In May, History Begins at Home was launched. This national public-facing campaign delivered via social media – Facebook @historybeginsathome and Twitter @beginshistory –uses archives to improve wellbeing by encouraging new audiences to explore the past they are directly connected to.
The idea behind the campaign is to encourage people to connect or re-connect with members of their family, friends and neighbours, through conversations about the past, discovering previously unknown facts or stories, sharing memories, experiences and expertise, and capturing these conversations and findings for future posterity. We also want people to continue the conversations by sharing stories online.
Central to the campaign is the aim to actively support mental health and wellbeing. The campaign embodies the principles of the 5 Ways to Wellbeing (Connect, Be Active, Keep Learning, Give, and Take Notice). Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental wellbeing was a major issue; now it is more important than ever.
Archive services can help to address many of these challenges – we all appreciate the benefits that can come from connecting with the past. History Begins at Home provides a great way of engaging in a positive way not only with current archive users, but also with future audiences. If you spark an interest and they want to find out more, they will need to explore their archive.
Based on a series of themes – coming soon fashion, which will no doubt include some clothes we have been trying to forgotten – each fortnight we will encourage followers to start a conversation about it, engage in an activity relating to it, record something about it and, if they like, share what they’ve found out on our Facebook or Twitter feeds. We will also have a website – www.historybeginsathome.org – where we will keep prompts for questions from each campaign and top tips for capturing the conversation. Although we are promoting a new theme every fortnight, we want to keep all the conversations flowing.
History Begins at Home is a campaign promoted by the Chief Archivists in Local Government Group and the Archives for Wellbeing Network. Primarily it is there to deliver a public benefit – everyone needs to look after their mental wellbeing – but it also about proving that archives can make a positive contribution to an this incredibly important agenda. Archives provide an opportunity for sustained engagement with a past with which people have a personal connection. This wellbeing benefits of this can last a lifetime. Engaging people through History Begins at Home can only help.
A few months ago, through a series of coincidences, staff at Suffolk Archives discovered something remarkable.
Amongst the records we hold for the Suffolk Regiment is a bundle of 41 long-lost letters. The letters were written during the retreat to Dunkirk, and for those who did not make it home they may well be their last messages.
These letters, however, never reached the loved ones they were written to. They went astray in France and were discovered in an abandoned post van by a German officer. They spent the next three decades in the officer’s loft, before he handed them in at the British Embassy in Bonn in 1969.
From there they were sent to the Suffolk Regiment, who tried to deliver them to the people they had been intended for 29 years earlier. Alas, most people could not be found at the addresses on the original envelopes, and 41 of the letters were returned to the Suffolk Regiment, and are now safely kept at our Bury St Edmunds office.
When the letters were re-posted in 1969 they included this cover letter which gave some explanation about what had happened to them (Suffolk Archives/Suffolk Regiment Museum)
The letters are full of personality. Many try to be reassuring, some more successfully than others. Many are full of longing for home, and the countryside that would be so beautiful in the May sunshine. One or two (written to girlfriends or would-be girlfriends) border on the risqué. Authors urge their family and friends to write as often as they can to stay in touch.
During work to digitise the letters a few months ago, a staff member started to research what had happened to their authors. Who had made it home, and who hadn’t? Many survived Dunkirk only to end up as Japanese prisoners later in the war.
A flirtatious letter from Private Leman Martin to Miss Pamela Howels (Suffolk Archives/Suffolk Regiment Museum)
And now we get to the most remarkable bit of the story. Another member of staff took a look at the letters and saw that one, sent by Private Harry Cole, was addressed to a house in the village where she lives in east Suffolk. More than that, she recognised the family name. She was quickly able to establish that the Mr Cole she knows is the youngest brother of the author of the letter, who died during the retreat. This was his last letter home, and his family never received it.
Having secured permission from the owners of the letters, the Suffolk Regiment Museum, we sent a copy of Harry’s letter in the post to his youngest brother and hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a shock. Fortunately the family were thrilled to receive the letter, though the discovery is of course tinged with great sadness.
The whole collection of letters is due to be part of an intergenerational project with Suffolk Artlink focused on communication, which would have been well underway at the moment were it not for the Covid-19 lockdown. With the project postponed we still wanted to do something to highlight the letters in 2020 to mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation from Dunkirk.
We decided that the best way to share the letters was through an online display on our website. Our website is not really built to do this, so we are making the best of the built-in features that it has and using other platforms to help make the content more interactive, in this case especially the design tool Canva.
The online display was accompanied by a press release which told the story of the whole collection of letters and focused on Harry Cole’s letter being delivered 80 years late as a headline. The story has had quite a bit of media interest, appearing in national as well as local news, such as this piece on the BBC website.
