Can’t See the Exhibits for the Pokémon

Pokemon crossing SVSophie Vohra is a CDA student at the University of York in collaboration with the National Railway Museum. Her research examines the commemorative cultures and making of railway history. 

Pokémon. For some of us a happy reminder of our millennial childhood that we left buried on a Gameboy somewhere in a forgotten draw. But as our cycle moves back into 90s style edging into the early 2000s, we are bombarded again with this craze. This time using a format so many of us are now so familiar with – the smart phone app. This new game has people of all ages engaging with physical space in a way that seems almost unheard of in this day and age, and this most definitely includes places of heritage. In this piece I want to briefly examine how this incredibly popular game works within my partnered institution, the National Railway Museum.

In the National Railway Museum, visitors are spoilt for choice when wanting to boost their Pokémon experience. It boasts not one but two gyms and seven Pokéstops. This means that the avid collector can make their way around the museum space while catching their Pokémon and maybe gain enough ground to hatch another egg. But does this mean that they will actually pay attention to the fantastic objects masquerading on their app as a place to train their best players?

There are several mistakes in what they believe to be in the GPS spots on the game. Of the two gyms, the one that claims to be the royal train is actually incorrectly labelled. The royal trains are all in Station Hall, while this gym is in the other large section of the museum called the Great Hall. Additionally, the location of the Southern Railway 0-6-0 Q1 Class steam locomotive, No. 33001, has since been replaced by an ambulance trains exhibition. I also don’t think Queen Anne would be happy to know that where her royal saloon car should apparently sit is actually taken up by an LNER loco with a third class carriage attached behind!

Further to this, the objects used as stops or gyms appear to be a rather random selection. They are, like the rest of the Pokéstops for the game, things or places of special interest. But why would you then choose the SR 33001 over an engine like the Evening Star, or the N&CR Water trough over Laddie, the stuffed railway collecting dog in Station Hall? It also shocked me that a secluded wall of railway-related signs right in the back corner of the Hall is attributed with gym status. Why not choose a famous loco such as the versions of Rocket or Locomotion in the Great Hall instead? If the points of interest chosen were selected by the museums themselves, it may give a very different image of the star pieces in the collection. Additionally, specifically in the NRM, there would be the opportunity to place some of the stops or gyms in the extensive open-storage warehouse with so many interesting items to explore. So users of the app are signposted to go to specific items in the museum, but not those that I believe would be chosen by the museum themselves.

Some museums are using this craze to their advantage as a unique selling point. The Black Country Living Museum for example is offering discounted admission to the site between the hours of 3pm-5pm until 4 September for those who present the app on entry and wish to catch Pokémon! But this appears to be a way of getting bums on seats and boosting giftshop sales rather than actually encouraging these visitors to engage with the collections. Surely that is what museums’ main concern should be rather than demonstrating that 16-25 year olds really do come to places of heritage now for more funding! (check out The Museum Playbook post for example). This is where the heritage industry becomes centred around its function as a business rather than their ethical obligations to preserve their collections to benefit present and future generations.

As much as I am proud of myself for taking over the ‘Old Timey Signs Discriminating Against Farmers’ gym for less than an hour, I wasn’t really paying attention to my surroundings when doing so and I suspect neither are those visitors playing the game around the museum as well. Does chasing a Pikachu into the museum not only help to increase visitor numbers but also enable them to benefit the learning opportunities these spaces have to offer (as well as being able to grab some treats from the Pokéstop)? Or have we actually found a way of engaging with space while at the same time having no understanding beyond an alternative reality map of the world around us? I think we can only come close to answering these with a real research project focussing on these sorts of issues. For now, I think we will just have to let trainers catch their Pokémon and hope that they can spend enough time with their eye line above their phone to see some of the amazing stuff the heritage industry has to offer.

Security in Museums, Libraries and Archives

Image from Night at the Museum (2006)

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous. 

On a recent visit to the National Archives, I accidentally smuggled an eraser into the reading room. My clear plastic bag had been searched on the way in and I had been waved through. Not the end of the world. I’m not the kind of person who wants to rub out some of the national history, or deface a part of the UK’s heritage. Still, it got me thinking about how secure the repositories of the nation’s treasures are.

