Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

429 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

30 October 2023

Recording of the week: Things that go howl in the night

Illustration of a gray wolf, 1912
public domain


With Halloween creeping up on us, I asked our wildlife curator to share with me her favourite spooky sounds. I’ve heard screeching barn owls. Hissing rattlesnakes. My favourite though: the chorus of howling wolves, recorded in Ontario, Canada in 2000.  

Listen to howls of the Gray Wolf

There’s something both serene and terrifying about the howl of a wolf. The wail floats on the edge of liminality: being both from the human world, yet also otherworldly. The calls mesmerise you – drawing you in, whilst making you want to retreat at the same time. They’re the epitome of the sublime.  

On this recording, I particularly liked how bird song is seamlessly dispersed among the howling at the beginning. You can almost picture dusk falling over the forest with the last birds of the day fleeing, before the creatures of the night ascend their sylvan thrones.  It conjures up that cinematic image of a majestic wolf pack in silhouette against a full moon. Contrary to popular imagination though, our wildlife expert informs me that it’s pure myth that wolves howl at the moon!  

As foreboding as the howls may be to the human ear, for the wolves, they’re a chorus of unity as they call out to their fellow pack-mates to prepare for their nocturnal hunt. Even the pups can be heard with their squeaky howls joining in with their parents.  

You can listen to a longer version of this recording on our sounds website

This week’s recording of the week was chosen by Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor.  

25 October 2023

On Pioneering Social Research

Blog written by Neli Demireva and Paul Thompson.

The Pioneering Social Research project and the 2022 book Pioneering Social Research: Life stories of a Generation (Policy press), highlight the experiences and practices of a generation of academics active from the 1950s to the 1980s in British academia and wider research scene. Based on 58 life story interviews, available through the UK Data Service and archived as the oral history collection C1416 ‘Pioneers of Social Research’ at the British Library, the book captures some of the most magical moments of research realization. Those moments may be career defining but we also do not shy away from discussions of strife, of conflict, of struggle and acceptance. There is no satisfactory way in which a conventional sample of ‘pioneer’ social researchers could be created. To be recorded among our pioneers implies in itself some kind of success story in research: first and foremost in terms of intellectual discovery and influence, however also linked to taking a key position in the academic world and achieving, in Colin Bell’s (C1416/34) words, ‘a degree of celebrity’. The oldest interviewee, Raymond Firth (C1416/25), was born in 1901 and is exceptional in already being an active researcher in the interwar years. The youngest interviewee was born in 1949, Sara Arber (C1416/58), and all had begun their research careers by the 1970s. They had mainly made their key contributions by the 1980s, but several continued publishing into the 2000s. Altogether, 33 are with sociologists –most of whom first trained in other disciplines, especially anthropology –and 14 with lifelong anthropologists. There are also three interviewees from politics, two each from geography and economics, another two from statistics, and one from cultural studies. These are essentially British pioneers, although they worked worldwide.

The book cover for the book WebPioneering Social Research - Life Stories of a Generation

On the practical side, the book and the oral history interviews can be seen as an example of ‘owning up’ – a set of illustrious researchers and academics take the reader or listener through their experiences of the research process. The book illustrates how empirical social research was conducted and given shape in mid-twentieth century Britain. Our Pioneers carried out much major work in terms of class, gender and ethnicity and the book captures something of the social and cultural contexts in which they worked and the dilemmas they faced. Thus, one should be able to open the book and read both about how David Butler (C1416/44) ‘finds his voice’ on TV, of the time Peter Townsend (C1416/23) spends working in a retirement institution while at the same time to get a feel, of the difficult time Ann Oakley (C1416/01) has in embarking on her PhD studies. 