There may well be other people out there with connections to the letters, and the online display includes a list of all of the authors and recipients; hopefully some more families will be traced and be able to read the long-lost words of a loved one.
The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (RAS) was established in 1823 as an independent organization for promoting research and public interest in the histories and cultures of Asia. Many of its founders had been members of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, founded in 1784 by the famous linguist Sir William Jones.
Why was the RAS founded? In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, greater numbers of Europeans moved to live and work in different parts of Asia, as diplomats, merchants, and soldiers, as trade increased and the British Empire rapidly expanded. But there was still very limited understanding of Asian cultures in Britain, or elsewhere in Europe. The RAS sought to improve public knowledge about Asia, including by supporting translations of classic works of literature; and tried to make it easier for scholars to access books, art, manuscripts, and other objects relating to Asian cultures. The Society’s members often donated their own collections to aid this purpose – ranging from Persian manuscripts to Indian paintings to Japanese ukiyo-e theatrical prints – and most of these collections are still with us today, forming the core of the Society’s holdings.
Today, the RAS is a charity which provides free public access to all its collections via its Reading Room service, and we keep looking for new opportunities to make cultural history available to as many people as possible. We want people to know what we have, and we also want people to know the stories behind the collections. In addition to promoting new study of Asian cultures, we want people to know how British people in the past have studied Asia. Many British people who spent time in India, China, Persia or elsewhere collected art, manuscripts and other objects, to better understand local histories and cultures, or from simple aesthetic or intellectual interest. Today, there is wide public awareness that some cultural artefacts were acquired by Europeans in Asia during or after military conflict. But private scholarly collections, many of which were later donated to libraries and museums, often entered European hands legitimately, in much more mundane fashion: typically purchased on the market, or acquired as copies, commissioned by European enthusiasts, of original paintings and manuscripts.
Digital technology is a great way to make collections accessible to people who live outside London and who, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, might have found it difficult to access our collections. Online access is particularly relevant to the Society because many of our collections originate from Asian countries and may contain much of interest to people who live thousands of miles away. Thanks to digitization, it’s much easier for people living in Nepal, Malaysia, or anywhere else to see what we have.
Although only a portion of our collection is digitized, this amount has grown dramatically in recent years. We have now put hundreds of manuscripts, paintings, and early photographs online, as well as the archive of Thomas Manning, one of the first Englishmen to study Chinese and a close friend of the Romantic author Charles Lamb. The Society aspires to digitize and make available online as much of our collection as we possibly can, and in recent years we have been grateful for opportunities to collaborate with partners including the National Library Board of Singapore and the Internet Archive. Now, the Society can provide direct access to its digital collections through its Digital Library, which was launched in 2018 with support from the Friends of the National Libraries. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant our building has been closed since mid-March, and so we have been especially grateful that the Digital Library means people can still access some of our most important collections. We have tried to add new digital collections to the platform since we have been closed, and we will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.
The government lockdown has revealed how embedded digital technologies have become throughout our daily lives, not least because so many people have remained productive while “working from home”. But the lockdown also reminds us how much of our cultural heritage is now available to see online, from home, while libraries, archives, and museums are shut. Of course, what is online is still only a fraction of our country’s rich heritage collections; and staff and users alike are keen to see heritage institutions safely re-open, so that our cultural life can begin to return to normal. But, thanks to digital technology, the past decade has seen a dramatic change in the accessibility of collections, and now, even a small institution like the RAS can have its own digital collections platform.
When libraries and archives strive to deliver valuable content to their users, they look at the example of what their colleagues have achieved elsewhere. We can imitate what has worked well in other cases, and try to avoid repeating mistakes that have been made before. In the process, while we are pursuing our own priorities and the needs of our users, we are also contributing to a process of selection, and helping good ideas to become more widespread. In this way, piecemeal innovations across different services can be unconsciously coordinated and lead to general improvements in services across wide areas, in ways nobody could have foreseen, until even small libraries and archives ultimately benefit from sophisticated applications and techniques developed by people more expert than us.
Heritage professionals everywhere are looking forward to the re-opening of archives, libraries, galleries, and museums, and are working together to solve the challenges which that involves. When we think about future goals and ambitions, it can be helpful to reflect on how we have responded to challenges in the past. In doing so, we can reflect on the processes that have served us well, and which have allowed the ingenuity of our technically-minded colleagues, the care and diligence of archivists and curators, and the imagination and passion of creators, scholars, and collectors, to help create the rich heritage environment we enjoy today.