Mass Observation: Objects in Everyday Life

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How can historians investigate what people wore in everyday life and what it meant to them? Hannah Smith (MA History of Design and Material Culture) explores some of the many micro-histories contained in the Mass Observation archive…

For my MA dissertation I have researched practices of dress in everyday life as presented within the Mass Observation Project Spring 1992 and Spring 2006 ‘One Day Diary’ directive responses. Housed within the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep near the South Downs in Sussex, it is made up of handwritten letters, typed emails, photographs and drawings, produced at the hands of the hundreds that make up the panel of writers known as ‘Mass Observers’. This material is divided into the Mass Observation Archive (1937 – early 1950s) and the Mass Observation Project (1981 – present). It is the latter Mass Observation Project (MOP) that I have been using in my research.

The MOP defines itself as a ‘national life writing project’. Former director of the project, Dorothy Sheridan described it as, “…ordinary people observing and reflecting on everyday life…” (Sheridan, 2000:10). The intent of both the Mass Observation Archive and Project was to give voice to the ‘ordinary’ everyday person, giving them “the authority over knowledge” (Sheridan, 2000:10). Mass Observers are sent up to three sets of ‘directives’ a year with the invitation to write about a wide range of themes and events. Examples have included “Gardening”, “The Refugee Crisis” and “Your Home”.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 1. Responses to the Spring 2005 ‘Charles and Camilla’ Directive. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

My interest in the MOP came about during my first year on the MA History of Design and Material Culture at the University of Brighton. We were encouraged to use the MOP as a primary resource for a group project entitled ‘Interior Lifestyles’. Using the directives ‘Objects about the House’ and ‘Collecting Things’ we explored the relationships between the Mass Observers and the objects they decorated their homes with. Aside from the aforementioned project, the ‘New Years Eve’ and ‘One Day Diary’ directives that I had had the opportunity to look through particularly inspired me. As a researcher of dress and fashion in everyday life, here was access to narratives of real experiences of living, breathing people interacting with dress and fashion, rather than a constructed representation or media ideal. I therefore initially assessed these diary-format directives and developed my own methodology for using the MOP within a material culture study, ultimately leading to my dissertation research in practices of dress.

As well as being able to track the Mass Observer’s use of dress as they weave amongst different contexts throughout the narrative of their day, it has given me rare insight into the ‘wardrobe’ moment – the moment when which the bricolage of the visual self we see in more public spaces is created. Through using Mass Observation, I have been allowed the opportunity to explore not only how people use dress in more public spaces, but also in move private spaces – whether that be their dressing gowns, pyjamas or nothing!

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Figure 2. Examples of additional personal papers (including diaries and letters) donated to the project. Image courtesy of Mass Observation.

Initially, I was overwhelmed due to the vast amount of material and its seemingly limitless capability for endless threads and tangents of research. By reading as much as possible about how other researchers had used the material, I was able to see that every Mass Observation researcher has shared the same struggles and frustrations. Through learning from their problem solving, I was able to tailor their theories to my research interest and develop my own methodology for using the material as well as providing a structure for sampling.

With its interdisciplinary appeal the material transcends boundaries, making it an exciting resource that can always be further explored. Whilst students, academics, media researchers and the public have taken advantage of the unique collection – it is ultimately a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in everyday life. For a researcher of design history and material culture, it provides a rare platform to witness the reality of objects interacting in everyday life. Since I’ve been working with the material, the Mass Observation staff, and the staff at The Keep, have been incredibly helpful and approachable. There is an openness towards anyone that is interested in engaging with the material.

As much as it may seem intimidating during an initial encounter, this should never prevent anyone that is interested from engaging with the material. Now more than ever Mass Observation provides an important platform for recording the reality of lived experience, giving voice to the micro-histories that grand-narratives have tendency to silence. It is inspiring to know as an individual in society, as well as a researcher, that there is a space for your voice to be heard and a space that seriously considers what you have to say. Working with a collection such as this is incredibly important if we are to understand the reality of how we negotiate lived experience and exist as a society and as individuals.

 

From kitsch to Frankfurt Kitchen: Berlin’s Museum der Dinge

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Student Wendy Fraser (BA (hons) History of Art and Design) opened the cupboards in a real-life Frankfurt Kitchen whilst learning how ‘good design’ was promoted in Germany

In November, second year students on the History of Art and Design trip to Berlin visited the Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things) in the creative Kreuzberg district. The museum houses a collection of 40,000 German objects manufactured in the 20th and 21st centuries in addition to 35,000 documents in the archive of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen). The Werkbund, an association of designers, architects, industrialists, publishers and teachers founded in Munich in 1907, shared similar concerns to William Morris’ earlier Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. However, although they advocated aesthetic education, sensitivity to materials, quality and durability, their interests diverged from Morris’s ideals in their promotion of modern design and excellence in mass production, aiming to create a cultural utopia.