On visiting a museum to kill some time before a train, I was called across for a bag search. The steward had a look in my densely packed backpack and handbag and asked me what a few things were, what was in the carrier bag and so on, and trusted my responses. Obviously I’m far from alone in finding this process odd. An article in the Guardian from this time last year criticised the searches ‘discriminatory’ and ‘ineffectual’, but noted at least the Kensington Museums search everyone. This summer, that appears to no longer be entirely true. At some, the longer the queue and crowded the Museum, the less likely I am to be bag searched, perhaps in contrast to the proportional danger faced. While the Guardian is concerned with terrorism, the matter of artefact security is also an issue. The ‘search’ may only be the question of ‘do you have anything sharp?’ and if I was a vandal who wanted to cause some damage, I would say ‘no’ and be allowed to carry on.

What is this security meant to achieve? Anyone familiar with it is unlikely to see it as a deterrent to bringing prohibited items into a Museum, and those who accidentally bring prohibited items with them are unlikely to be the ones a Museum should worry about being in possession of such things.

Furthermore, cases of people damaging objects without the help of implements are perhaps more prevalent reason for concern. While the move away from glass cases and barriers in Museums is an important part of making them more universally engaging places, it also makes artefacts vulnerable. A couple of years ago I witnessed a child playing on a piece of [what I think was] art in a modern art museum, and stories of objects being broken, wilfully or more likely otherwise, are not uncommon. People are liabilities, but thankfully ones which can be mitigated against. If, as the Guardian suggests, current procedures for security in museums are a ‘farce’, perhaps it’s time for a rethink and a reallocation of resources. Greater warder presence in galleries may be more effective for all-round security than the current system of half-hearted bag searches. This may be particularly true when museums are at their busiest, when bag searches are briefest, and galleries most crowded.

I have been at the Science Museum during an evacuation, and it was calmly and swiftly enacted. There is no reason to suggest overall security procedures are weak. But there is the feeling that the current, token bag searches are a waste of time and money which allow museums to be seen to be doing something, while acting as little more than a placebo for providing a sense of security. This is surely unnecessary and wasteful, given that the more robust security procedures to protect against sinister threats no doubt are managed behind the scenes. Brains cleverer and more experienced than mine could come up with better ways to improve security for both artefacts and people, but there seems to be an opportunity here to put these resources to good use, namely protecting the nation’s collections from ourselves.

Let’s Go to Gaol: Prison History, Prison Museums, and Why They Matter

Lincoln Entrance
Front view of the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle

Dan Johnson is a PhD researcher in the Department of History at the University of York. His research focusses on public understandings of British penal history in museums.

Prisons are a major part of society, yet most of society have never seen one. We are taught that if we break the law, we go to jail. Our society depends on law and order, and if you break the law, you could be punished with by spending time in jail or prison. Crime and punishment is featured prominently on television in series such as Orange is the New Black, Prison Break, and Porridge; as well in movies including The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and even Toy Story 3. Crime and punishment have always been popular in literature, the news, and other media outlets as well. Generally speaking, the way that a large portion of society views the prison is through the media. Our views of criminals are often glorified as either the violent criminal, or the mistakenly convicted. Guards are often portrayed as racist, corrupt, cruel, or inept. How did these views come to be? Are these stereotypes used purely for entertainment, or are they rooted in historical fact? How did our society come to view prisons these ways and how did they come to function the way that they do? Through the interpretation of prison history in museums, visitors may find answers to some of these questions.

Prison museums have become popular tourist attractions all over the world in the last few decades. Some of the most popular prison museums in the world are Alcatraz in California, Robben Island in South Africa, and Melbourne Gaol in Australia. These museums, and the hundreds of other prison museums around the world, all attempt to give an historical interpretation of the prison to help visitors to construct a more realistic view of penal history and how prisons work today. In order to form a better understanding of how prisons work today, it is important to understand the history of the prison. Prisons became the main form of punishment in the first half of the nineteenth century. Prior to that, the Bloody Code made over 200 criminal offences punishable by death. Those that were not hanged for their crimes were often transported to North America. Following the American War of Independence, prisoners were transported to Australia from 1788 until 1868. The Bloody Code was repealed with the 1823 Judgement of Death Act that made the death penalty discretionary for all crimes except murder and treason. The loss of the ability to hang or transport convicts to America lead to the necessity to develop a more expansive prison system. A number of prison reform acts from the 1830s-70s saw the development of a two-fold penal system consisting of local prisons and gaols (jails) for minor offences, and national penitentiaries starting with Millbank and Pentonville Prisons. These national penitentiaries were the birth of modern prisons in Britain.

