Posted on 8 August 2012
After working for a few years, in archaeology and later in education, I decided to return to university to study again. I would love to say that this was entirely motivated by my own intellectual curiosity but that would be untrue. While I do love studying history, at the back of my mind was the idea that I needed to improve my range of skills and experiences. With this in mind, postgraduate study at York was only half of my plan for the year. I wanted to become involved in more practical projects, ones that would allow me to develop my skills, complementing my academic work while presenting new challenges.
This was my starting point and while researching potential organisations and projects to contact I found IPUP, the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past. I could not believe my luck. IPUP's Director, Helen Weinstein, shared my belief in the importance of making history accessible to all and was involved in a number of projects that produced real outcomes. I was immediately drawn to the media related projects, a lifetime spent watching history programmes on television was always going to come back to haunt me. I sent a few emails to IPUP, introducing myself and expressing an interest in the institute's work, and thought about what I could offer.
The rest of this blog falls into the two parts of my internship. The first, shorter, part deals with my experiences creating a webpage based on original historical research. The second part focuses on a longer project to build a York Jewish Heritage Trail that could be delivered through a leaflet and accompanying website resources. I have divided the blog by month rather than theme as some of the themes reoccurred throughout the internship while I was constantly confronting new challenges.
Being invited to the first meeting was a surprising experience. I could not believe how many people we managed to squeeze into one seminar room. With this many people it was clear IPUP had a lot of work for us to do and that there is a real thirst amongst postgraduates to share their research beyond academia.
The available projects were then explained to us by the IPUP Director, Helen Weinstein. She made the introductions and it was fantastic that representatives from York Minster and the Yorkshire Museum were there explaining what we could do and how the projects were going to work. I chose a web-based project, researching and writing a page for http://historyofyork.org.uk/
I can use a computer but I knew improving my skills in this area was something I really needed to work on. Initially sceptical about how interesting this was going to be, I was really surprised how enthusiastic I became, especially in discussing how we could use our writing skills in order to get people interested in the past, and how were we going to reach an audience that included young people and those uninterested in history? Understanding some of these questions gives students a real insight into the potential public value of their research, informing and entertaining in equal measure. A list of topics which the website really needed researching and writing up in to illustrated webpages was passed around. York's medieval prisons caught my eye straight away. Having studied these in the past I knew the topic had great potential. I left the meeting enthusiastic about the project and thinking about my next steps.
Balancing workloads is always something I have considered a really useful skill. Sticking to my initial plan, I managed to get involved with some other projects in the city, one with the Graduate Students' Association, and another at the local newspaper, The Press. I knew that this might present some challenges with regard to time management but practice makes perfect and I was determined to get the most out of my time in York. I was helped by the attitude of the IPUP Director and Michael Woodward of the York Museums Trust, because they were really supportive and understood interns would have other commitments and outside our main deadlines we were not put under any pressure, something I was very grateful for.
I started my research for the medieval prisons page conscious of a need for breadth rather than depth. I wanted the page to be informative and well researched but I needed an angle, something I could use to bring the topic alive. I was very lucky. Although there is very little published about York's medieval prisons there were a lot of them and most of the existing scholarship was Victorian, well over due for a fresh perspective. In the induction meeting Helen Weinstein reminded us about the importance of images to tempt the audience to be interested in your subject and to spend dwell time on your page. So I also started to think about the illustrations I could use, and I came across a map of the Minster's gaol that looked really interesting and contacted the York city archive about any images they might have.
In addition to writing the web pages, the interns were also invited by IPUP to a session at the Yorkshire Museum, organized by Helen Weinstein so that we could learn about the challenges of interpretation in a museum context. York Museums Trust had recently revamped its entire Roman collection, and it looks very open and colourful; the huge map on the floor and the use of videos was fantastic. Now they were thinking about redesigning their medieval gallery. After an introduction from Andrew Morrison, the curator, we were asked to analyse their exhibits, how they were displayed, and how the space was used. This was an area I had been interested in for sometime, too often museums are dark and dull, they fail to convey any enthusiasm and either have to much or insufficient information. With these prejudices swimming round my head I was pretty surprised when I saw the gallery.
Built on the foundations of St. Mary's Abbey, the museum had incorporated the masonry into the exhibition space; it was the most idiosyncratic museum I had ever seen. The artefacts on display were really interesting as well, there was so much potential. However, (to my relief) the gallery did conform to some of the problems I had seen at other museums so we had plenty to think about. Helen Weinstein suggested we split up into groups and analysed the exhibits and the wider context of the presentation of the objects and how the museum space would be experienced by the museum visitor. My particular bugbear was that the Museum had not decorated the walls of the abbey on display. It is so rare to see medieval ecclesiastic stonework displayed as it was intended, I thought the museum was missing a real trick in leaving them plain. It felt very satisfying to discuss these issues with my team and write down our feedback for the practitioners at the York Museums Trust to use.