Figure 1: The museum's main dispaly area with contrasting exhibits displayed in glass-frontedcabinets. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge. Figure 1: The museum’s main display area with contrasting exhibits displayed in cabinets. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

The Museum der Dinge is located at 25 Oranienstraße and its compact space on the third floor of the building houses a shop, the main display area with glass-fronted shelved cabinets and a separate room with an example of the modernist Frankfurt Kitchen. The cabinets contain an astounding array of exhibits including crockery, kettles, toys, lamps, clocks, shoes, typewriters, tools, telephones, technology, glassware, furniture, and tins. The objects displayed exemplify the concerns of the Werkbund to preserve the quality of manufactured goods during the industrialisation of Germany and their aim to create a cultural utopia via excellence in German factory production. Handcrafted objects are shown with those that are mass produced by machine, named designers alongside anonymous makers, professionally made next to inexpertly produced items, articles made in West Germany compared with those made in the DDR (East Germany) and genuine products displayed alongside counterfeits.

Figure 2: Selection of items made in the DDR. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Figure 2: Selection of items made in the DDR. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

The Werkbund also aimed to educate in matters of taste. The Department of Aesthetic Aberrations was created at the Stuttgart State Crafts Museum in 1909: 900 ‘bad taste’ articles chosen to demonstrate to the public what not to buy. Conversely, the publication of the ‘Deutches Warenbuch’ from 1915-1927 showed 1600 approved everyday objects as a guide for retail buyers and a pattern book for designers. While all of this may sound a little dry, the museum’s display concept invites the visitor to compare the contrasting qualities of the exhibits. The Werkbund viewpoint of appropriate design is juxtaposed with objects of opposing values. Accordingly, examples of ‘good design’ are shown with the kitsch holiday souvenirs they abhorred, licensed character merchandise and some chilling Third Reich goods such as SS figurines and Swastika mugs.

My favourite exhibit was the room containing the Frankfurt Kitchen: visitors can walk into the room, open the cupboards, pull out the aluminium storage containers and chopping board and really feel what it would be like to use the space. As it was the topic of my forthcoming seminar presentation, it was really valuable to experience the kitchen I had previously been studying only in books.

Figure 3: View of the Frankfurt Kitchen from the doorway. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Photograph courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Figure 3: View of the Frankfurt Kitchen from the doorway. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Photograph courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Ultimately, the Museum der Dinge is an account of the Werkbund’s achievements as an association and with the exception of the Frankfurt Kitchen installation, what is missing for me is the human element. Although a large number of the exhibits are everyday possessions rather than the elite items that we are most used to seeing in museums, it is not the stories of the makers and the owners that are being prized in this museum. That is not to say that there are not fascinating things to see – despite the rather academic narrative, the museum is full of wondrous objects and is worth a visit. It is a trip through the mind boggling factory output of the 20th century and the ‘bad taste’ items are as pleasurable to view as the ‘good design’ products are inspiring and informative.

Volunteering in a Living Museum’s Costume Department

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Sarah-Mary Geissler, currently studying BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History, shares her experiences behind the scenes at Beamish: The Living Museum of the North.

Before embarking upon the Fashion and Dress History course at Brighton I wanted to seek out relevant experience in the field. I came to Brighton as a direct-entry second year student and had previously completed a year of a Fashion Design degree but was concerned it may be difficult to transition from making clothes to analysing them, so for 8 months I volunteered once a week at the Living Museum of the North; Beamish.

Beamish costume clothing label

Beamish costume clothing label. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

I had visited Beamish often before, the open air museum is a school-trip staple of every north-eastern child. Visiting as an adult I still felt totally absorbed by the experience: the exhibits aren’t restricted behind glass panels in temperature controlled rooms, rather everything is laid out awaiting interaction. The grounds are divided into 7 distinct period areas, the earliest an 1820s farmer’s house and most recent the 1940s wartime home farm, all linked by restored trams and buses. I was elated when my volunteer application was accepted!