Peter Townsend on Bath Attendant (C1416-23)

Download Peter Townsend on Bath Attendant (C1416-23) Transcript

Ann Oakley on The Parental Ethos (C1416-01)

Download Ann Oakley on The Parental Ethos (C1416-01) Transcript

The book and the oral history collection do have weaknesses with which we have explicitly engaged. Our 58 interviewees cannot be taken as ‘representative’ of a wider scholarly pool. They are unique cases, and there are many other researchers who if alive and willing could easily have been included, and some who may have made even greater contributions and told very different stories. Inevitably, some key researchers had already died before we could record them. We miss especially the stories which we might have had from Richard Titmuss (d. 1973), Max Gluckman (d. 1975), John Rex (d. 2011), Edward Shils (d. 1995) and Cathie Marsh (d. 1993). We cannot be sure of the memories of our tellers; like almost all historical sources, whether created in the past or subsequently, what they say sometimes may be factually incorrect. Regardless, they represent important historical sources of how the interviewees remember and retell their life stories. The Pioneers of Social Research collection is very much a living thing, and we are indeed adding to the pool of interviewees this year.

Crucially, however, the book and collection demonstrate how the Pioneers responded to challenges – personal and academic. These are very intimate stories, one that we hope the reader or listener will not rush through but will cherish and savour. The Pioneers were resilient, but above all, they proved to have the creative ability to turn the problems upside down and use them to develop their own thinking. In this, future generations can really find a rich source of inspiration – one that will continue to inform beyond the lifetime of the interviewees in this project. Our dear friend and co-author Ken Plummer (C1416/48) passed away last year and we cherish the ability to hear his warm and lively voice speaking his own life story of discovering his own sexuality, and developing a new field and establishing the journal Sexualities as well as struggling to cope with the pain of HIV research. All these recordings are available at the British library reading rooms in London and Boston Spa, as well as at the UK Data Service in Essex. We hope that many readers of ‘this lovely book’, as Mike Savage calls it, will similarly enjoy learning more about the Pioneers and will engage with their work, both the written publication and the full life story interviews.

Pioneers of Social Research can be found by searching C1416 at http://sami.bl.uk and can be listened to at the British Library reading rooms in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire. For more information on similar collections please consult the collection guide 'Oral histories of social policy'.

Neli Demireva is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex. Her research interests include migration, inter-ethnic ties, social cohesion, ethnic penalties and multiculturalism. She uses a variety of methods in her research, both quantitative and qualitative, and believes strongly in mixing methods to uncover the ‘deep stories’ of sociology.

Paul Thompson is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He is Founder-Editor of Oral History and Founder of National Life Stories at the British Library. He is a pioneer of oral history in Europe and author of the international classic The Voice of the Past (4th edition 2017). His other books include The Edwardians and Living the Fishing. He is co-author of Growing Up in Stepfamilies, of The Myths We Live By (with Raphael Samuel), and (with Daniel Bertaux) Pathways to Social Class.

Ken Plummer (1946-2022) was Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He researched and wrote widely on sexuality, especially lesbian, gay and queer studies. His methodological concerns were with the development of narrative, life story, symbolic interactionism and the post-modern turn.

23 October 2023

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo on founding UK Black History Month

Guest blog by Rosa Kurowska Kyffin, interviewer for National Life Stories.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo standing in front of the doors to the King's Library with the books in view behind him. Akyaaba Addai-Sebo standing in front of the King's Library at the British Library, St Pancras.

Earlier this summer the British Library recorded a life story interview with Akyaaba Addai-Sebo for the National Life Stories oral history collection Leaders of National Life. This in-depth interview covers his influential work as a campaigner and activist across three continents. From trade union organising in newly independent Ghana to his years in the US in the 1970s, where he studied peace-building in Washington and became close with many civil rights activists of the time, including Kwame Ture, Jewell Mazique and CLR James, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. The interview also covers his later peace-building work in Liberia and Sierra-Leone and environmental campaigning. In the UK Akyaaba has had a fundamental impact on politics and culture as one of the founders of the UK’s Black History Month. These clips explore the origins of this month, which today is as vital a part of autumn as the cooler days and bright colours of the turning leaves.

