Mass Observation Archive Workshop

On Monday March 21st four BHT Heritage clients visited The Keep for a workshop about the Mass Observation Archive.

Mass Observation ArchiveThe session, which was delivered by the Mass Observation Archive’s Education and Outreach Officer, began by touching upon how the project came about. In 1937 Tom Harrison, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge embarked on a study of everyday life in Britain. There were essentially two aspects to the project; observations made by a team of paid investigators who immersed themselves into communities, and contributions from a panel of volunteer writers who would reply to questionnaires issued on a variety of topical matters.

Mass Observation ArchiveThe paid investigators would visit cinemas, pubs, dancehalls, restaurants and air raid shelters to record observations and overheard conversations. Records dating back to 1937 contain descriptions of what people were wearing in dancehalls and how couples were holding one-another when dancing, and how long it took for the average person to drink a pint of beer.

During the workshop the group delved through responses to surveys that were undertaken to capture feelings and opinions about social issues in Britain. In response to a directive on Squatting, one contributor wrote on 9th September 1946,

Well I think everyone has a right to a home, and if some people have two, and others none, I say there must be something wrong.”

Another contributor responded,

If the government can’t look after the people, the people must look after themselves!

Document StoreAs well as topic collections such as ‘Housing 1938–48’ and ‘Beveridge Social Surveys 1942 & 1947’, which are particularly relevant to the group’s research into the history of homelessness, there are also collections on more obscure topics, including ‘Dreams 1937–48’, ‘Smoking Habits 1937-65’ and ‘Wall Chalkings 1939-43’!

Towards the end of the workshop the clients were invited to go behind-the-scenes and visit the Document Store, a temperature-controlled warehouse where a vast 10 miles of archives are held. The Education and Outreach Officer also spoke about the Quarantine Room, which is where new archives are held prior to being moved to the Document Store, to prevent mould and insects damaging hugely valuable historic sources.

To find out more, please visit the Mass Observation Archive website.


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