Family History and Beyond – talks and courses at The Keep
30 July 2018
By Kate Elms
One of the perks of working at The Keep and, in particular, being involved in the planning and delivery of our public events programme, is having the opportunity to attend most of the events themselves. I’ve learnt a huge amount from the fantastic speakers who have given talks here, and also from colleagues who have helped curate displays of relevant original archives, enabling us to showcase some of the remarkable material in our care.
Family historians are among our most dedicated users, and earlier this year, we were delighted to collaborate with the Sussex Family History Group (SFHG) on an introductory session for those inspired to start tracking down their ancestors. SFHG volunteer Roy Winchester gave a presentation that covered all the basics, from how to draw up a family tree to how to interpret the data to be found in census returns and parish records, as well as shedding light on alternative sources of information that can be found at The Keep, such as electoral registers, street directories and newspapers. The event concluded with coffee and biscuits and a lively question-and-answer session.
For those hoping to go ‘beyond the family tree’, we recently piloted a six-week creative writing course led by author and life historian Shivaun Woolfson. A group of ten participants met on Saturday mornings to share their ancestors’ stories and explore different ways of presenting them. Finding a balance between historical accuracy and storytelling was important; within families, much can be left unsaid – for all sorts of reasons – so using contextual information and personal experiences to fill in the gaps is part of the process. Many of the writers were inspired by a family heirloom – an object, photograph or letter – and the course included advice from The Keep’s conservator on caring for family collections as well as research tips and guidance from our archivists.
The participants read their work aloud at the last session, to which friends and family were invited. Each story was unique and personal – and all the more powerful for that – but the issues touched on were universal, from infant mortality, the impact of war, poverty and life in the workhouse to marriage, loss and the position of women. There was a strong sense of place, too, with locations ranging from Vancouver to Victorian Rodmell. The final morning concluded with a plea for us to repeat the course next year, with longer sessions and more of them! Watch this space…
Anyone interested in family, local or social history should make a point of delving in to what archivists refer to as the ‘parish chest’. We were thrilled earlier this month to welcome Elizabeth Hughes back to The Keep to share her expertise on this subject and to draw attention to some of the little-known gems in the parish archives.
Parishes were the main unit of local government until the mid 19th century, and Elizabeth highlighted material relating among other things to education, charity and, in particular, relief of the poor. These records illustrate vividly what life must have been like for those with no wealth or status who were dependent on the parish when they fell on hard times. Rigorous settlement examinations, for example, were recorded with care and can provide extraordinary detail about the lives of named individuals who would never have appeared in the history books. The process itself – of trying to establish the right to settle in a particular place and quite frequently being refused – has uncomfortable parallels in the present day, making it more relevant than ever.
The Keep holds an extensive range of material to support family history research, and volunteers from the Sussex Family History Group are on hand at from 10am – 4pm, Tuesday to Friday, to provide help getting started. For more information about future talks and courses, please see the Events page of our website. If you would like to receive news of forthcoming events, you can sign up to our monthly e-newsletter via our website.
Meet the Volunteers: Sam Allen, Beyond Boxes ‘buddy’
30 November 2017
‘When I began volunteering for the Beyond Boxes project, I did not know what to expect. However, I have since learned that it is about far more than helping service users with registering or using our services at The Keep. The Beyond Boxes project allows people to explore their own stories, histories and interests, with a helping hand nearby should they need it. As a volunteer, I feel enriched by my time spent at The Keep, not just in terms of guiding users through how to use the catalogue or interpret historical documents, but also in getting to know our users and their stories.
I believe the key to encouraging access to the collections at The Keep is getting to know our users, by exploring what they are looking for in the archives or simply by listening to their stories. Everyone who comes to The Keep has a story or is looking to fill in the blanks of one, be it of their family history or to aid academic research. In this way, I believe that the Beyond Boxes project sits hand in hand with Mass Observation. It appears that people are increasingly looking to inform their own knowledge of the past. As a matter of observation, it is interesting that people of our time are interested in looking back as the world is getting bigger through technology. As part of that process, I am more than glad to lend a hand where I can in helping people to find and record their stories, even if that simply means showing them how to access software on a computer or helping hunt around the Reference Room for a book or index.
Recently we welcomed a group from Blind Veterans UK to The Keep, and their enthusiasm for our collections and resources was warming and enlightening. In a recent acquisition to meet user needs in terms of accessibility, The Keep has installed a wide range of IT equipment designed to enlarge, filter and enhance our digital resources to meet the needs of visually impaired or partially sighted users. It was exciting to hear what the Blind Veterans group thought of these new innovations, and it was also an education for the buddies and staff present. The whole day was a great experience for everyone involved, as tales of lost relatives and past experiences were shared and explored. Better still was that these endeavours were led by the Blind Veterans themselves, all of whom I hope left us with a healthy appetite for what The Keep offers (beyond the inter-session tea and cake). Many that I spoke to eagerly shared their plans to return.
My hopes as a volunteer and participant in the Beyond Boxes project is to share and reflect the excitement that our users bring with them to The Keep, particularly those who may not normally seek out our services. Often, it is in the experiences of these users that the most interesting stories are found. These contemporary voices shape our local and cultural history, and each and every one deserves to be heard, recorded and celebrated.’
