Prohist2: reflections on memory, material culture and the public history of protest

'Protest, Memory and Public History', an Economic history society funded workshop, took place at UWE on 11 February 2012. It formed the second part of my 'new approaches to the history of protest' series.

James Baker's report on his blog tells you all you need to know about the papers and discussion. I will add my thoughts on the day, but focused more on the theoretical implications.

The theme that emerged from the morning's session was locality, region, place, and memory. Echoes of Pierre Nora's lieux de memoire and Maurice Halbwach's 'every society must have its landmarks' ran through the papers. Yet those places, in England at least, were local and defined by local rather than national commemorations.

Protests, demonstrations, oppositional incidents occur in specific places. Even if at the time such events had greater repercussions or wider support nationally or internationally, often their occurrence is only commemorated and remembered locally. Memory is kept alive locally.

Steve Poole asked why the English do not have national memorials to resistance, equivalent to the Communards' Wall in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. He hinted that such resistance has to be seen as part of the national 'story' by national authorities. Wales, Ireland, and Scotland have been able perhaps to incorporate incidents of protest within their national histories. Newport for example have celebrated the Chartist rising of 1839 in a big way, and Welsh flags seen at commemorations of the event hint at a national(ist) appropriation of a local event.

This is not as easy in England, and so commemoration of resistance events in particular places remain part of civic or local rather than national pride. Place and memory in England, as Carl Griffin reminds us, are about locality and community, and custom and ritual.

Nigel Costley explained how the annual Tolpuddle commemorations only came to mean as much as they do today because of the TUC's desire to use the event in 1934 to revitalise the trade union movement. Tolpuddle has been firmly part of the trade union canon, even if it was essentially a story of failure, and even the inhabitants today have a problematic relationship with the wider commemorations. Other protest history is commemorated from below as well as above as part of local pride rather than a national narrative - and even those are contested, as the Peterloo Massacre memorial campaign demonstrates. But the difficulties inherent in working out what that 'national story' should contain make this process even more problematic.

Yet even in Scotland, national histories of resistance are contested. Iain Robertson spoke about the contested memorials to the Clearances on the Isle of Lewis. His idea of 'heritage from below' encompasses how the communities of the Hebrides wrote counter-hegemonic 'landmarks' (referencing Maurice Halbwachs) into the landscape. Memory was made visible and physical. However, that memory was contested from within as well as from above. A regional group wished to have abstract memorials that referenced the local but were unified in style to represent their wider struggle against the landowners. Individual communities however desired and indeed created their own vernacular monuments representing their own identity.

The afternoon session focused on memory and public history.

In his blog, James Baker has picked up on the fallout left by the last decade's 'memory boom' in history and sociology. What we developed during the afternoon was a related debate about the interactions between collective memory, museums and archives, and our role as professional historians. 

Participants aired opposing views about the display of an arm-bone of a Bristol rioter from 1831, now in the new M-Shed museum. Was it morally right to display this bone? What story could it tell? What could the gaps in our knowledge about it not tell us about its history, and about the riots of 1831?

An interesting conclusion emerged about the role of museums, archives, and the public in collecting and archiving records of protest. Material culture is indelibly linked with public history. The reason that museums that the People's History Museum, Manchester, and M-Shed are structured as they are is because of the objects they hold. We do not have the oral histories of nineteenth century rioters direct from their mouths. We have scraps of cloth banners, ragged handbills, souvenirs, that both protesters and the authorities thought interesting or worthy enough to save for posterity, but we have lost so much more: the slogans, the songs, the images.

30 November 2011, York Minster

The story of protest today is still shaped and confined by the surviving objects that can be displayed. How do we collate, archive, and display artefacts from the Occupy movement, from last summer's London riots, from strikes and demonstrations today? Can we use crowdsourcing through Flickr and other social media to provide an archive? James Baker made the crucial point that Flickr has made the public into their own curators, with hundreds of thousands of mini-exhibitions of contemporary and historic events, from all different points of view, from below. How can we utilise that as historians?

We hope to hold the third leg of the workshop series in late summer 2012 at the University of Gloucestershire. I hope you can join us.

Further reading:

Material Culture:

'Memory boom' and its critics:

Landscape and place:
Place, material culture, and memory:


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