Public transport depot, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Based upon my sewing experience, they started me off working in the Costume Department. An onsite sewing room is an absolute necessity in such huge attraction; Beamish has around 400 costumed staff and volunteers, most of whom work between different areas and so require 3-4 period costumes each. On top of this there were always different projects popping up, from making oilcloth table covers and floral curtains to Boy Scout neckerchiefs or nurse’s aprons; we were certainly never short of work.

Finishing details in the sewing room, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Finishing details in the sewing room, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Inside the sewing room were photocopied images pinned to every wall, a large bookcase stood in one corner filled with texts on costume and period fashion and another corner housed large filing cabinets of dress patterns, a mix of store-bought contemporary clothing patterns and specialty costume patterns sourced online, all to keep a strong sense of each era’s shapes and silhouettes. Reproducing the periods accurately is a key priority of the museum as the visitors range from young children using Beamish as an educational resource to history buffs who are all too eager to point out historical inaccuracies.

Clothing collection within Beamish archives. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Clothing collection within Beamish archives. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

When the curatorial team gave me the opportunity to explore the clothing archives I was thrilled! There is an expansive collection of period clothing hidden in the archives, mostly accredited to a previous curator with a personal interest in textiles. Due to the fragility of the garments and the nature of the museum, there is no way to wear these garments or display them effectively, which is a shame as there are some remarkable pieces. For a living museum it is important to collect pieces reflecting various walks of life, so within the archives was a 1980s coal miner donkey-jacket as well a fascinating 1940s wedding dress with matching gas mask. Also stored were many pieces of 19th century servants’ uniforms and other examples of workwear, garments that rarely survive past their original usage.

Complete 19th Century housemaid uniform, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Complete 19th Century housemaid uniform, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

The earliest items of clothing are late 18th century while the earliest shoes dated back to around the 17th. A large number of gowns from Victorian society women were kept, worn fairly little and preserved very well. Certain pieces came with a full biography of the previous owner whereas others remained a mystery. Interestingly, it was possible to discern when gowns had been altered or re-made according to trends, we actually found two dresses which had been cut from one original gown. There were various wedding dresses and mourning clothes dating throughout the Victorian era up to WWII Utility wear. The collection becomes sparse from 1950s items onwards, mainly because these more recent items now have value in the vintage clothing market and are no longer donated freely; however, there was a delightful 1960s Biba minidress hiding behind the gowns.

Example of two dresses cut from one, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Example of two dresses cut from one, Beamish. Personal photograph by the author. 26 Aug. 2014

Beamish has a sentimental value to many and often people will bequeath their possessions to the museum, leaving them to someday represent their era to future generations. Currently the museum is preparing a 1950s Pit Village area, so towards the end of my time at the museum there was an influx of 1950s items and furniture. It falls to the curatorial team to decide what is kept for future use within the museum and what is archived, one difficult decision I witnessed revolved around 3 packs of genuine 1990s Safeway brand toilet rolls.

A sunny morning at Beamish Museum

A sunny morning at Beamish Museum. Personal photograph by the author. 5 Aug. 2014

Volunteering at the Beamish museum was an enlightening look behind the scenes at how a museum operates, not only did it strengthen my dressmaking skills but I had the opportunity to learn about period clothing, how garments were made and how people would have valued their clothes. The experience has led me to rethink what I thought defines an era, the importance of living memory in the understanding of history, and to consider what we would choose now to represent the present to future generations.

Working as an Oral Historian at Eastside Community Heritage

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Paul Beard, a graduate of Brighton’s BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society, describes how the degree sparked an interest in capturing other people’s stories – and led to an exciting opportunity…

Oral history is not necessarily an instrument for change; it depends upon the spirit in which it is used […] it can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words. – Paul Thompson, Voices of the Past, 1978

Recently I have taken a position as an Oral Historian and Heritage Trainee at Eastside Community Heritage. As a part of a Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) project called Skills for the Future, Eastside Community Heritage and other partner organisations are working together to develop historical and heritage skills. Focusing on East London histories from 1900, the position is geared towards training a new generation of oral historians.

Eastside Community Heritage, based in Ilford, is a community history charity funded by HLF. Run by director Judith Garfield, Eastside work collaboratively alongside a number of local community groups, charities and historical societies to document and exhibit the experience of everyday life in East London. Some of the current projects being developed include: Little German, Stratford and East London (focusing on the lives of German immigrants in and around Newham during the First World War) and Jewish Migration Routes: From East End to Essex tracing the stories of Jewish families who have moved from county to county.