As a young child Akyaaba quickly developed a deep understanding of the impact of politics. In 1957 when Akyaaba was just seven years old, Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana to independence from British colonial rule and established one of the first post-colonial governments in Africa. Caught up in the ‘dynamism of the times’, Akyaaba spent his childhood observing the rallies and activism of his community: a close-knit, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic compound in Asawase, one of many new projects built by the socialist Nkrumah government. His early political memories are of excitement and promise, but these hopes were soon dashed as the backlash of the European powers began. One of Akyaaba’s early memories was the assassination of Patrice Lumumba which he describes here.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo recalls his earliest memory of political consciousness [BL REF C408/37]

Download Transcript – Akyaaba Addai-Sebo recalls an early memory of political consciousness

This incident and the betrayals that followed as later coups in Ghana took Nkrumah from power forged a powerful activist in Akyaaba, who has led a life dedicated to confronting injustice. As a child he was also frustrated by his experiences of education in the British colonial system, where he studied European classics, religion, geography and literature rather than his own region’s culture and history. He recognised the importance of the few teachers who went against this system. Later as a teenager he saw the importance of finding ‘cultural synergy’ though learning about Ghanaian and African culture and history in Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers and the Pan-African Youth Movement. In the US he also saw the impact of what was then called Negro History Week for African Americans, and the beginnings of the campaign to rename the period as Black History Month which is still celebrated there in February. In the US he became involved in delivering workshops in Washington libraries and museums and spoke at celebrations of African Liberation Day in Malcolm X Park.

His activism eventually took him back to Ghana and later to London, where he found safety having narrowly escaped persecution under the Jerry Rawlings regime in 1984. Through CLR James he became involved with a powerful group of activists based in Railton Road, Brixton, including Leila Hassan Howe, Darcus Howe and the Race Today collective. At the same time Akyaaba had started working at the Greater London Council (GLC). At the time the GLC was a place of pioneering social policy under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, as was the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), whose deputy leader Bernard Wiltshire Akyaaba worked closely with. The stewardship of Linda Bellos, Chair of the London Strategic Policy Committee (LSPC) and leader of Lambeth Council, and John McDonnell, Chief Executive of the Association of London Authorities (ALA), became crucial after the abolition of the GLC by the Margaret Thatcher government on 1 April 1986. It was an exciting time to be working in local government. With his boss and friend Ansel Wong, Akyaaba worked in the Ethnic Minorities Unit and it was there in the office that a chance encounter with a colleague set in motion the inspiration for Black History Month in the UK.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo on the inspiration for UK Black History Month [BL REF C408/37]

Download Transcript – Akyaaba Addai-Sebo on the inspiration for UK Black History Month

In both the US and the UK Akyaaba had seen the impact that this lack of ‘cultural synergy’ was having on Black children and their families. He was shocked that here in the UK – the ‘mother of imperialism’ – that there was so little understanding of African history and civilisation. To rectify the damage done to children like Marcus and to eliminate the odious racism that plagued the UK Akyaaba worked hard to establish Black History Month. Here he recalls some of the conversations that fed into the founding of Black History Month, and why the choice of October is so significant.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo explains why October was chosen as Black History Month [BL REF C408/37]

Download Transcript – Akyaaba Addai-Sebo explains why October was chosen as Black History Month

Akyaaba built support from all political parties, a process which his time in the US civil rights movement had prepared him well for. The UK’s first Black History Month events began with a series of historical talks and events in London in 1986 to which people ‘came in droves.’ Those events have now grown to become an integral part of the year with countless events happening across October and beyond across the whole country.

Rosa and Akyaaba standing on the terrace at the British Library, St Pancras

Rosa Kurowska Kyffin with Akyaaba Addai-Sebo at the British Library, St Pancras.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo was interviewed by Rosa Kurowska Kyffin in 2023 for Leaders of National Life. The interview will be available to listen to at the British Library in early 2024, collection reference number C408/37.

15 August 2023

'Breathe in, Breathe out' - a soundscape

Experience a new sound installation, 'Breathe in, Breathe out', in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library. The project looks at the positive effects of sound on well-being and relaxation. It is the first in a series of new initiatives in the Treasures Gallery, exploring innovative ways of working and engaging with diverse audiences. It runs until Sunday, 26 November 2023. The gallery is free to enter.

We have installed an open-walled structure with dimmed lighting and comfy seating, which provides a cosy space for visitors to relax and unwind. A calming, dreamlike soundscape plays on an endless loop. The mix blends spoken word, music, wildlife, and environmental sounds. All the sounds are drawn from the Library's collection.

A visitor looks at the 'Breathe in  Breathe out' tracklist. Photo by Simon Leach Design

A visitor looks at the 'Breathe in, Breathe out' tracklist—photo by Simon Leach Design. 

