As many of you who have helped out on the project might know the Half Life of the Blitz is a two-year project, so a little over a year in it’s perhaps time to take stock of what we’ve done and where the project might go from here on in. The project was always designed to have a first year heavy in public engagement and research, whilst the second year would be more about archival research and evaluating and writing-up the results.
The project has, unfortunately, been shaped by the COVID-19 outbreak. Indeed, although we started in September 2021, this was a much-delayed kick-off. The project was initially slated to start in the spring of 2021 and coincide with our heritage partner Hull History Centre’s planned events and displays for the 80th anniversary of the Hull Blitz. The project would thus have piggy-backed on the publicity and assisted in the events associated with the HHC’s plans. Of course, as the History Centre remained closed throughout much of the second half of 2020 and the early part of 2021, neither the exhibition nor our public launch ever took place, and when we did begin we were still rather hampered by the restrictions and long-term impacts of COVID. Archives remained closed, travel was still difficult and getting 100 people together in a room was first impossible and then, even as lockdown lifted, inadvisable. What Charlotte and I thus decided to do was completely reorder how we would do the project and adapt some of what we had proposed to suit the circumstances. What we didn’t realize at the time was that this change of approach would yield some of the most rewarding aspects of the project.
In the planning stages of the project we had decided to focus on creating opportunities to speak and interact with as many of the people of Hull as we could from the off. This had two purposes, one was to form a network of interested participants for the oral history project, but the second was more experimental. Here is the extract from our proposal document:
The project’s first phase involves a series of public workshops, surveys and interviews that will build-up a legacy of local engagement and resources, but also constantly shape the first strand of the research, helping the project team develop the direction of their investigations The second phase then uses the directions generated through public engagement to inform research approaches from oral, urban and governmental history…
The workshops and public engagement events were meant to shape the directions of the rest of the project, but we were unprepared for the research directions in which these events would take us. Hull, we knew, had lots of groups that were interested in the history and heritage of the city, as well as groups that campaigned on specific issues or functioned as meeting places for local people to explore their past and lived environments. Indeed, both Charlotte and I had spent years in and around history and heritage in Hull, but even we were surprised at just how fascinating early encounters with our interested parties were. Accordingly, we re-thought our approach.
In our project proposal, we had envisioned a large single ‘kick-off’ workshop and talk to generate interest in the project. This would have been accompanied by a display and leaflets to take advantage of foot traffic in the history centre and, we planned, at other heritage sites. However, with this avenue closed to us we simply started in whatever way we could, arranging a workshop as soon as HHC was open again, albeit in the atrium and with reduced numbers, whilst Charlotte decided we should add in a walking tour of Hull. These two aspects – the reduced size of the event and the walking tour – proved to be game changing for us.
Charlotte’s reflections on the first event can be found here , but it involved a walking tour run by Charlotte, after which we went back to the HHC where participants could look at, annotate and post notes on contemporary and historic maps, as well as archival photos and blank timelines. It was important to us that our attendees could get really comfortable, handle the materials freely, and scribble all over them with their thoughts, memories, and suggestions. This sessions left us with two lasting impressions. First, that there was a profound value in the relationship between the maps and photographs (the timelines were never popular with our participants) and getting people to speak about their lives in Hull and, secondly that walking around the city could bring to light reflections that might otherwise remain hidden. What we had underestimated, then, was the power of the urban space – whether experienced at street level or in a more abstract fashion through pictures and, particularly, maps – to bring out the most incredibly stimulating memories and research directions. We left the first sessions with a host of stories from the walking tours, 80 different contributions in the form of annotations, post-it notes and longer written accounts and several new research ideas. My reflections on the walking tours can be found in two blog posts on Chicken George and Old Mother Riley and on the North East Coast Town and Hull Blitz, whilst Charlotte’s thoughts on Walking as an Historical Methodology are here.
The success and findings from our first workshop thus shaped our approach for the rest of the year. Again, we were surprised and delighted by the response we received to doing more workshops at Portobello Street Church, Boulevard and Carnegie Heritage Centre, where the more than 100 participants added more memories and stories to our maps of Hull and generated new research directions for the project. From our contacts at these events we began to build-up a network of oral history volunteers who Charlotte began to interview through the rest of the year. Although we had never planned to do so many of the interviews so early, the opportunity to do them emerged much sooner than we had expected and, due to COIVD restrictions we were less able to do archival work than we had thought.
Whilst the writing-up and analysis of the oral histories and the accompanying archival work will take well into 2024, the amount of fascinating material that emerged from our expanded programme of public research design pointed to another change in direction for two areas of the project bound-up in heritage practice and research. It had, by the spring of 2022 become apparent that the material from the workshops and the oral histories told us a great deal about how people draw on heritage through the built environment to build a sense of self and a sense of place. The walking and mapping workshop methodologies had been particularly successful in stimulating response that suggested how we might better understand the ways that people engage with or use urban space and place. Heritage assets and historic sites were, in particular, spatial structures that respondents drew upon to articulate life stories and stories about the city.
With this in mind, we chose to amalgamate what had been proposed to be a series of working papers and instead create a heritage report aimed at professionals in the field. This report (available here) shares key research findings, illuminated by quotes taken from our interviews and workshops. It is relevant to anyone working on place and heritage, across a range of roles and sectors, and will be particularly useful to those working in and around Hull. What also assisted in the report was our first symposium that rose out of the project, which we ran in July. It 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 whole day was hosted, not in Lincoln as we had originally proposed, but at Humber Street Gallery, which just felt like the right place to get everyone together.
In the first year we’ve met some brilliant people and discovered some fantastic things. We’ve particularly loved working with all the attendees at the workshops and the oral history volunteers. We’re really proud of our memory map, all the amazing research we’ve gathered, but most of all that the project spoke to so many people who wanted to be involved with the project. Anyone wanting to no more about some of the brilliant people we’ve met can read about them in the Hull and me series on the blog part of this website.
One objective of the project is certainly complete: because the AHRC (the funding body who provided the money for us to do the project) wants to promote the development of young scholars in the field, they will be pleased to know that when Charlotte’s time with the project came to an end in September, she moved directly into a role with the Hull Maritime project. I hope that working on our project is going to be the springboard Charlotte needs moving into a successful career in heritage. The other objective that is effectively complete is the oral histories and, at least for now, the research design stemming from the public workshops, these have been a great success for us and we’ve loved doing them. The project now moves into a much quieter period where the main focus will be starting to do serious analysis of the materials we’ve collected and doing work in the archives in London. Future plans include another symposium in Hull and an exhibition at the end of the project, which everyone will be able to hear about through our mailing list and through the HHC.
It’s been a brilliant first year, and I’m looking forward to the next one too.