The second part of the day was spent upstairs, because Helen Weinstein had organized for us to do our next team project in one of the museum's study spaces, and the 'history of york' website is built and maintained by the same museum outfit called The York Museums Trust. Helen reminded us of our goals in writing our webpages, and in our intern groups we discussed some of the issues we had encountered while working on the web pages. This was really useful; it was reassuring to hear that other interns were making the same kind of decisions as me. Talking about the uses of images was particularly beneficial. Working in small groups we were also able to get some specific feedback on our drafts. I enjoyed reading what others had written and was able to offer some advice. Looking at how my work read from another perspective allowed me to see which way I needed to take my work. It still erred too much on the academic side, it needed to be more lively.
With the web pages complete (after several redrafts), we now moved onto the second part of the internship programme. I really enjoyed creating the web page, particularly thinking about how language and the page layout can be used to engage with a different audience. Having the freedom to explore a subject in a non-academic way, more akin to journalism, was something I have certainly appreciated.
Back in the Yorkshire Museum, Helen Weinstein talked more about IPUP and the role of the institute in the city to provide useful and useable research, and a number of projects were described to us with different heritage partners across York. Again, my interest in history and the media made one project jump out. Creating a trail and podcast based around a tour of Jewish York seemed like the perfect task to be involved in; it appealed to my desire to work with new technologies as well as my interests in York's history and Jewish heritage, something I had studied as an undergraduate. I was introduced to the other interns in the team, some of whom I knew through studying as fellow postgraduates at King's Manor, and with Helen we discussed the outline and objectives of the project she had designed for our group of IPUP interns.
Our first step, after discussing the project further with Helen, was to divide it into stages. We thought about our end product; a leaflet with the podcast tour and a range of supporting materials, including maps and individual research articles. This allowed us to envisage building up to the podcast through researching and writing web pages and then linking these together to form the trail that we could then record. We set aside time for some initial research and then, as a group, decided on the key research topic. I was drawn to the twentieth century side of the project for several reasons. Firstly, it would act as a nice balance to my academic work which was focused on the medieval/early modern period. Secondly, I loved the idea of a challenge. Medieval Jewish York has already been researched quite extensively and a tour of the city based around this theme had been conducted in the past while on the other hand virtually nothing seemed to be in the public domain about York's Jewish heritage post-1290. This was something Helen felt very strongly about in her design of the project, and that visitors were very curious about what happened to the jewish community soon after the massacre in 1190, and then up in to more recent times, and I agreed that it was important to offer a tour that told the longer story of Jewish settlement in the city.
Discussing the interpretation of traumatic histories with David Thomas, an English Heritage Interpretation Officer, earlier in the year at another IPUP event had already introduced some of the problems related to telling sensitive stories (see IPUP seminar report). Researching my two topics; York and the Holocaust and the Cherem or curse on York, was definitely going to benefit from his advice. I was curious to see how far back I could trace the association between the Clifford's Tower massacre of 1190 and the Holocaust. This was an issue that Helen had flagged up as problematic, and needed to be better understood in the city. I started by going through the collection of newspapers in York City Library. This was absolutely fascinating. I scoured the archived newspaper from the 1940s onwards looking references to Clifford's Tower or the Holocaust. This required some patience but I couldn't believe how lucky I was with what I found. I was also able to find out about a related project conducted at the city archives and get in touch with those involved. The most promising seemed to be Victoria Hoyle's work on the York Refugee Committee.
Frequent group meeting allowed us to stay on schedule and discuss our findings. I thought I could leave the Cherem to later in the project, after all it would need to be build on a wider range of research that would be undertaken for other areas or our work. At this stage our intern group started to think about the leaflet that was going to accompany the trail, what did it need to include? What was the best way to display the information? We were all pretty certain the map should be the main component. It was also important to limit the amount of text. If people were going to listen to the trail as a podcast then a lot of additional written information would be too much, we needed a balance. This in turn raised the idea of disabled access. Helen alerted us to the importance of considering how our trail could be accessed by users who may have limited mobility, sight, or hearing. What if people could not hear the trail? We decided to ensure the trail script would also be available on the website and that the route was suitable for a variety of people. That way the finished product was to be as inclusive as possible.