Relaxation starts with conscious breathing. The title 'Breathe in, Breathe out' encourages listeners to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. Nature sounds transport us to peaceful places, offering tranquillity amidst daily distractions. Dreams and dreamscapes also feature, highlighting the importance of rest and recovery. Research shows that we activate different parts of the brain when we listen to music. The impact of sound on our bodies is significant, particularly when it comes to our emotions, memories, and movement. It influences our breathing, heart rate, and mood.

The soundscape is mixed for 8-channel playback, creating an immersive surround-sound experience. The mix juxtaposes calming sounds with hints of suspense. Key elements include 'Jetsun Mila' by Éliane Radigue, inspired by the 11th-century Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa. There are poems by Langston Hughes, W. S. Graham, and Caroline Bergvall. The music covers a broad spectrum of gentle tones, including the delicate notes of water bowls performed by Tomoko Sauvage and the eerie sounds of 'Iká' by Skull Mask, played by Gosha Shtasel, who created the mix and is one of the British Library's sound engineers. You can explore the entire tracklist on one of the display walls.

Two women fill out feedback forms at the 'Breathe In  Breathe Out' sound installation desk. Photo by Eva del Rey

Two women fill out feedback forms—photo by Eva del Rey.

Curating this mix has been an enjoyable experience, as sound and well-being are topics of particular interest to me. We wanted to provide a serene space for visitors to pause and recharge. We also sought to improve how sound is showcased in the Treasures Gallery, pushing the limits of our traditional displays. Surround sound offers an immersive sensory journey that has transformed the gallery space. Listening together cultivates a sense of relaxation, and connection, enhancing our general well-being. Each listener brings their unique perspective and emotions, yet we find common ground in the soothing embrace of sound.

Feedback is encouraged. Responses so far tell us that listeners feel captivated, as if they were part of a movie, with most finding it soothing and some even finding it stirring. It is an effortless and refreshing experience. The display highlights the power of sound to create a peaceful escape and a transformative experience for all who engage with it.

The British Library holds over 6.5 million recordings, ranging from spoken word to music, wildlife and environmental sounds. You can learn more about our sound collections on our Sounds subject web page and at British Library Sounds online

This post was written by Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings.

24 May 2023

Animals: Art, Science and Sound

Animals: Art, Science and Sound is the first major exhibition to explore the many different ways in which animals have been written about, visualised and recorded over time. Focusing on the British Library’s extensive natural history collections, the exhibition brings together chronologically and geographically diverse material produced over the past 2000 years, from some of the earliest encyclopaedic works on zoology to stunning high-resolution photographs of insects produced using the latest technologies.

Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition poster

The exhibition features over 100 objects selected from the Library's diverse collections and is divided into four main zones that cover darkness, water, land and air. As the name suggests, sound features heavily in the exhibition, both in terms of physical objects and sound recordings themselves. There are soundscapes playing in the gallery space that help create atmosphere and listening points where visitors can explore some of the more weird and wonderful recordings held by the Library. Published discs, field tapes, recording equipment and personal notebooks sit alongside historical manuscripts, paintings and printed works, and many of these items are on display for the very first time. There are objects of celebration, such as the first commercial record of an animal, but also objects of sadness, the most poignant of which is a reel of tape containing the song of a now extinct songbird.

Below are just a few highlights from this textually, visually and sonically rich exhibition.

Holgate Mark VI portable bat detector

The Holgate Mark VI bat detector which was one of the earliest portable models produced (British Library, WA 2009/018)

Greater Horseshoe Bat echolocation recorded using the Holgate MK VI by John Hooper in Devon, England, 1968 (WS7360 C10)

Colour painting of a horse surrounded by annotations describing its bad points

Illustration of the defects of a horse from Kitab al-baytarah (Book on Veterinary Medicine) by Abu Muhammad Ahmad ibn Atiq al-Azdi, 13th century (British Library, Or 1523, ff. 62v-63r)

Page showing examples of musical notation being used to represent the songs and calls of European birds

Musical notation used to represent the songs and calls of birds, from Athanasius Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (Universal Music), Rome, 1650 (British Library, 59.e.19.) 