Through the restructuring of the punishment system in the UK, the role of prisons has also changed. Originally, prisons were a place of punishment for prisoners once convicted. Ideas of punishment evolved from physical such as whippings, to mental, such as solitary confinement. Eventually, the role of prisons shifted from places of physical punishment to places of reflection and moral rehabilitation. This shift saw the introduction of the separate and silent systems. Both were forms of solitary confinement where prisoners had little interaction with each other and forced them to reflect on their actions and hopefully they would repent their sins and become rehabilitated. Today, prison is no longer a place where convicts go to receive punishment, but their sentence is their punishment. In order to help prisoners reintegrate, many prisons offer education and various trade courses to help them to have the opportunity of a productive life after incarceration.

Understanding prison history is important for society because it helps people to make sense of the system that we live in today. The average prisoner has never been a murderer, yet that is how we see them on TV and in the news. Prison museums allow visitors to enter historic prisons, see how past prisoners lived, and sometimes see how prisons look and function today. They give people the opportunity to learn about the penal system and why the prison populations, along with stereotypes look the way that they do. In the USA, Eastern State Penitentiary museum brings current prison issues into the public eye, including a new exhibition on mass incarceration. One of the best prison museums in the UK is located at the Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle. At this museum, visitors step into a day in the life of Victorian prisoners in 1848. The museum explains that most criminals were not murderers or violent criminals, but were the unfortunate by-product of a class system that meant some were very wealthy and others were very poor. Most crime in Victorian rural Lincolnshire were convicted of theft, larceny, poaching, and pickpocketing because they simply needed to feed their families. Another top prison museum, the Nottingham Galleries of justice, houses and displays the HM Prison Service Collection that shows how the prison system has evolved over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Each prison museum shares a unique perspective on the history of criminal justice and provides visitors with a narrative rooted in history that they can compare to their previous assumptions and stereotypes perpetuated by the media and news outlets. Prison museums are special because they have the opportunity to provide visitors with a different view of the largely unknown, yet oddly familiar prison. It’s an opportunity to separate fact from fiction in an institution that is a large and important part of society. How different are prison museums from the popular culture? Visit one and see for yourself.

The academic in the museum: the benefits of Collaborative Doctoral Awards

York Minster. Caption reads "York, See Britain by Train"
British Railways poster “York: Gateway to History” by E. H. Spencer, 1955

Sophie Vohra is a CDA student at the University of York in collaboration with the National Railway Museum. Her research examines the commemorative cultures and making of railway history. 

At the beginning of this year I started my Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA), with one of my main goals being to use the skills and knowledge I acquire through this process to further my prospects in the heritage sector. Moving through my stages of higher education, I have increasingly become a strong advocate for disseminating the historical knowledge generated in institutions of higher education for public consumption, i.e. public history. Therefore carrying out a doctorate that would bridge the resources and knowledge of the University of York and the National Railway Museum for a topic I had almost accidentally fallen into loving – commemorative practice – seemed silly to pass up sending an application in for. Drawing on my experiences so far, I’m going to discuss what these CDAs bring to the parties involved (the university, the partnered institution and the student) and how this relationship is an important and enhancing process for knowledge development and exchange.

According to their Scheme Guidance document, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the funder of the scheme, wants CDAs to allow students to “gain first hand professional experience outside the university environment“. As such the programme should give students “real opportunities to develop career enhancing skills in addition to an academic qualification“. I have had the opportunity to actively take part in tasks around the museum, such as pest-checking railway carriages with the conservation team, and attending meetings where decisions are made about what is carried out and why, including what objects come in and are loaned out of the National Railway Museum’s collections. This is important because I can dip my toes into various aspects of working in a museum without having to commit fully to an area I may not find is my niche.

Furthermore, one of the key aspects of the partnership is that the student has the resources, support and guidance of their university alongside the cultural heritage partner. I am able to use and learn from the expertise of those within the university to increase my skills as an academic. This includes various elements of developing my thesis such as research techniques, structuring and writing styles. This relationship is also important for forging a career in academia with opportunities including teaching undergraduate students, training sessions on getting my work published, and various occasions to deliver papers for academic audiences. Additionally, many of the academics at York are actively engaged with projects that utilise their research both within and outside the university, for example consulting for both factual and fictional television and film.