Helen organized next for us to have a meeting with John Oxley, York's City Archaeologist. John had already researched and delivered a tour of the city based around its medieval Jewish history. It was great to meet him, he was full of advice and relevant subject knowledge. He also very kindly gave us access to his notes, a gold mine of information on the medieval part of our project. Helen was also able to show us the limited range of publications already available on the subject and the difficulty people in York would have in finding them, because many of them were no longer in print. There was clearly a need for a history of Jewish York that was more accessible. Based on this some form of representation in the city's tourist office called 'Visit York' was essential as this is on Museum Street and used by visitors and residents alike, and we needed to make the project available for as many people as possible.
This meeting helped add some substance to the bare bones of the plan we had devised as an intern group, steered by Helen, every so often. She guided us to firm up our ideas about which topic to centre our web pages around. John also enabled us to think about the logistics of leading a group of people around York, what was our podcast going to need in terms of directions? As we started to plan these aspects we continued with our research, now with a deadline for moving to the next stage.
At this point, Helen put us in touch with the Leeds Jewish community, and she went over to the Historical Society in Leeds to talk about the gap in knowledge and materials, and about how Jewish history was avoided in the city's tourist presentation. This was a very helpful relationship because we needed to get some community feedback, especially when we were dealing with a history as sensitive as the Holocaust.
Over the next few weeks be were able to put the finishing touches to our web pages. As we started to thread these together to create a trail route, we began to think about testing the tour in some form of trial day. Helen suggested we could do this as part of the University of York's Festival of Ideas and she organized an event for all of the IPUP interns. This was certainly the best thing for us to do but it did mean changing our priorities a bit. We had to have a workable tour ready for IPUP's 'University Sunday' organized in and around the Yorkshire Museum on the 26th June. This being the case, we thought seriously about the logistics of the trail and fixing our research material around specific locations in the city, and starting at Museum Street. The trial tour would also be the perfect time to get some feedback so Helen put out an invitation from IPUP to representatives of the Leeds Jewish community to come as well as local residents.
This would allow us to get some varied feedback on how we handled topics that were so important to local as well as Jewish history.
We also needed to finalise our leaflet design so we could test how (or if) people used it and what information it needed to include. The map in the centre looked brilliant and Daphne, our fellow IPUP intern, did a very professional job of the graphic design.
'University Sunday' turned out to be the hottest day of the year, it was boiling. While not perfect, it was far better than rain. We planned to run two tours; one at 11.30am, the other at 3pm. Despite (or because of) the heat, the Museum Gardens was getting quite busy by 10am. We decide to work our way around the gardens spreading the word about our tour and hopefully attracting some interested people. Representatives from the Leeds Jewish community then arrived and we were able to discuss the project and talk through any potential pitfalls we might face.
Given the heat and the time restrictions we needed to divide our resources. We split the team into two, half would go on the first tour and take a break after that while the second group would canvas some interest in the 3pm tour and take a break before it kicked off. I was in the second group and after giving an introduction to the trail and Jewish history for the first tour (pictured), I continued to tell as many people as possible about our tour and why they should come along. However, things did not go quite to plan and we ended up having to think on our feet a bit. Owing to the heat and some mobility issues the first tour took far longer than we had anticipated and had not covered all the intended stops. By the time they returned there was no time for a break. Helen helped guide us through our choices. We decided that we would start the tour as planned but that some of the other tour guides would join us later on and pick up the tour where they had stopped. It was vital that we tested the entire tour and got it down to a workable time frame. Anything longer than an hour was realistically going to be too long, especially in the future is people had only the podcast to follow.
Keeping an eye on the time we were able to trim the trail and get it under an hour. Trialling the tour had been invaluable; we had collected some essential feedback, decide what material to include, and tested the leaflet.
With dissertation deadlines becoming a reality we had to ensure that the time we spent working on the podcast was effective. Our next tasks were to record the podcast and produce final versions of the web pages. Again, this was best managed by breaking the jobs down. We decided to do things in reverse order. First we would finish the web pages and then somebody would weave them together to form a script. I volunteered. We also had to choose who would read the script. We wanted a voice that had a real authority to it and at the same time was a local sound. Helen talked us through the options and we all agreed that John Oxley was the obvious candidate. It also provided a safety net as he would be able to instantly recognise any errors on our part. I went back to John's original notes and looked at how he phrased his sentences. I tried to inject his voice into the script with the aim of making it sound more natural.
Our next group meeting was concerned entirely with the technological side of things. Helen has made numerous documentaries for radio and shared her experience with us. Most importantly, she showed us how to use audio recorders and microphones and suggested the best conditions for making a suitable recording. We did not want too much background noise and the room could not be too echo-inducing. Bearing this in mind, we booked an evening slot in one of the smaller seminar rooms in King's Manor.