Front cover of the 2nd edition of Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch's sound book Animal Language

Second edition of Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch's Animal Language sound bookUSA, 1964 (British Library, 1SS0001840)

Bactrian Camel calls taken from disc 1 of Animal Language (1CS0070755)

Coloured woodcut illustration of a monkfish from Pierre Belon's De Aquatilibus

An image of a 'monkfish' from Pierre Belon's De aquatilibus (Of aquatic species), Paris, 1553 (British Library, 446.a.6.)

Colour illustration of a fruit bat

An illustration of a fruit bat, painted at Barrackpore, India. 1804-7 (British Library, NHD3/517)

Childrens education record featuring a disc surrounded by a cardboard illustration of hippos

The Hip-po-pot-a-mus children's educational record published by the Talking Book Corporation, USA, 1919 (British Library, 9CS0029512)

Animals  Art Science and Sound at the British Library 4 small

A section in the Land zone displaying textual and visual accounts of animals appearing in countries beyond their usual geographic range.

Animals_marketing_shoot_17_04_2022_024 bird voices small

A section in the Air zone exploring the history of recording bird voices including the first commercially released record of an animal from 1910.

Actual Bird Record Made by a Captive Nightingale (No.1), Gramophone Company, 1910

Animals: Art, Science and Sound runs until 28 August 2023. Please visit https://www.bl.uk/events/animals to book tickets and to find out more about the exhibition's accompanying events programme. Thanks go to the Getty Foundation, Ponant, the American Trust for the British Library and the B.H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library. Audio soundscapes were created by Greg Green with support from the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and scientific advice provided by ZSL (the Zoological Society of London). 

 

29 March 2023

Wings aren’t just for flying

The mechanics behind bird flight have fascinated and inspired humans for centuries. From Leonardo da Vinci to the Wright Brothers, this seemingly effortless process has captivated and influenced some of the finest scientific and engineering minds in history.

Wings aren’t just for flying though. For some species, wings are also an integral part of courtship displays. The White-collared Manakin (Manacus candei) is just one example of a bird that uses its wings for more than just getting around. The mating dance of this colourful neotropical songbird includes a series of crisp wing snaps and buzzes produced by males as they flit between branches around the edge of their designated display arena. These birds are particularly finicky when it comes to selecting and preparing their personal dance floors. First, their chosen patch of forest has to be free from foliage; nobody wants to be smacked in the face by bushes when trying to impress a potential mate. Any leaf litter, twigs or other unwanted objects are then collected and moved out of the way, leaving a bare square of forest floor. When the dance-off finally gets underway, females in the area carefully watch the performances. If a female is impressed by a particular male, she will join his dance, following him as he moves between branches. Though appearing quite romantic on the surface, pair bonds are not formed after the mating display and males play no part in nest building, egg incubation or the rearing of young.  

This recording of a White-collared Manakin was made in Costa Rica’s La Selva Biological Reserve on 13 March 1986 by Richard Ranft (see full catalogue record).

White-collared Manakin wing snaps and buzzes

White-collared Manakin perched on a branch in a tropical forest
White-collared Manakin (photo credit: Mick Thompson on Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0)

The wing snaps and buzzes produced by the male are clearly audible, though the bird itself was hidden from the recordist's view by the dense forest foliage. Several other species of manakin also incorporate wing snaps into their courtship rituals, a trait inherited from a distant common ancestor that, luckily for sound recordists, has stuck around.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 March 2023

From vocal to visual, with family scraps

Artist Sophie Herxheimer, creator of the artwork for the British Library’s new Voices of the Holocaust website, reflects on her approach to contextualising and representing the voices of Holocaust survivors.

This collection of interviews with Holocaust survivors encompasses themes of war, suffering, imprisonment, exile and loss. But there are also things that made me laugh, many surprises, sharply conjured memories and images - and a lot of detailed insight about Britain, and its relationships with refugees and European politics, much of which still resonates today.

The British Library’s learning team approached me about the idea of creating a different way in to this dark chapter of history: something to replace the grainy photographs of hollow-eyed victims of atrocity that so often accompany this type of material.

We discussed how we could better reflect the dignity, courage and long term contributions of the people in these interviews, their often long and settled lives in the UK – their legacy as parents, workers, friends and neighbours, whose identities were not ossified in victim mode.

