Researcher in Residence

Mystery objectA guest blog from our Researcher in Residence, Bethan Foulkes

By way of introduction, I’m Bethan Foulkes, a first year PhD candidate at Manchester University studying economic and social history. Specifically, my thesis is analysing the shifting debates and discourse surrounding unemployment and the unemployed in Britain, between 1860 and 1911. My proposed Researcher in Residence project for the People’s History Museum began life as an emotional history of unemployment, but upon consultation with the institution, the project has already taken a very different route.

At our first meeting, Chris Burgess of the PHM mentioned that they were in possession of the Department of Employment’s object collection, and that this had sat idle since being donated. The opportunity to be amongst the first people (certainly the first from an academic institution) to engage with these objects was too good to pass up on, and I leapt at the chance. By the end of this meeting it was agreed that my project would research a small selection of these items through the paper records and photographs, in order to discover their histories. The next step was to get down to the museum’s object store, to have a look and what objects were available.

A few days later I got down to the store, and was absolutely delighted with what I found. Dozens of signs and notices, and one particularly beautiful cast iron insignia (of origin still unknown). After some unexpected manual labour to get a good look at everything, the recurrent theme was that of labour exchanges, or job centres as they would later become. There were signs dating from as early as 1913 and the 20s and 30s outlining the services available at ‘labour exchanges’. Similar ones existed from the mid-20th century for the ‘employment exchanges’, and finally signs from the 1970s almost to the current day, for ‘job centres’. From this, the project seemed to write itself; a 100 year history of work for the unemployed, from labour exchanges to the job centre. Having established this, I decided to take a quick look at the photography within the collection, and was equally as delighted to find a wealth of photographs spanning the century: exchange frontages, staff photos, queuing customers.

The next stage will be to decide exactly how the tangible outcomes of this project will be formed. I am applying for a small grant from the graduate school, as the absence of available funds from the museum could be prohibitive. Spatial circumstance at the museum will also be a factor; once we have identified the space (or potential lack thereof) in which the project can be produced, I can establish exactly how it will work. As it stands, if the space is available, a small exhibition would be ideal. However, if it is not, I must consider alternative arrangements. A viable option would be to hold an object handling session with the public, talking them through the historical narrative and research, and allowing them to interact with the objects more closely. Once I have been informed of the space I have to work in, I can get going on producing the research!

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