The recording went perfectly. All we had to do now was edit the sound file and we would have a finished podcast. Helen posted up some guidelines on the IPUP website for all interns to learn how to transcribe and edit audio. This turned out to be quite straight forward but time consuming. The finished result was exactly what we had hoped for. This recording was then split into seven tracks based around a location plus the introduction. In between each track we inserted some direction which could be supplemented with the leaflet but worked well in isolation as well. We decided on a female voice to contrast with John Oxley's and make it clear where the directions finished and the historical material began.
It was during this period that IPUP was contacted by Helen Ridge of York City Council. She was co-ordinating York's Holocaust Memorial Day, planned for Friday 27th January 2012. She was aware of IPUP's work and had talked to Helen and it was just a matter of seeing if we were going to be ready because everyone was agreed that we might be able to participate. For IPUP this would be a great way to launch the trail leaflet and at the same time making it widely available through all the HMD press that would be released. It also gave us IPUP interns a deadline to work towards, something that was really useful in keeping the team on task in the run up to dissertation submission and the period afterwards.
This was crunch time for the trail project. We needed to bring everything together in time for our launch in January. Many members of the group had left York by this point because they had finished their MAs and so we were working with reduced resources but there was still a lot to be done. Helen talked to me in detail and we decided to launch the trail by staging a live tour on the 27th January, much like our trial in the summer. I have agreed to lead the tour; at least I knew it would not be as hot as last time.
The web pages were assembled in the correct order with the podcast and sent through to IPUP and Helen's team at Historyworks. Helen has many years of experience as a producer and could carefully direct the specialist web technicians and audio engineers so they could polish the audio and upload it. To maximise the accessibility of the podcast historyworks uploaded it to Audioboo and youtube. The podcast was polished up by Jon, a Radio 4 producer at Historyworks while Ross's graphics for the video look great and the map works really well. Helen had all of these assembled on the IPUP website and we all tested out the new products for the trail. Helen also organized for the partners in York to be ready to link to our materials up on the IPUP website and we were also able to send our trail and accompanying webpages through to Michael Woodward at the York Museums Trust. It is great to see our webpages online at http://historyofyork.org.uk/, it must be the sleekest history website I have ever seen. It was strange to think that our project was now in the hands of experts, ready to be launched. It now has a really professional sheen. Helen later plans to launch it as an app. There will be plenty of work for a few more interns yet.
By now we were beginning to get some interest in the trail. York's MP, Hugh Bayley, has asked to join the trail launch on Friday. He says there is a lot of interest in York's Jewish history, because he is often asked questions and does not know enough to be able to answer, so he wants to come on the entire 90 minute trail for the launch of our leaflet. Several City Councillors have booked places too. I would never have imagined there would be so much interest when I was sitting in that crowded room at the beginning of the year. I have even had to think about what to say in the press release, because Helen drafted one, showing me how everyone involves provides a quote, and I needed to give one in too, about the IPUP internship experience. Summing up my experiences in just a few words was a real challenge. That has not been such a problem here. All that is left to do now is put the finishing touches to the leaflet and IPUP will give it a final edit and send it to the printers.
It is January 2012 now, a full twelve months since I started the IPUP internship. If I had seen the finished project this time last year I would not have believed it had been put together by students, albeit under the guidance of Helen Weinstein at IPUP and media support from Historyworks, with some handy helps from John Oxley, the City Archaeologist. Over the past year I learnt a real range of skills. I have developed my team work through negotiating all those group decisions and combining the work of several people. I have certainly improved my media technology abilities, a few years ago I would never have pictured myself editing audio files or designing web pages. I am trying to resist calling my experience 'a journey' but it has definitely been something I will never forget. One of the things I enjoyed the most was balancing a sensitive yet honest approach to what is a very traumatic history. This was most obvious in researching the Cherem page; it was a real case of people's beliefs versus hard evidence. I also really loved the freedoms writing for a non-academic audience brought with it, I even included a poem (not my own) within one article, something I have never done before. Reflecting on this IPUP internship a year on, the most valuable aspect is that I have been able to work with history well beyond the academic confines studying for an MA usually entails and learnt some skills and techniques that you will not find on any history syllabus. Now all I have to do is make sure I can remember the trail path on Friday when I join Helen and John and other IPUP interns to launch our leaflet by guiding the public to use the trail.
If you want to take the trail as a self-directed walk, please find the audio and the illustrated leaflet here on youtube:
And if you want to download the podcast: