Author Archives: commons

The Ruskin College records: Destroying a radical past

In the course of moving Ruskin College, the trade union and labour movement college founded in central Oxford in 1899, from its prime location to a site on the outskirts of the city, the college has been re-branded and much of its archive destroyed or dispersed to other institutions. Most importantly, thousands of historic student records from the first years of the college until the last few years have been shredded.Activist students came from working class backgrounds without formal qualifications–many then became labour leaders such as Lord John Prescott, the former deputy Labour prime minister. Information on students’ backgrounds, their application forms, progress and achievements has now gone. No records have been scanned and the barest details digitised. Only some from the 1950s remain.

Also destroyed are the records of the Ruskin students’ union and undergraduate projects that frequently drew on students’ own working experience. Collections of note, recorded on the register of nationally important archives, together with material culture such as some paintings and photographs have been given to other institutions. Traces of history work in the college have gone. The records of the History Workshop together with the postgraduate work of recent graduates of the MA in Public History are now safe in the Bishopsgate Institute in London. (The MA was closed down this year). The Institute offered to take anything–and everything–the college did not want but this was turned down.

The principal of Ruskin has insisted that legally the records of students should have been destroyed–under data protection legislation–despite repeated advice to the contrary from experienced archivists and internationally prestigious historians. However last week Nicholas Kingsley, Head of Archives Sector Development & Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission at the National Archive, confirmed ‘it would have been acceptable to retain these records indefinitely for historical purpose’.

Valuing materials

Over 7,500 people have signed the petition to immediately halt the destruction and to transfer the remaining records to an institution committed to preserving the recorded experiences of working people.* Some refer specifically to their anger at the loss of material about the lives of their ancestors who studied at Ruskin:

My father was one of the early Ruskin graduates. He attended through a Worker’s Educational Association scholarship, after having started as an apprentice welder in the Chatham shipyards. He graduated and went on to be selected for a social work post at Toynbee Hall. WW2 intervened (he joined the RAF). I cannot conceive, as a historian myself, that such destruction is justified…

As another argued, ‘These records are irreplaceable, they show the lives of our ancestors. They give meaning to their lives and show what they went through and what became of them’. Some talk about the nature of labour and working class history: ‘The records and voices of working class people matter as much today as they ever have,’ says one. Others encompass the archives of Ruskin within the national heritage: ‘I see little difference between archive destruction and book burning. I find it difficult to understand why this can happen in a civilized nation.’ Some relate the archives to their own lives and experiences, for example as former students at the college: ‘Bishopsgate would be the best place: as the late Raph Samuel’s archives are kept there. He taught and loved Ruskin. I was lucky to be at Ruskin 1995/96. I can’t believe the vandalism of such important archives’. As one movingly describes, ‘My father was lucky enough to gain a scholarship to Ruskin, from the NUM after WWII. His studies there are a large part of the reason why I am not now a miner. Or at least an ex-miner. These records are of international importance.’

Latest attempts to save remaining historic student records

We have had no confirmation from Ruskin management that the remaining historic student records from the 1950s will be saved.

We have had no expression of regret about the destruction of records relating to so many people’s lives.

In order to save the remaining student archives and to ensure that no further destruction takes place we are lobbying the next meeting of the Ruskin College governing executive on Friday 30 November from 10.30 am outside the Rookery entrance, Ruskin College, the new Headington site, Dunstan Road, Oxford, 0X3 9BZ.

We will be presenting the petition. We will also be laying a wreath in memory of the achievements of students whose lives have been eradicated from the records.

Please send a short email to the governors asking them to accept the advice of the National Archives and to save the remaining student records. For a list with contact information, click here [PDF].

~ Dr Hilda Kean FRHistS
Honorary research fellow, Ruskin College


For press coverage see articles in the Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement blog, and the Guardian. Also see various letters in the Guardian including from academics and the leaders of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union. For articles on the background see a range of articles in History Workshop Online:

  • Come on Ruskin: Do the Right Thing (Nov. 5, 2012)
  • Thoughts & Questions of a Ruskin Graduate on the College Archives
  • Losing the Memory of Generations
  • Whose Archive? Whose History?

*Signatories include Sarah Waters, Alan Bennett, M Lewycka, Sir Brian Harrison former editor of the Oxford DNB; Dr Nick Mansfield former director of the People’s History Museum; Dr Eve Setch History publisher at Routledge; Professor Alison Light (widow of Raphael Samuel); Professor Jonathan Rose author of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes; Stewart Maclennan, chair of the Scottish Labour History Society; Harry Barnes, former Labour MP and former Ruskin student; MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn ;Professor Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education; Professor Pat Thane, co-founder of History and Policy; Alice Kessler-Harris former President, Organization of American Historians; Dr Andrew Foster, Chair of the Public History Committee of the Historical Association; Professor Geoff Eley, Chair of the History Department at the University of Michigan; Dr. Serge Noiret, Chair of the International Federation for Public History, Italy; Dorothy Sheridan, former archivist of the Mass Observation archive; Dr. Roger Fieldhouse, joint author of A History of Modern British Adult Education; Keith Bilton on behalf of the Social Work History Network; Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council; former governors including David Buckle and Brian Cohen; and hundreds and hundreds of former Ruskin students and staff.

NCPH 2013 Project Award: The power of place within us

Editors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is by Yolanda Chávez Leyva, co-director of Museo Urbano at 500 S. Oregon, the winner of the 2013 NCPH Public History Project Award.

El Paso is a windy city. Its dusty winds blow noisily into homes and offices, tear shingles off roofs and lift trash swirling up into the atmosphere where papers and plastic bags dance with desert sands that hide the mountains beneath a hazy cloud.  Most El Pasoans dread the wind but I am grateful for it because it helped me learn what a public history project could mean to a community.

One summer day in 2011, I woke up early and on a whim decided to take a drive to Museo Urbano, a community museum I co-directed in El Segundo Barrio, one of the most historic Mexican American neighborhoods in the United States, located in one of the poorest zip codes in the county. When I arrived, I noticed a group of men sitting on the stoop of the turn of the 20th century tenement building where we were located. For over a hundred years, men have gathered on street corners in El Segundo waiting to be contracted for work so I wasn’t surprised to see them. What did surprise me was what they had to say.

Housed in a building over a century old, we often had to deal with windows that didn’t quite shut and doors that didn’t quite lock. The volunteers who had staffed the Museo the day before had not yet learned the intricacies of properly locking the heavy brown doors. Overnight, the winds had blown open the old wooden double doors. When a neighbor noticed the open door when he looked out at sunrise, he came to guard the museum. Soon, others joined him. As I looked inside, nothing was missing. The cash from the donation jar was still there. The televisions and digital frames still hung on the walls. The neighborhood men waited for me while I inspected everything and locked the doors. We all laughed at El Paso’s famous windstorms. I stood there for a second astonished at their actions. More so than any survey, evaluation tool or comment card, this generous act by men whose names I did not know taught me the importance of history.

In 2011, the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) opened Museo Urbano.

Opening day at Museo Urbano, May 2011. Over 600 people attended. On the walls you can see the murals painted by residents of El Segundo Barrio, including the United Farm Workers eagle.

Opening day in May 2011 witnessed hundreds of visitors to the tiny museum. Over the next few months, a thousand visitors walked in our doors. We did not advertise much. People walked in after church on Sundays or on their way downtown to shop on Saturday afternoons. Teachers brought their classes and youth attended cultural workshops provided free of charge by artists, musicians and dancers.  Visitors brought items to display—boxes of Mexican tea for our traditional medicine table, a wrinkled image of the folk saint Don Pedrito for our home altar, plants to enliven the patio. Every day at Museo Urbano was hard work—we had no staff and we did everything from writing text to cleaning the bathroom. And it was magical to see community people relate to the project. It meant something to them and to us.

Graphic artist Adrian Lopez and five- year old volunteer Joaquin Leyva mounting the exhibit in the Teresita Urrea room, March 2011. All ages participated in creating Museo Urbano.

Why did the public history project mean so much to the people who visited and who volunteered there? I believe it had to do with the project’s values: respect, reciprocity, responsibility and social justice. We did not “give the people a voice,” we listened. We did not “teach them their history,” we worked with the community to understand where their lives and ours fit within the larger context. We did not “give back,” we acknowledged our shared history living on the border and what that meant to us and to the generations to follow.

Rubí Orozco and Leo Martinez provide a son jarocho workshop to area youth in the courtyard of Museo Urbano. Son jarocho is the regional music and dance of Jalisco, Mexico, based in African and Indigenous rhythms. In the background is the “Pachucos Suaves” mural.

And significantly, Museo Urbano created a space where people could connect across generations and across time, through eliciting and sharing memories, stories, and histories. When middle-aged Mexican American couples came to our grand opening, they told us stories of the African American jazz greats who performed at the bar across the street from the museum in the 1950s. When residents walked by the museum, they noticed the striking mural highlighting Pachuco culture that had emerged in the barrio beginning in the 1920s that became part of popular culture in the 1940s with the million selling album, “Pachuco Boogie.” The many murals portraying the United Farmworkers eagle, car clubs, and scenes of downtown El Paso that had been spontaneously painted by neighborhood youth drew pedestrians into the tenement courtyard, prompting stories of decades past. High school students from one of El Paso’s iconic high schools, “la Bowie,” interviewed their teachers who also had attended Bowie to learn what life was like for them twenty and thirty years earlier. Eighty- and ninety-year-olds stood in the museum with tears in their eyes that someone valued their stories and their lives. Undergraduate, MA and doctoral students experienced the profound power of history and place as they worked as volunteers or through public history classes to make the Museo a reality.

Volunteers supervised by muralist David Flores (in blue jumpsuit on left) paint an iconic image of the pachuco. Pachuco youth culture emerged in El Segundo in the 1920s and spread throughout the Southwest in the succeeding decades. The zoot suit, as seen in the image above, was emblematic of pachucos. The word “pachuco” has its origins in the slang word for El Paso, El Chuco.

Early in 2012, we were forced to leave our beloved space because of rising rental costs. More than a year later, the landlord has painted over the murals with a dull black coat of paint, hiding the once vibrant colors that drew so many into the tenement courtyard. Supporters have expressed anger and sadness to see the last vestiges of Museo Urbano at 500 S. Oregon erased.

Visitors to the Teresita Urrea room. La Santa de Cabora, as she was called, lived at the site in the 1890s, seeing anywhere from 200-250 people per day who came from Mexico and the United States seeking healing. Quotes from Teresita were painted on the walls of the tenement apartment.

However, something has remained with us that goes beyond the power of the physical place to the power of place within us. Physical place is fleeting. Buildings are torn down or decay. Even the beautiful mountains of El Paso change as the rock is quarried for buildings or new developments spread across the landscape. But within us is the place of memory, of history, of connections to others. Within us is the place of work, of energy, of creation and beauty. Within us is the power of reflection and of seeing ourselves in each other. That summer day as the men guarded Museo Urbano, not knowing whether any of us would show up or not, that power of connection was clear even through El Paso’s dusty winds.

~ Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a Chicana historian and writer who was born and raised on the border.  She is Associate Professor and currently Chair of the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Post Conference Review 3 Horaceville

Editor’s note: This post continues the series of conference city reviews published byThe Public Historian in the Public History Commons

Horaceville: Pinhey’s Point Historic Site, April 20, 2013. NCPH Annual Meeting, Ottawa, Ontario. The Pinhey’s Point Foundation. Tour leader: Bruce Elliott.

Horaceville, looking down on the Ottawa River. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

At Pinhey’s Point Historic Site, the house takes center stage as storyteller. Hamnett Pinhey started construction in 1820 and continued to expand throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. He named the house “Horaceville” after his eldest son, whom he hoped would inherit the property as a member of the landed gentry. When responsible government[1] wrested power from the old regime and granted it to the common people, the house’s increasingly dilapidated state expressed that failed colonial dream. Today, the Pinhey’s Point Foundation’s (PPF) approach of minimal intervention allows the house to speak for itself, enabling the visitor to glimpse moments from Horaceville’s entire life span.

Nine of us made the forty-five minute journey out to Pinhey’s Point on a surprisingly wintry Saturday, the last day of NCPH’s 2013 annual meeting. Presented with the exciting array of field trip options, my fascination with empire and colonialism steered me toward Pinhey’s Point. I wanted to see how Canada interprets its colonial past in the setting of a historic house museum. In addition to the usual visitor experience, we were also able to see behind the scenes with Bruce Elliott of Carleton University, who often uses the site in his courses.

A brief stop along the way helped place Pinhey’s Point in the larger context of the March Township, a settlement once divided between military gentlemen along the shore and Irish immigrants farther inland. By settling on the hill overlooking the sheltered harbor of Pinhey’s Point, Hamnett Pinhey declared his place among the former.

The sheltered harbor that made Pinhey’s Point an ideal spot for Hamnett Pinhey. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

He applied a stone facade to the front of Horaceville, where it faced the Ottawa River, but contented himself with faux finishes on the less visible walls. The public spaces within the house contributed to Pinhey’s gentlemanly presentation. Painted grain patterns gave plain pine floors and doors the appearance of more expensive woods; and Pinhey laid out rooms on the ground floor as an enfilade,[2] probably inspired by Europe’s great palaces.

Hamnett Pinhey’s lordly aspirations were cut short by circumstances beyond his control. Soon after his initial investment, the advent of responsible government curtailed the power of landed gentry in Canada. Moreover, his fashionable parcel of land on the riverbank would never produce as much as the fertile inland farms. The Pinhey family quickly fell into decline and never found the resources to replace all of Hamnett’s original decorations or furnishings.

The Pinheys’ loss has proved a boon to the PPF. Architect Julian Smith took charge of the restoration, choosing the path of minimal intervention. The visitor is treated to glimpses of Hamnett Pinhey’s mansion alongside the deteriorating home of the twentieth century Pinheys. The house retains much of its original contents, albeit some in a much-altered form. A once-fine drop leaf dining table now resides in the kitchen, covered in canvas, and the room Hamnett once used as a study remains in its later incarnation as a dining room—complete with linoleum from the early twentieth century. A text panel explains the room’s earlier use.

The kitchen, stripped of its modern remodeling. Just behind the spinning wheel is the drop-leaf dining table covered in canvas. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

Hamnett Pinhey’s library, transformed by later generations into a dining room. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)


Throughout our tour, I could not identify a central narrative. Some rooms contained period artifacts and depicted the space’s use, while others function as exhibit space for rotating displays, often produced by college students or volunteers with funding from small project grants. Temporary exhibits from past years have been repurposed and displayed in many of Horaceville’s rooms. A few panels in the parlor tell about Hamnett Pinhey and the house’s construction, a single placard interprets the unusual second-floor privy, posters in the upstairs dining room detail the restoration process, a trellis in the master bedroom holds information about Pinhey’s gardens, and a meticulously reproduced 1880s gown occupies a place of honor in the sitting room. Most of these projects demonstrate excellent scholarship, but they stand independent of one another. Bruce Elliott did a great job guiding us through the house’s past, but on my own I would have had a difficult time piecing the story together from these scattered displays.

Currently, PPF and the City of Ottawa share responsibility for Pinhey’s Point. Ottawa owns the house and land, while PPF retains ownership of the collections. Most of the exhibits and interpretation come from the Foundation, which directs its efforts towards adult visitors. Ottawa runs the site during its open season (May through September), focusing their programming on children’s activities. The two organizations form a symbiotic relationship through which they successfully balance good scholarship with public interest, though neither party receives sizable funding. The PPF’s most recent exhibit, “Whose Astrolabe?” presents an excellent examination of the origins of a seventeenth-century astrolabe, facilitating discussion of cultural ownership and contested memory. PPF uses this single artifact to interpret key issues of post-colonial narrative, incorporating primary source research to confront old assumptions.

The concept of minimal intervention that guided Horaceville’s restoration has bared remarkable aspects of the house’s original construction. Julian Smith removed twentieth-century remodeling from the attached stone kitchen revealing the original hearth. He chose not to repair the walls and ceiling, leaving the structural underpinnings exposed in several places. This space may look “ugly” to some visitors, but permits a range of interpretive possibilities. In the sitting room, a single wall retains the remnants of original wallpaper while the other three bear relatively new coats of paint in a complementary green. In this particular space, I think the intervention has been a bit too minimal. A section of floral wallpaper border at the top of the wall looks like it could peel off at any time, crying out for a conservator to stabilize it.

For the most part, PFF has used conservation very strategically. A handful of artifacts have undergone full restoration, including the oldest piece in the furniture collection—a chest of drawers from the eighteenth century. Others, like the repurposed kitchen table, contribute to interpretation through their decay. This balance effectively allows the visitor to encounter Horaceville in several times at once.

The oldest piece of furniture in the Pinhey collection. (Photo courtesy of Annie Muirhead.)

Horaceville survives as a ghost of Canada’s colonial past, encompassing a myriad of might-have-beens. I could see Hamnett Pinhey’s hopes for greatness in the traces of luxury and attention paid to appearances. At the same time, his family’s failure to fulfill that promise emerges in the nineteenth-century furnishings that saw regular use until the 1970s. Although Bruce Elliott’s tour guided us skillfully through this dynamic interpretation, I think the installation of a cohesive narrative should be a priority to improve Pinhey’s Point interpretation for unguided visitors. Due to the snow, we did not get the chance to explore the grounds, but even without that additional attraction, I wish we had spent longer at Pinhey’s Point. I’m sure Horaceville has more stories to tell than those we had time to hear.

Genealogy from below

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Paul Knevel is the second of these scholars.  We hope you will post your comments to add to this discussion. 

The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands. Photo credit:  International Museum for Family History

As could be expected by the author of the broad and lucid Consuming History, Jerome de Groot demonstrates in his article in The Public Historian an amazing ability to discuss thoroughly topics and themes that would for others take book-length or even career-length considerations. “Genealogy and Public History” thus not only deals with the various ways that genealogy and family history could be undertaken and imagined by various people and groups but also with such large and profound issues as the impact and construction of “knowledge infrastructures” in a digital age, the silencing character of the archive, the ethical sides of dealing with the dead, the neo-liberalisation of public space generated by commercial websites, “digital labour,” and many other themes and ideas. The result is a clever, multi-layered, insightful, and thought-provoking essay that challenges public historians to rethink today’s digital historical culture and practices, their own role, and the activities of millions of people (see the stunning figures mentioned by De Groot) who are doing genealogy and family history and thus trying to connect themselves with the past. Consequently, it is impossible to address in this short reaction all the topics and themes raised in De Groot’s article.

Instead, in the following, I would like to concentrate on a theme hinted at in various places in the article but not really dealt with: genealogy and family history as a social activity. In his article, De Groot rightfully underlines and clearly demonstrates the necessity for public historians “to recognise, theorise, and understand the various ways in which Genealogy and Family History work, the local, national, and international contexts for such investigation, and the consequences for this practice on the historical imagination.”  Not surprisingly, De Groot’s article proves to be an excellent starting-point. He makes many insightful remarks about what it means to do genealogy and family history. But most of his valuable observations and conclusions are not based on “inside” information but on his well-versed knowledge of historiography, cultural studies, digital humanities, and philosophy. The ordinary practitioners of genealogy and family history themselves are remarkably absent in the article: we never hear them talk and reflect in their own words about their own activities, the limits and possibilities of the Internet, the lure of the archive and documentary evidence, their horizon (local, national, international), and their connections with the past.

This view “from above,” so to say, seems to be dominant. In his useful overview of Dutch popular historical culture, A Contemporary Past, the Dutch historian Kees Ribbens, for instance, also deals with genealogy as a historical activity.1  His approach is more down-to-earth than De Groot’s:  Ribbens summarizes the history of genealogy in the Netherlands, quickly describes the methodology of doing genealogical research, and writes about the possible motivations of the practitioners. In the end, however, they, the practitioners, are as silent in his study as they are in De Groot’s article.

Whatever the importance of critical reflections and analyses, like the ones presented by De Groot and Ribbens (and they are manifold!), it seems to me as necessary and rewarding to redirect our attention now and then more exclusively to the people whose activities we are studying and dealing with. In our aim to understand the practice and consequences of genealogy and family history, public historians should not only write about the practitioners in the field but also talk with them and listen to them. What I am missing, in other words, is a participatory study of genealogy and family history, a project that starts by studying the various ways that genealogy and family history are undertaken “from below,” by the actual people involved. In a field as rich of local, national, and, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, indeed international organisations, communities, centres and bureaux as genealogy, such research is easily organised at various levels, even as a series of master’s theses. By combining a series of surveys in the tradition of Rosenzweig/Thelen’s The Presence of the Past with more anthropologically based observations, like the ones done by Hilda Kean in her London Stories,2 we could try in more detail to understand the ways in which people are trying to bring the past to the present and how the changes in the technological infrastructure indeed have affected their practices and modes of dealing with and thinking about the past.

I would like to learn more about the affective and emotional dimensions of their activities, about their collaborations and sharing of information or “spirit of volunteerism,” as De Groot calls it, and about their ideas of doing research and thinking about history. How, indeed, is the content design of websites like Who do you think you are? story affecting and influencing their narratives of family history? How does the experience of keeping personal belongings of a family member–a photograph, a ring, a badge, a record–affect the forging of connections between the past and the present in a digitized world?

Such a project (or better: a series of projects) should also encompass genealogist’s activities in and contributions to crowdsourced initiatives, like the recent one organized by the City Archive of Amsterdam around militia registers.3  More than in any other field of history, as De Groot convincingly argues, the interface between “amateur,” “user,” “fan,” and professional and institutional bodies is troubled in the world of genealogy and family history. What that means has still to be analysed, described, and understood fully. By looking critically at the “digital labour” done by volunteers in the various institutional crowdsourced projects, the content and role of what Raphael Samuels once dubbed “unofficial knowledge” come into our view, the kind of information generated by people who see genealogy and family history foremost as a social activity, not as a professional calling. How do people rate these experiences and what are the institutions involved and the professionals working at them really learning (or trying to learn) from the input of practitioners? As such, taking genealogy “from below” seriously could be a fruitful starting-point for a dialogue about what it means to share historical information and knowledge and to try to make the past live in the present. Jerome de Groot is absolutely right: genealogy matters.