Posted on 5 September 2012
It was in a chance encounter with a fellow conservation student who had joined the Institute for Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP) a month before that she urged me to get involved too. And as I sat in the programme director’s dining room that gray day in March, I smiled brightly at my new teammates (all University of York students) as we engaged in ticking conversations about the possibilities to come from this project.
Our project was dubbed the First World War Trail and was set to launch as a guided walking tour through the city of York alongside the opening of a new display on the same topic at the York Castle Museum. We would produce a brochure for the route of the trail and an electronic app with an audio guide from our scripted research. Helen Weinstein, in whose dining room we sat, outlined the project for us. Following the success of the Jewish History Trail, we would create a similar route through the city to “link the local to the global” as a more accessible experience of the First World War. She emphasised that this internship was just as much about the product (the trail and related material) as it would be about our own experience of research and interpretation. To this statement, I smiled even more.
My reasons for getting involved with IPUP were summed up in Helen’s statement, in the sense that I wished not only to produce something truly useful for the Yorkshire Museums Trust (YMT) but to also invest my own energy into revealing stories of real value. So often in academia, we find ourselves reiterating the facts, or writing for such a narrow audience that only a few ever read our work. It is easy in these instances to feel that we have a very limited range of effectiveness. IPUP was the ideal opportunity to step outside that cycle of essay-writing, and create a more direct and relevant piece of historic research for a wider audience.
We discussed topics of interest, and I received the topic of “Victory” which involved both celebratory accounts and the realities of war recovery. We were on our way to the next step of collaborative research and writing!
After a few weeks of preliminary online research to record the basic facts and figures of Armistice and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, I turned my attention to the local aspect of the project. There was very little information to be gleaned from online indexes and electronic information that related to life in York or to life on the home front during the time of war. This was somewhat validating to the intent of the project, as this perspective of war was under-represented and called for greater attentions. However, it was frustrating to me as a researcher when I apparently lacked the resources. I was not alone in this feeling of research frustration. Through a social media forum set-up for our team, we all commiserated over the lack of York-based information available online, and shared the feeling that our view of the First World War was still rather static. So, we ventured into the archives. At the York City Archives, I sat with reels of microfilm making an awful racket flipping through the pages and pages of newspaper from the Yorkshire Evening Post marked ‘1917-1919’. Coming to the headline “Germany Surrenders: Fighting Ended on All Fronts” gave me a little start. How exciting! Here was the newspaper that announced to the citizens of York that the war had ended. Suddenly, this idea of war became more accessible as I read of the reactions of those in York who took to the streets to sing and dance in celebration.
With a productive day at the archives, finding other artefacts such as a programme of events for recognition of Armistice, I attended our induction meeting at the York Castle Museum. It was only our second meeting as a group, although we had been in contact outside these scheduled discussions. We all brought exciting findings and information we had discovered which related to each other’s particular subjects. We also put questions to John Hoyland, the York Museums Trust Community Officer about any possible pieces to be found in the museum collections which related to our topics. Although he didn’t believe there was anything directly related to “Victory”, others found it quite helpful and there were links created between the exhibit and our trail. Work was progressing well!
As dissertation season was in full swing for our Master’s courses, we all were feeling stressed with our attentions being drawn in different directions and our work with IPUP not going as well as hoped. At a meeting on campus in Heslington, a few of us came to air our concerns that the scripts we were preparing were not going to read very well to an audience.
Our project manager, Catherine Oakley, kindly outlined what was expected at this point and provided some guidance on how to make our scripts flow better. We discussed ways in which the public would react to our scripts; whether they would be disinterested in too many facts, or if they would simply stop the tour after a certain time. These were all key elements of the presentation of our research, and how the public would engage with the subjects. The difficulty, I believe, was with the amount of information to include. This was a process of conveying complicated stories in only a few hundred sentences. We also needed to use language and ideas which were easily interpreted by audiences of varying ages and who had different familiarities with the events of the First World War. IPUP constructed this internship to present such challenges, which we were attempting to negotiate during this meeting. Our new goal was to create an engaging, informative, accessible, and not lengthy script to be tested on a public walk in June. We had quite the task ahead of us.
The public pilot walk was enlightening, in that we had honest reactions from a public who had not previously been involved with our research. Addressing a crowd of nearly 40 people, our scaled-down team of six IPUP interns ably lead the tour around all 10 locations and delivered the scripts with as much theatrics and voice projection as we could. It was wonderful to talk with people on the tour between stops and hear of their stories of war, passed as a legacy from grandparents or other relatives. This was truly exciting, to be fulfilling an objective of the IPUP programme; making the distance shorter between the years, as we connected the past with the present.
Following our vague adherence to the schedule, we finished after approximately 100 minutes with all of our audience staying with us to the last stop! We headed off for a celebratory drink, where we also discussed the next steps. In the next month we would need to do further editing and cutting down of the scripts for the launch of the trail, and create shorter more succinct versions for the brochure. This would prove difficult, as we already felt we had stripped down the stories too much, while remaining inspiring...
The final edits had been made, and we were set for both audio and visual production. Two days were designated for recording the scripts for the audio portion of the app we were developing. City Archaeologist John Oxley narrated the scripts, with the audio equipment operated by Jon Calver. I sat in the recording studio with the two reviewing the scripts carefully and edited according to how the scripts would sound. We went over syntax and attempted to add clarity to statements. This recording session was yet another step in research refinement, and every decision had an effect on how well the intended audience would understand the information.
There existed some kind of strange burden with this day’s task, that what we produced then and there would be going directly to the audience and could change their perception of some of the events of the First World War. It was a responsibility to teach, and we needed to get the facts straight, clear, and keep them interesting. There was also an aspect of responsibility to these people we had researched, and whose eyewitness accounts we now shared.
From the first meeting to the launch of the app and brochure, the entire IPUP internship seems to have gone by so quickly. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, and have truly come to value how much time and effort goes into the production of educational history tools. IPUP not only gave me the opportunity to step outside the world of pure academia, but also helped me to reveal hidden histories which are so essential to understanding the past and are so fulfilling to researchers.