'Peace Tea Party' Barking and Dagenham, 1918,

‘Peace Tea Party’ Barking and Dagenham, 1918, image courtesy of LBBD Archives, Valence House

As a part of my role, I am working on a number of different projects. One is an exhibition on display from 11th August 2014 at Barking Learning Centre, entitled The Great War in Pictures and Words. The exhibition curated, researched and developed by myself and a colleague explores the stories and day-to-day experience of soldiers and families through oral history and images found in the archive from an on going project. The exhibition is a part of the centenary commemorations of the First World War and uncovers the stories of those that would otherwise be lost.

Another project that I am contributing to is Woodberry Down: The People’s Story aimed at engaging the community in one of the largest housing estate in Europe with their own heritage. Woodberry Down is located in Manor House in Stoke Newington, Hackney and is currently under redevelopment by Genesis Housing Association. Woodberry Down: The People’s Story aims to document and record the experiences of living in Woodberry Down in light of the redevelopments that are happening. By using reminiscence sessions, oral history interviews and vox-pops, Eastside are working alongside the old and new communities to facilitate cohesion in the community.

Woodberry Down is an interesting case study for a number of reasons. As one of the pioneering new council estates to be built in post-war Britain, various buildings received awards at 1951 Festival of Britain for architecture. Fast-forward forty years, the same estate that represented utopian ideologies, it was then used in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as the setting for the Jewish ghettos. These contentious issues of race, religion and class still remain contentious issues and are causing tension in the local area. With plans of redevelopment, Genesis and other organisations view it as crucial to ensure that the potential two-tier community in Woodberry Down are brought together to re-establish the old community atmosphere.

The importance of documenting oral history and life stories is become more and more prominent in cultural history. In areas such as Newham, Redbridge and Hackney it is becoming a key tool in re-engaging communities with their heritage. By putting on a range of different events, Eastside Community Heritage bring history back to the people and allow those who do not necessarily have the option to participate in heritage to have the opportunity to do so.

Studying at Brighton on the BA History of Design course gave me a solid understanding of life in the cultural heritage sector. Oral history was a method that I was eager to explore at undergraduate level. The degree gave me a good grounding in oral history as a method. Being introduced to it in the second year module entitled Constructing Historical Research, it was something I wanted to explore in my research; after completing my first interview for my dissertation research I was hooked. Curating has also formed a key part in this position; as skill that I only briefly explored in my studies. From a first year Interpreting Objects module to the final year exhibition (and a couple of small projects I had volunteered on) I had little experience curating an exhibition. This role has allowed me to build upon the skills that I had developed on the course.

There is something special about listening documenting the stories of those who are not ordinarily heard in history. After gaining a strong background in memory as a method, it was something I was eager to take on further in my career.

For more information on Eastside Community Heritage please visit the website: www.hidden-histories.org.uk.

Why Grandma and Grandpa wore what they wore: Fashioning Everyday Lives In London and New York

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Fashion history is about much more than elite garments. Amy Hodgson has been intrigued by the everyday fashion choices of ordinary people in the final year of her 
BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History studies.

The option module ‘Fashioning everyday lives in London and New York’ has been essential to my understanding of fashion and dress history: observing and questioning the ordinary over the extraordinary, theorizing the overlooked and mundane, asking how fashion and modernity is seen in the ordinary and average areas of society, and how modernity, post-modernism, geography, capitalism, or globalization could affect everyday fashion choices. It has been taught by Professor Cheryl Buckley and is based on new research that she is carrying out. Professor Buckley has just joined the University of Brighton, and it is great that BA students are taught by staff who are leading research in the subject.

This option has helped broaden my understanding of how we look at the average person and their choice of dress. I have learned that fashion isn’t just about the most modern or groundbreaking clothing, but can be seen on the streets on ordinary people going about their daily lives. Questioning the everyday highlights differences. As Ben Highmore observes in his introduction to The Everyday Life Reader, ‘in its negotiation of difference and commonality it might, potentially, find new commonalities and breathe new life into old differences’. Negotiating the different and common, or modern and traditional is witnessed repeatedly when observing everyday fashion; how people may choose to consume the latest fashion on their own, possibly more traditional, terms may uncover issues of gender, race, ethnicity or generational differences.

This option touches on a broad range of subjects, from mass-consumption and ‘fast-fashion’, to geography, feminism and museum studies. All serve the purpose of highlighting how fashion changes and is used on a day-to-day basis. Understanding how fashion is consumed in everyday terms offers insight into society and how, for example, mass-consumption may allow a broader range of people to consume and partake in fashion on their own terms. Geography and fashion cities also play a large part in this option: how fashion operates within a city, and how this in turn affects the peripheral towns has been a key element in uncovering how fashion, and the modern, is witnessed in areas that may be deemed unfashionable or less modern.

