Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Imagine for a moment you are a survivor of the sinking of the Titanic; your memories are different from those of other survivors but you have a shared experience with hundreds. Americans, on the other hand, have collective memories of the assassination of President Kennedy or of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 because of television, but our experiences differ greatly from those in Dallas that November or of 9-11 survivors. What could historians learn if they had just a paragraph of how these events affected a segment of the population--say half a million Americans? That information would be quite invaluable.
On May 12th, 2020, people of all ages across the United Kingdom will be asked to contribute a diary entry telling historians and researchers about their everyday life as it played out on this particular Tuesday. This chosen date happens to be in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic while the infection rate and death toll on the island is climbing. The event is part of the Mass Observation Archive’s ongoing work to catalog the experiences of the British people. According to the website for this fascinating project, the very first Mass Observation Day was held on May 12th, 1937 when George VI was crowned king, but many of those entries were not accessible to the public until the University of Sussex took charge of it 1970. Now researchers have endless insights to gain from Britons who lived through air raids, the death of Churchill, the rise of Thatcher, and much more.
Looking back at some of the prompts or directives sent out to Mass Observers, there are some interesting subjects that caught my eye. Respondents catalogued thoughts about the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981, and the following year they wrote about the Falklands war and entry into the European Economic Community. Thoughts about the AIDS crisis were collected in 1987 as knowledge about the virus spreading to different populations emerged. Mad Cow concerns popped up as a subject in the late 1990s along with the death of Princess Diana. In the early 2000s, the mass observers were asked about the war in Iraq, Charles and Camilla, the London bombings, and even Hurricane Katrina. More recently within the past decade, people have sent in responses about William and Kate’s wedding, the London 2012 Olympics, and the Scottish and EU referendums. Brexit is also a subject that will draw a massive response and will be useful to historians interested in nationalism in particular.
Beyond these specific topics, there are open-ended directives that ask about workdays, weather, gardening, bank holidays, favorite personal hygiene products, shopping habits, favorite television series, British values, and so forth. There are even some very personal prompts about diet/obesity, sex and affairs, menstruation, and sleeping patterns.
Mass Observers chosen by the project have their responses to these directives recorded and archivists know the demographics of these chosen people. For the mass appeal directives, however, respondents are asked to include a brief demographic survey with their short personal memoirs that will include their age, sex, location, relationship status, and occupation among other options. The archivists actively request a diverse response seeking classrooms to do the project as well as senior centers and religious adherents of various faiths as well as those from different occupations. It will take a while to process the information they gain from this year’s mass appeal on May 12th, but given we are in the midst of a pandemic we should not only learn a lot about homelife but also concerns about healthcare, access to goods and services, financial worries, political critiques, and a myriad of other possibilities.
The rise of social history has renewed interest in the lives of “everyday people,” and within the past decade alone there has been an influx of “People’s histories” and texts on the “Everyday Lives” of urban dwellers, workers, and other interesting groups. This move along with increased interest in the history of the family and private lives naturally enriches what we know about each nation’s history by giving us insights into a larger proportion of the population. Cultural historians have also expressed interest in popular culture and mass culture in order to better understand what people consume and how they live and are entertained. So as the field of history grows to include knowledge about an increasing number of people and their lives, groups like the Mass Observation Archive and their ongoing project provide historians with a rich source base to mine in the years to come.
The Mass Observation Archive and its directives project is a mission after my own heart, and it corresponds with the types of activities that I hope the History Starts Now movement will encapsulate as it grows. By leaving behind traces of our everyday lives, whether singularly on our social media or collectively in responses like those by the British people, we are recording our lives for the benefit of those who come after us. So with that, let me ask you again to engage the present and help preserve the past. Whether it is a photo taken in passing or a Facebook rant about your day, those may prove informative, especially when paired with countless others, to some historian in the future. Let’s do our part. History starts now.
For more information about the Mass Observation Project or Archive, see their website: http://www.massobs.org.uk .
History starts now. Engage the present. Preserve the past.