Crucially, these partnerships are also very important for the institutions the students are bridging. The AHRC highlights that they want partnerships that exist to be solidified and new ones to be formed through this experience. Though I can only comment from a student’s point of view, I believe that these links mean that knowledge exchange can take place between groups that may not have otherwise come together or may not have found an innovative way of pooling their resources. The CDA may also allow for the opportunity to nourish students to assist in developing new and exciting research and skills for the benefit of both partners. Finally these links could then branch out to other institutions. For example, both the Universityof York and the National Railway Museum have links with other universities and railway museums in Europe. This could allow for partnerships that bring four institutions together or potentially a crossover of links such as between the University and the European railway museum.

But it has to be remembered that not every CDA works as is intended. One aspect of this partnership that did not come to mind initially when I applied was how much of the timetable should be allotted to contributing to museum projects alongside the thesis. In opening conversations with fellow CDA students from all years across the country, one of the first topics that quickly crops up are horror stories of how other students were over-employed by their partnered intuitions, being swept up by cataloguing projects, and when the clock struck twelve on the funding at the end of the three years, they still had not completed writing up the thing they ultimately had set out to do – their thesis! This does not suggest a healthy partnership between the the student’s university and the institution, nor between the student and their supervisors. In fact, the AHRC states quite firmly that “applications which appear to be requesting interns will not be considered favourably“. However, I have found that this overload can be combatted by ensuring that the research that is being carried out for the thesis already has a benefit for the cultural heritage institution as well. This ultimately has to come in the planning stages of the application summited by the university and in this case the museum. My research will hopefully be used to inform part of an exhibition and I will also be actively engaged in the exhibition planning. Therefore, aside from the experiences I am encouraged to or I ask to do in the museum, my research already has an output that benefits myself, the university, and importantly the partnered institution.

Overall I believe CDAs are important for a number of reasons: they allow students to develop essential experience over an extended period of time for their professional and academic development; it means that academic research in universities can be translated for public consumption, where the researcher can be actively involved in how this is carried out; they allow strong partnerships to develop and solidify between universities and cultural institutions for essential research to be carried out in future; finally they encourage symbiotic relationships between these institutions to become the norm where research coming out of universities can be used for the enhancement of the public’s education outside of places of formal learning. I therefore hope that the number of CDAs can increase for the benefit of universities, their students, the cultural heritage partners and, most importantly for me, for the general public.

How do we find Common Ground?

Exterior of the Ron Cooke Hub.
Ron Cooke Hub. Venue for Common Ground

Andrew Lewis is a research associate at the University of York, with expertise in cuneiform reconstruction, 3D printing and scanning and digital heritage.

Multidisciplinary interaction has been a key factor in the advancement of many fields throughout academia and enterprise.  These cross disciplinary relationships are symbiotic – offering benefits to all involved. For the heritage community, the opportunity for community engagement, novel interaction, and unique methods of visualisation are just a small subsection of the advantages that collaboration can afford. New techniques, new standards of practice, new technologies and tools, and new avenues of research are all born from the crucible of interdisciplinary cooperation.

The AHRC Commons event (being held on the 21st June 2016, 10am-6pm, at the Ron Cooke Hub, of the University of York) aims to celebrate this synergistic approach to research, with all members of the AHRC Commons community invited to take part. The ARHC Commons is an inclusive community, bringing together universities, creative economy, the cultural, health, and third sectors, micro businesses, SMEs, corporations, community groups, and more. There are no membership fees to pay, and individuals or groups at any career stage, from any sector or discipline are welcome to register and attend here.

As one of the zone co-leads for this event, I can tell you that the event promises to be far more than an just an ordinary conference. There will be hackspaces, wet-work rooms, lectures, debates, and demonstrations on a huge range of multidisciplinary projects spread over nine zones. The diversity of these conference zones is a marker of the inclusive scope of the AHRC Commons. The celebrate zone focusses on entertainment and performances. Stand-up comedy, poetry, storytelling, music, drama and other performances about ‘common’ experience are all presented here. In the Co-create zone, participants are focussed on conducting research through practice, collaborative arts, and fostering accessibility through analogue and digital pathways. This includes live arts and crafts, demonstrations, taster sessions, and exploration of the arts and humanities in any artistic form. The Stimulate zone takes a more traditional approach, with high profile and provocative speakers exploring the challenges and opportunities faced in all subjects related to the arts and humanities. In the Innovate zone, you will find hackathons and 360 degree digital screenings, with workshops on embracing the digital aspects of social media, and showcases of the equipment found in a modern makerspace.

