the edge’ of Britain, both physically and culturally, Michael Howcroft and Catherine Baker’s paper took ‘Gay Bod’ one of several iterations of the famed ‘Dead Bod’ as a starting point for an examination of the city’s queer spaces and identity in the twenty-first century. In their paper they showed yet another attempt at placemaking was at work in efforts to frame Hull as a cosmopolitan city through signaling its LGBTQ+-friendliness in the promotion of Hull’s 2017 year as UK City of Culture.  

After much debate and some coffee, the day resumed with talks from Valerie Wright and Gill Murray, both of whom had travelled from Glasgow to talk about the role of oral histories in understanding working-class communities and heritage. In different ways their projects over the last few years, dealing as they do with themes of deindustrialization and community in post-war cities, have been a significant influence on the design and execution of our project. Val’s contribution, detailing the issues of composing individual narratives of place and the past against heavily stigmatized narratives of local areas, particularly in Glasgow’s much-maligned high-rise estates, speaks very powerfully to personal narratives of Hull that are often forced to contend with local and national narratives that place Hull and certain areas of Hull in an economic and cultural periphery. Central to both papers was the notion of how we can understand the processes by which people and communities identify with their built environment. Gill Murray’s paper showed how oral history might illuminate the connections between community ownership and heritage and asked how such connections might inform the implementation of government strategies concerning regeneration and public engagement.  

The afternoon sessions began with a paper by Isabelle Carter from the University of Lincoln that dealt with the Roots and Futures project run in Sheffield. The paper outlined the project’s strategies for community engagement, showing the means by which it had built relationships, gathered research, and identified mutually beneficial outputs for both the project team and participants. At the heart of the project was something that is very close to to the heart of our project: the notion that co-production is a powerful tool for the creation of both engagement and research. Isabelle’s paper was followed by Charlotte’s own reflections on the public engagement strategies of our project, particularly in reference to the types of advantages that came from walking around sites with our volunteers. With the Hull pattie and Chip Spice both making a welcome appearance, Charlotte highlighted the manner in which our attempts to recover the less obvious aspects of local memory and identity were aided by the types of cognitive space created by moving public engagement beyond the classroom and out onto the streets.  

Rounding off the day we turned to speakers on the importance and role of public art in understanding the cities of London and Hull. Rosamund Lily West examined the motives behind London County Council’s various public art projects. The LCC planned spaces and art installations to produce the ideal Londoner, based on post-war ideas of citizenship, family and community. Statues reflected these ideas, but the LCC’s ideal Londoner existed only in sculptural form, an expression of the LCC’s imagination – fictitious and out of date, even in its own time. Similar ideals at work in Hull during the same period, were evident in Jill Howitt’s paper where 1950s and 60s public art reflected democratic and optimistic values bound up in the newly created Arts Council and the priorities of the welfare state. Whilst both papers demonstrated the belief that post-war shaping of space could produce ideal citizens; Jill’s paper went on to question what we might understand by what the public in public art really meant.   

Overall, the symposium allowed us to bring together some like minds from a diverse set of disciplinary backgrounds that proved to be a real boon for the project. This was the first time we’d been able to share some of our ideas and all the papers stimulated discussions that speak to the future of our project. It’s going to be exciting to see how each of our speaker’s projects develops alongside our own over the coming years.  


Profiles of Our Speakers  

David Atkinson is a human geographer who has been based at the University of Hull since 1998.  He has researched aspects of Hull’s heritage, memories, cultures, built environment and wartime experience.  More recently he engaged with aspects of Hull’s City of Culture process and its aftermaths, and what this cultural mega-event tells us about the wider processes of mobilising place.      

Catherine Baker is now Reader in 20th Century History at the University of Hull, where she moved ten years ago to take up a lectureship. She was also chair of the University’s LGBTQ+ Staff Network when Hull celebrated City of Culture in 2017. She approaches questions of individual and collective emotion in city space through the lens of her research on Croatia and Bosnia since the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, and also on the Eurovision Song Contest, which since the turn of the millennium has increasingly become part of the international economy of civic cultural events.    

Michael Howcroft Originally from Hull, and with a PhD in Human Geography from the University of Hull, Michael is a research fellow at the Universities of Sheffield and Southampton. He is working on two AHRC funded projects: Spaces of Hope (Sheffield) investigates hidden histories of community-led planning in the UK; and Feeling Towns (Southampton) looks at the increasing political salience of civic pride through the post-Brexit Levelling Up agenda. In October, Michael begins an ESRC Fellowship to fund a year of writing and further dissemination from his latest research.    

Valerie Wright is a historian of modern Scotland with particular expertise in gender, social and political history. She is currently a Research Associate in History at the University of Glasgow on the Leverhulme Trust Funded ‘Building a Modern Scotland: The New Towns, c. 1947-2017’. She is the co-author of Glasgow: High-Rise Homes, Estates and Communities in the Post-War Period (Routledge: London, 2020) and Deindustrialisation and the Moral Economy in Scotland since 1955 (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2021).  

Gill Murray joined the Yunus Centre in 2014 and her current research, funded by the RSE, investigates the history of Scotland’s social economy from deindustrialisation to COVID-19. This builds on initial archival research and oral history work completed as part of the CommonHealth research programme between 2014 and 2018. Since then, working closely with GCU Archive Centre, she has been PI on Scottish Government funded project to develop the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). Connected to this work she also contributes to a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with Magic Torch Comics.   

Isabelle Carter is a social and urban historian of post-1945 Britain. Her research focuses on everyday life, class, and space. Isabelle completed her PhD in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield in 2021, using archival documents and oral history to explore the lived experience of post-1945 multi-storey council housing in Sheffield and Manchester. She is currently a lecturer in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln and the Co-Investigator of the Roots and Futures Project.   

Rosamund Lily West is finishing her part-time PhD, “The ‘concrete citizens’ of the London County Council’s housing schemes, 1945-65”, at Kingston University. She works as Documentary Curator at London Transport Museum, a role that involves documenting contemporary London and bringing contemporary material into the museum’s collections. She also works as an architectural tour guide with Open City, leading walking tours of London’s docklands, looking at the area’s colonial and industrial history, discussing issues such as gentrification and displaced communities.  

Jill Howitt Following a long career in arts education, Jill is studying for a PHD in Art History with the Open University and researching public art in Hull, Middlesbrough, and Liverpool. She co-runs ‘The Critical Fish’, a visual arts journal based in Hull. It aims to connect writers, artists, organisations and audiences through cultural conversations. She is  also involved with ‘Carbon-Borders-Voices’, ‘Streams’, ‘Lockdown Still lives’, and CRAG (a Climate Reading Art Group).  

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