Grandma and Grandpa photographic collage

‘Grandma and Grandpa collage’, 1940s, accessed 29/05/14, JPEG, Authors Personal Photograph.

My favourite aspect of this module is studying images: images of ordinary people on their way to work, shopping, partaking in the mundane, everyday chores that may be overlooked by many. Students on the course enjoyed this aspect of the module, choosing to study their own family photos, such as the ones above. Personal photographs of grandmas and grandpas, for example, brought to light various issues of class, modernity or geography, that were then discussed in presentations and class debates. This un-picking of images highlighted how society consumes and chooses to engage in fashion, challenging the understanding of fashion as structured. Studying a variety of images highlighted how a mix of old and new silhouettes are constantly seen through all decades, proving that fashion is a constant recirculation, and that there are no clear boundaries.

This option has opened my eyes to the everyday. I no longer walk down the street and take my surroundings for granted. I am aware of shopping and my sartorial choices. I now question the ordinary practice of getting dressed in the morning, and how like many, I chose to represent myself to the outside world. Studying Sophie Woodward and her book, Why Women Wear What They Wear, has highlighted this aspect of everyday choices, as Woodward concentrates on theorizing these simple acts and the ‘imagined projections of how others might see them’.

This option has helped me apply various theories to the everyday, and the everyday fashions that everyone engages in, and how subjects such as, modernity, post-modernism, geography, capitalism, or globalization affect people’s ordinary choices and are witnessed in their day-to-day projected self.

Touching, smelling, seeing, tasting and hearing history

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MA student Ellen Martin (History of Design and Material Culture) spent a day at ‘Home Atmospheres: Sensing and Feeling at Home’,  the 6th Annual conference of the Histories of the Home at the Geffrye Museum in London.

Last month I indulged in a bit of extra-curricular activity by attending the 6th annual conference of the Histories of Home Subject Specialist Network. The group describes itself as “an interdisciplinary network bringing together academics, archivists, museum professionals and postgraduate students to promote the study of the home,” and was founded by the lovely Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton. As an MA student in the History of Design currently researching interwar home interiors, the event naturally appealed to me – and an excuse to spend a spring day at the Geffrye was more than welcomed.

This year the focus of the conference was the senses and the home (devised in collaboration with the Nottingham Sensory Studies Network at the University of Nottingham). By merging these two areas of study, a space was created for researchers from a range of fields to come forward and present their work on home histories in a new and interdisciplinary way. Specific as it may sound, you got the impression that this is in fact a field rich with research possibilities, and the ten speakers proved just that. From anthropologists to historians, cultural geographers to curators, unique ideas were presented from many disciplines, each exploring some notion of sound, touch, sight, taste or smell within the home. Nestled between the Geffrye Museum’s leafy gardens and 20th century room exhibits, the museum’s conference room was a perfect place to house such an event.

The day was introduced by keynote speaker Ben Highmore, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. Author of Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday, he set the tone for the day with a wonderful talk celebrating the diverse and the domestic. Particularly interesting was his bizarre fascination with… radiators. More specifically, the effects of central heating on 20th century home life (for example, the way we would once gather around a glowing fireplace, now replaced by a glowing TV screen).

Other talks ranged from the advertising techniques of 1950s air fresheners, to home-making in the 19th century American West. Many drew on unusual archive collections; one progressive historian even used TripAdvisor.com to gather museum visitor feedback! Particularly insightful (and applicable to some of our studies on the MA) were talks from Barbara Wood, curator for the National Trust, and Rhiannon Goddard, exhibition manager for Historic Royal Palaces in London. Both raised issues around the challenge of creating ‘authenticity’ in historic houses today. In these times of financial difficulty for such arts and heritage institutions, it is the curator’s job to maintain visitor numbers by creating enticing exhibitions. This is often done, Rhiannon said, by engaging the senses through use of interactive media, theatrical reconstructions and even conjuring up nostalgic smells. The full conference programme  and podcasts of the presentations are here.

Geffrye Museum almshouse room, 1780s

1780s room within restored Almshouse at the Geffrye Museum. Photo by Eleanor Black, courtesy of the Geffrye Museum. 28 March 2014.

The day ended with a drinks reception and a curator-led candlelit tour around the Geffrye’s restored almshouse. A fascinating day, which offered a glimpse into sensory elements of home life rarely touched upon in academic contexts. I would encourage anyone interested in home studies to join the Histories of Home mailing list.