Each zone at the Common ground will have a unique feel, but the underlying intention for all zones will be those of collaboration, cooperation, the dissemination of good practice in research, and public engagement. I strongly recommend attending what promises to be a ground breaking event.

You can book to attend the AHRC Common Ground event directly via Eventbrite. There are a limited number of tickets available, so book early to avoid missing out on what seems likely to be one of the most diverse and interesting academic events that you will ever attend.

Shaping the Body: A Conversation

photo 1 (11)

“Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder” is a quote that has been frequently drawn upon in recent times to counter the apparent bombardment of media imagery and dialogue which promotes the idea of the “perfect body”. In our current society, it would seem that social media and television maintain that our bodies ought to look thin, toned, athletic and hairless in order to be perceived as beautiful and healthy. Some have attacked the media with a backlash to highlight the unrealistic expectations placed upon our bodies. Yet, is this public war surrounding body shape and beauty, with the associated implications surrounding our health, really a new phenomenon which has stemmed from our mass media age?

This question, alongside the themes of nutrition and diet will form part of an upcoming event titled Shaping the Body: A Conversation, to be held at the York Castle Museum on June 9th 2016. Following on from last year’s successful event organised by the York Castle Museum and the University of York’s Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, the museum is hosting an interactive discussion aimed at the public. Last year’s event saw a group of historians, curators and ex-military personnel discuss a wide range of themes relating to the First World War. It included some challenging questions and made the audience think about how war is commemorated and remembered. Building on the success of that event, the York Castle Museum has decided to hold a similar discussion this year. The event will consist of a tour of the York Castle Museum’s new exhibition (titled Shaping the Body), followed by a panel discussion in the museum space with curators, fashion experts, medical professionals and academics working in the fields of body image and health. Audience members will be encouraged to ask questions and participate in this informal and interactive discussion. It is aimed to enhance the themes of the exhibition and to generate broader debate surrounding body image, lifestyle and nutrition throughout 500 years of history to the present day. It will explore the ways in which society has shaped the expectations of body image across the years and compare historical issues surrounding nutrition and health with the modern day concerns.

There are several benefits to organising an event such as this for the public to enjoy. Firstly, it will enable visitors to take an active part in learning more about the broader themes explored in Shaping the Body. The event will encourage audience participation through voting activities, asking questions and adding comments about the topics raised by the panel members.

Secondly, this event gives the general public a chance to go behind the scenes and learn about the curatorial decisions made in the planning of the exhibits. Curators of the exhibition will be present and will be able to elaborate on the choices they made when forming the exhibition. Visitors will also get the chance to ask curators and organisers of the event questions as they gain an exclusive tour of the exhibition before the panel discussion.

Finally, by organising a panel team to generate debate, the audience will be able to hear other interpretations surrounding the very topical issues relating to body image and to the changes in the human body over time. IPUP have enlisted the expertise of York Castle Museum curators, psychologists, medical experts and fashion historians to start the conversation and bring to life the ideas generated by the York Castle Museum exhibition space.

Meet the panel:

Beth Bell – Psychologist, York St John University

Beth Bell is a Senior Lecturer in Psycology at York St John University. Her research explores how young people react to technology and the media in relation to their body image and eating behaviour. Dr Bell’s knowledge will enable her to provide a contemporary perspective to the issues raised in the exhibition.

Alex Bowmer – Medic and Historian, King’s College London

Alex is a CDA PhD candidate at King’s College London and the University of Reading. His PhD focuses upon grass root conceptualisations of Epizootic and Zoonotic disease transmission in 20th century Britain, to establish how the public reacted, responded and understood disease transmission. As well as having a BA and MA in Modern History, he is also a qualified Intervention Healthcare Consultant. Alex has worked for over 6 years in pharmaceutical, emergency, psychological and sports medicine. He hopes to provide both past and contemporary understandings of body image, nutrition and health.

