Posted on 10 October 2012
At York, my degree in the conservation of historic buildings has caused me to consider more than ever the layers of history which settle on the objects and buildings around us. War is a particularly impressive layer of that history, and inspired me to pin the subject of my dissertation on the impact of war on our cultural heritage.
For these reasons, I felt that I had a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge to contribute, and I was eager to work on how we might best display York’s experience of war for the public, so that they might have access to knowledge about the local history of York within the wider context of a World War.
At the beginning of the month we had our first meeting together. Grouping outside the Yorkshire Museum, I was reassured that I already knew a few of the other interns from the Archaeology Department. I knew that this would come in useful when collaborating with information and ideas!
Once we had all introduced ourselves and had the obligatory ‘Before’ photo taken, we made a good start discussing our particular interests and areas of study, and how these might be put to good use for the topic of First World War York. By the time we all left, we had a clear idea of what the project was trying to achieve and how we could achieve it.
For me, the next few months of research and work would be centred on recruitment within York. Although men are listed as having been recruited ‘at York’, it was not known exactly where the recruiting office was set up. I therefore set out to establish this, and also to tell the story of how some employers encouraged their workers to join up.
Upon first setting out to research my topic I found it difficult to avoid going round and round internet catalogues for archives to see what the search engines can throw in my path about a history I was trying to discover, rather than regurgitate.
But it was not long before I kicked myself, and started to look in what now seems the most obvious place to start with local history research – the local newspapers! The copies on microfilm at the York City Library were brilliant, and where I finally got the ball rolling for my contribution. And success! In an August 1914 issue of the weekly Yorkshire Gazette, an advert for the men of York to join Lord Kitchener’s Army.
This was a great finding, because not only did it discover a nugget of York history previously forgotten, but it gave me a physical building on which to anchor my section of the walking tour itself.
I also found a group photograph of the recruitment staff, which I hope to use on the website page as some good visual content. I was intrigued by the writing behind the people, which seemed to be a plaque or sign of some sort, reading ‘City of York School of Art…’. The School of Art was based in the right-hand wing of the Gallery building, and this photo gave me a good idea of how the building space was divided into different purposes.
Also in the papers were whole pages of Gas, Rowntree, Water workers who had signed up. York ‘Rolls of Honour’ were printed, listing every York citizen who had joined the services. These men were given entire pages to honour them and influence others to join. It was all fascinating and useful material which contributed to my subject area.
With these findings I met up with the rest of the group for a progress meeting. It was a good opportunity to reassure ourselves of where we were up to, give hints and tips to each other of things we had spotted that might help, and generally regroup, set dates for making progress, and reaffirm our intentions.
Whilst at the meeting, Seb Owen proposed that if any of us were interested we should put forward a paper for an upcoming conference on ‘Everyday Cities and Ordinary Lives/Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Cities’. This sort of tangent is exactly the reason IPUP is such a valuable organisation. It gives students valuable active experience in the heritage sector at the same time as throwing up other opportunities to participate in the field and build CVs.
By now I had pulled together most of the content I needed to make up the content of my webpage and the tour script, and so I began writing. At the last meeting, deadlines had been set for the completion of our material for the website, and our scripts for the walking tour. Sticking to the word count and writing in a style and tone appropriate for a non-academic audience was a challenge, but the advice from Helen Weinstein to write ‘for a smart and curious twelve-year-old’, was a useful maxim to keep in mind.
The website and leaflet for our trail were being created through the York Museum’s Trust. Everyone’s web content was more or less ready to go, so we passed it all on to the York Museums Trust and put online. As for the leaflet, the last one produced for the Etty Walk ran out at 10,000 copies, so we aimed to print at least this many to be distributed around the city of York for tourists and locals to conduct the trail independently.
With the trail map we hit a logistical problem. In a ninety minute tour, it was a challenge to get round thirteen people’s tour stops in time, and this led to some people sharing sites. I began working with Seb and Marie to co-ordinate our tour scripts for the art gallery. I was concerned with its role as recruitment office, Seb with the wartime post office installed there, and Marie with the painting of soldiers at the station, which she used as inspiration for her project work on the wartime railway.
We used google maps to make a start on plotting our anchors and deciding an efficient route, starting in the Yorkshire Museum Gardens and ending at the Minster.
At the beginning of the month the group ran two pilots to practice the route of the tour. The second tour had a much more streamlined and logical route, so it was good that we had two opportunities to practice so that we could try out this improvement. As a smallish group of ten or so we managed to get round in ninety minutes or thereabouts, which is encouraging for the public pilot at the end of the month.
It became clear on these pilot tours that we had all fallen into the trap of writing in an academic style and if it were an essay, rather than imagining the dialogue of the tour and writing it down.
So, as well as taking away from the pilots a good idea of how the tour will work logistically, we also needed to put some more work in on the content to make each of our sections sound relaxed and informal, appropriate for the tourist.
The recording of the podcast and creation of the website was largely handled by the York Museums Trust. At the end of the month the team held the launch tour for the public, which was really satisfying and rewarding.
Despite the heavens opening half way through the tour, the group stuck with us and shared their stories as we made our way around the city.
It was thoroughly rewarding to see our hard work pay off in the response of the audience to the tour stops. People got the jokes, chuckled at anecdotes, paused for reflection on the sad parts. They commented with interest on the conscientious objectors and the zeppelin raids, and were generous in their own contributions of knowledge and family history. What’s more, they bore a thoroughly British sense of humour about the weather!
When the tour had ended, several of the participants stayed behind to talk to us about the project, which was an unexpected and hugely gratifying. At the beginning of this project my motives were primarily to build my CV. But upon reflection this work has fuelled my passion for learning about the First World War and I have found it fulfilling to contribute to the knowledge and interest of others.