We thought of the liveliness of these extraordinary testimonies which help to shed light on who we all are, and what really happened, as well as the contribution these immigrants made to post war British culture.

Voices of the Holocaust graphic art - web banner

My father, aunt and grandparents arrived in London in November 1938 from Berlin, saved by an inventive job offer for my doctor grandfather, from the hastily set up Council for Academic Refugees (it’s still going!). The family spoke German at home in North London, but never spoke of Germany or the war years. Nor was our Jewishness referred to, we were head-down, assimilated, secular Londoners; on my mum’s side too, though her forebears were from a much earlier wave of immigrants from Russia.

My first step towards realising the commission was to listen. The next steadying thought I had was to devise a palette that would immediately suggest an atmosphere, and use colour to loosen any oppressive sense of worthiness, horror or ‘explanation’. I mixed gouaches based on the furnishings that I remembered from my paternal grandparents’ house. It had a strong middle European flavour, with its whiskery upholstery, heavy wooden furniture and fern green window frames. 

Coffee was a colour too. So was herring, paprika and beer. I painted paper in these shades and went through my collage scrap bags for period ephemera. (I hoard scraps, like any self-respecting child of a refugee.) I found pages from 1930s journals, family letters and postcards that I have in a beribboned bundle, some books written in German Gothic script that I’ve picked up on scourings of charity shops and cupboards.

I began to compile and cut out images for each themed banner, paying careful attention to the voices and their stories...

1. 'My dad was still shaving...'

Voices of the Holocaust graphic art - web banner incorporating illustration of man shaving

Henry Kuttner remembers the November Pogrom of 1938

Download Henry Kuttner transcript

2. 'Quite a big troop ship...'

Voices of the Holocaust graphic art - web banner incorporating troop ship image

Willy Field on being sent to Australia

Download Willy Field transcript

3. ‘You could smell - rotten cabbages - and beetroot...'

Voices of the Holocaust graphic art - web banner reflectiing ghetto living conditions

Edith Birkin on conditions in the Łódź Ghetto

Download Edith Birkin transcript

I was searching not only for particular images from the recordings but also for vocal tone and texture, e.g. hesitation, indignation, mirth, age, accent. These were all keys to the sensations I wanted to convey (texture is an essential tool when making work to be seen online). 

I like to fight the flatness of the screen with chunky textural heft. It’s another enlivening way to disrupt the surface and get beneath it. I composed the banners with reference to a mid-century graphic aesthetic - a lot of which was pioneered in the Bauhaus, during Germany’s short-lived, but eternally influential, Weimar period.

Using photocopied strips cut from family correspondence, with its fluent handwriting in varied scripts and gestures, as well as the soft ephemerality of its faded paper, added immediate authenticity, as well as offering structure to my collages. I used the writing to make the shapes of stripes, rays, squares and buildings.

I could cut figures from different pieces of found material, e.g. a ‘situations wanted’ page of The Times, 1939: “Educated Viennese Jewess seeks domestic work…” or a page from a child’s comic my father had grown up reading, which was seamless Nazi propaganda written into sentimental stories about ‘sacrifice’ and ‘the fatherland’. I also used scraps of printed wrapping papers if they seemed evocative, or had adjacent colours, or suggested period through pattern.

I hope by making these collages from largely discarded materials, to also echo in a small way the resourcefulness and practicality of the people in the recordings, who had to use whatever they could find, including imagination, to emerge from the horrors of war and persecution.

Sophie Herxheimer
March 2023

15 February 2023

Working with teachers to develop sessions on teaching Partition

The Partition of India represents a pivotal moment in British history, and the new Voices of Partition resource is aimed at providing sources to teachers so they can gain an understanding of the nature of Britain’s relationship to India and Pakistan following over 150 years of colonisation. Working with A-level teachers Debbie Bogard and John Siblon, who led two Continued Professional Development (CPD) sessions at the British Library in December 2022, teachers were able to explore how oral histories are particularly powerful in opening up conversations and providing different ways of learning and analysing some of the resources at the Library. For this blog Debbie reflects on their experience of leading the CPD sessions...