If you would like the support of a ‘buddy’ volunteer to access the technology in use at The Keep, please contact us by email (email@example.com) or telephone (01273 482349) to make an appointment. If you are interested in volunteering as one of our buddies, please email Suzanne Rose (Suzanne.Rose@sussex.ac.uk).
Education and Outreach: The Mass Education Project
We’re sat in a circle, all observing closely, whispering, “I’m putting on my mac, and now my Box Brownie.” The children look around, smile, and place their imaginary cameras around their necks. Rosanna Lowe, drama practitioner, writer and director, then encourages them to discover what makes their friends feel happy – Listen carefully to their conversation and list what makes them happy? How many times do they smile? How many times do they laugh? The children get straight into character; some ask to wear hats or macs from our outreach case, while others quietly make notes.
Just before lunch, they are given a brown notebook, with the letters ‘MO’ printed in gold on the cover. “Use this to observe your surroundings at lunchtime – How many planes fly over? How many times does someone jump when they are skipping?” Suzanne Rose, Education and Outreach Officer for the Mass Observation Archive, then holds up a purple disposable camera. The children’s eyes widen with excitement.“This is for your class to take observational photos with…snapshots of your playground from afar; just like Humphrey Spender.” She adds, “no ‘selfies’ please!”
Handing the notebooks to the teacher, Suzanne lets the class know that they can take them home over the weekend, and fill them with a diary entry, in any format – a chronological entry, a list, a comic strip, or a series of pictures. A flurry of questions follow, and more excitement as they discover that the diaries will be exhibited as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, and others will be held at The Keep for researchers to use in years to come. “So school groups will visit The Keep, like we did, and use these notebooks to find out about the past?” the teacher asks. The children smile, as a nod from Suzanne replies.
Over the past two weeks the Mass Education project has got into full swing, with drama sessions like this in primary schools, and photography workshops in secondary. Through hands-on activities and experiences, young people have been learning all about Mass Observation; its history, techniques and how valuable the archive material is today. Props and scanned documents from our new outreach case have helped bring the archive material to life.
The final results of the project will be on display at The Sallis Benney Theatre, as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial 2014, which runs between 4 October and 2 November. To find out more about this year’s biennial, visit the BPB website.
The Keep News: education and outreach events and a mysterious gravestone
13th June 2014
The Mass Observation Team spent Tuesday afternoon with A Level History students from BHASVIC. With a behind-the-scenes tour of The Keep, and an opportunity to view documents from The Mass Observation Archive, the students had fun understanding how an archive centre works. Their experience of handling original material also inspired interesting discussions about the range of material that is available to historians, and the reliability of certain documents.
Not far from The Keep, local school Moulsecoomb Primary is gearing up to give its 7th annual Heritage and Environment Festival, which will be held on the 17th, 18th and 19th of June. This is a special part of the school year where pupils enjoy three days of learning through engaging outdoor activities. The Keep will be joining in this year, with a workshop that focuses on The Royal Sussex Regiment’s service during The First World War. Documents and photographs from East Sussex Record Office, Costumes from local costume resource Gladrags, and collections from Brighton Museum, will all be used to help the children step into the shoes of a First World War soldier.
News from a visitor…
As ever, the public have been busy researching in our Reading Room and Reference Room. This week, a regular visitor was relieved to nearly solve a mystery involving a gravestone! Mary Norris uncovered Eleanor Slatter’s gravestone at her home in Hurstpierpoint, and has since been trying to uncover more details. Who was Eleanor Slatter? Why had her gravestone been removed? Were the details engraved on the stone correct?
Using census returns, parish documents, cemetery records and other resources held at The Keep, Mary discovered that the gravestone was originally in the parish churchyard in Ditchling; it had been replaced by a new gravestone that included Eleanor’s husband. But the mystery is not completely solved: how did the gravestone end up in Hurstpierpoint? We’ll let you know if Mary finds the final piece to this story.
The Keep News: WI Scrapbook conserved and Mass Observation outreach case nearly complete
6th June 2014
It’s been another busy week at The Keep.
Our conservation team have started work on a mixed media scrapbook from East Sussex Record Office’s Women’s Institute archive; a diverse archive that contains documents dating from 1821 to 2003. The Keep’s conservator, Melissa Williams, and Assistant Conservator, Donna Edwards, explained the process of conserving the c1965 scrapbook.
The project began with the removal of the original Formica binding, the acidic plastic sleeves, the metal clasps and what Melissa described as ‘the dreaded Sellotape.’ They are now cleaning and re-packaging the archival material, using museum board, clear polyester film and treasury tags. To complete the project, they will make a four flap enclosure.
Removing and replacing acidic material like this is vital, as it enables the scrapbook to be enjoyed by visitors for many years to come.
Meanwhile, the Mass Observation Education and Outreach Team have nearly completed their outreach case for primary schools. The case holds an exciting range of objects and copies of Mass Observation documents, which have been selected to help children engage with the collection. It also offers young people a chance to get into character as a Mass Observer. More news about this, and the Mass Education Project, to follow. In the meantime, here’s a sneaky peak!