Voices of Partition web graphic

For the last year, my colleague John Siblon and I have been working with the British Library on a project called 'Unlocking Our Sound Heritage - Voices of Partition’. Drawing on a range of British Library collections (including oral histories and archival documents from the India Office records), this new online resource includes many oral testimonies documenting the run up to the independence from Britain, the period of the partition of India and creation of Pakistan. We were invited to produce a student and teacher guide for the website, which we then delivered in two Professional Development sessions.

The resources provided a valuable opportunity to think about how to work with sources, particularly oral testimony, which is an area that many students (and possibly teachers) might not have encountered before. Source work can be challenging for students, who can often become unstuck and thrown off guard if unable to understand certain words or phrases within a text. Certainly, one common refrain in the history classroom is along the lines of, ‘Why didn’t people in the past just speak normally?’ Whilst this can be overcome in the classroom, struggling with sources can be problematic in high-stakes situations such as under exam conditions, where students can panic and consequently struggle to think clearly and critically.

Within the guide, we adopted a metacognitive approach to source analysis, whereby students are encouraged to think explicitly about the processes of their learning. In relation to written sources, we provided a step-by-step framework, where students are encouraged to ‘think like an historian’ before engaging with source content, along these lines:

Given what the source is, where it comes from, as well as the wider context, what do I expect the source to say?

This process is designed to free up thinking so that students don’t become lost in the source but rather are able to engage with the higher level task of addressing its attribution (including provenance, context and purpose) in order to engage more freely and confidently with what it says.

Similarly, with the oral testimonies, students are encouraged to think about the kinds of questions the interviewer might ask. Examples include:

Given what we know about the wider context, what do I expect the questions to be? And what am I expecting from the responses?

Following listening (typically the testimonies are around three minutes in length), there are follow-up questions, such as:

Was this in line with what I was expecting? Any surprises / interesting omissions? If you were the historian conducting this interview, what would you like to have asked the interviewee?

This is also designed to create a more authentic encounter between listener and testimony, away from the restrictions of typical source-based questions and ways of thinking.

We then ran two professional development sessions, which aimed to introduce teachers to the oral testimonies, as well as modelling the session so that it could then be run in
the classroom. The sessions themselves brought together a wonderful and eclectic mix of teachers, oral historians, educators, archivists, activists, musicians and students. Consequently, the discussions that arose were vibrant and engaging, helping bring the materials to life. One participant introduced us to the concept of ‘deep listening’, whereby the very act of listening is itself an exercise in mindfulness. Another commented how listening to oral sources allowed them to imagine the situation in a way that merely reading the text would not have allowed.

We also discussed the importance of awareness around the nature of the questions asked, and how the methodology of oral history will have changed over time. For example, in the clip of Charles Allen’s interview with the female freedom fighter and activist Kamaladevi Chaddopadhy, the questions focus on the war rather than her own experiences, with one question suggesting that Indians displayed loyalty to Britain in the war, a claim that Chaddopadhy counters with a more nuanced position about lack of consultation and representation.

The opportunity to engage with a plurality of voices also featured in other discussions. In one group, participants noted the way in which the Quit India movement was seen and understood through a child’s perspective, with the testimony from Raj Daswani recalling the five key leaders of Congress before discussing the food that he remembered eating at the time. We discussed how this unusual level of detail is something that could really appeal to and engage students, offering a different angle from the high politics presented through official government records and papers.

Another illuminating conversation focused on how to handle emotionally disturbing content relating to sexual violence and other buried traumas. In particular, the extent to which the classroom is an appropriate place for listening to challenging and turbulent testimonies. One teacher reflected on the importance of engaging with these sources as a way of learning about and honouring these experiences, as to deny them would be to prevent developing a deeper understanding of how partition played out. Overall, the sessions helped exemplify the richness of the oral testimonies and an excellent opportunity for a broader, more complex and nuanced understanding of partition.

There are already some exciting plans for next steps including ideas for students to carry out their own oral history projects in their local communities, as well as a possible project with Welsh Pakistani communities, which would be a fascinating angle on migration stories. As classroom teachers and teacher educators, it was rewarding to be valued for our professional expertise and be given the opportunity to model a ground-up, teacher-driven form of CPD. Thank you to the wonderful learning team at the British Library.

Debbie Bogard, February 2023

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