Glen Jankowski  – Psychologist, Leeds Beckett University

Glen’s research is primarily on men’s body image. He argues that men develop body dissatisfaction because businesses increasingly sell appearance insecurity in order to gain profits. He has published in the following journals: the Journal of Health Psychology, Psychology of Men and Masculinity and Body Image.

Sue Vincent – Cultural Historian, University of York

Susan Vincent is a Research Associate at the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies (CREMS) at the University of York. While working primarily on the cultural history of dress in the early modern period, she has expanded her research interests to include dress practices up to the present day. Her publications include Dressing the Elite: Clothes in Early Modern England and The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today, as well as shorter studies that range from acquiring clothes in the sixteenth century through to practices of glove-wearing in the twentieth. She is also general editor of the six-volume Cultural History of Fashion and Dress forthcoming from Bloomsbury later in the year.


With such a diverse panel team, the audience will be able to explore some of the complex issues which emerge from the exhibition surrounding contemporary and historical attitudes towards the human body.

If you would like to attend this unique and exciting event please click here to be directed to the Eventbrite page.

Tickets cost £5 (price includes an exclusive tour of the exhibition and access to the panel discussion held in the exhibition space).

“I know because I was there”: Archives, social justice and the Hillsborough Disaster

2009 banner to commemorate 20 years since the Hillsborough Disaster. Photo by Linksfuss (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Victoria Hoyle is York City Archivist and is studying for a PhD in the Department of History.

The role of archives in social justice activity is a hotly contested topic at the moment.  Around the world documentary evidence is being discovered, gathered and made accessible in order to bring to light injustices and inequalities perpetuated in the past.  In The Hague the UN International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkans have collected thousands of linear metres of records for war crime trials. In Australia, the Find and Connect project has collated archives of orphanages, homes and other institutions where generations of aboriginal children were held after being removed from their families. In Canada the same process is currently underway for the records of the Indian Residential Schools, supporting truth and reconciliation with native peoples. Here in the UK the records of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster have been digitised in consultation with the families of the victims and placed online in an unprecedented disclosure of police and government documents.

On 15th April 1989 ninety-six Liverpool football fans were crushed to death because of overcrowding at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield during an FA cup semi-final match. Another 700 people were injured.  In the immediate aftermath stories about the violent and drunken behaviour of fans prior to, during and after the tragedy were circulated by the police and received extensive coverage in the media.  The Sun newspaper infamously ran a front page story – “The Truth” – which squarely placed blame for the tragedy on the victims. Out-of-control fans were accused of stealing from the dead, of urinating on police and disrupting attempts to save lives.  It was a version of events that played into what Phil Scraton, Professor of Criminology and member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, has called “hooligan hysteria”.  By dehumanising the victims – thirty-eight of whom were children – and implicating them in their own deaths, the public’s attention was shifted away from the actions of the police and other authorities.  Archival evidence has subsequently shown this version of events to be entirely false.

After many years of campaigning by victims’ families and several inconclusive investigations the Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed in 2009.  Its purpose was to manage the disclosure of government and police records relating to the disaster, to interpret the records for the public and to create a permanent, discoverable archive. For the first time full disclosure was made of the records of all of the agencies, including those which would ordinarily have been closed.  In 2012 the publication of the Panel’s final report coincided with the release of over 355,000 scanned documents online and the establishment of places of deposit for the 450,000 hardcopy records in Sheffield and Liverpool.

The release of the archive revealed the conflicts between documentation, memory and witness testimony in establishing a narrative of the event.  The testimony of police officials and politicians in the immediate aftermath were directly contradicted.  At the same time the memories of people who were in the stadium and of victims’ families were absent or silenced.  It became clear, for example, that statements made by members of the South Yorkshire Police had been substantially edited.  They had been reviewed by senior officers and solicitors, and rewritten to fixed standards; 116 of the 164 statements had been changed in this way.  The documents were not just evidence of the truth but also evidence of the lies, both actual and by omission.  In order to fill in some of the gaps families submitted their own documentation, including letters to and from the original coroner and witness statements.  The Panel had a policy of ‘families first’, sharing all information with loved ones before releasing it.  The archive was a site of injustice and of justice activity at the same time.

As a direct result of the Panel’s report and the disclosed documentation the inquest into Hillsborough was reopened in 2014.  Just a few weeks ago on 26th April a jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing for all ninety-six victims.  At the same time it concluded that the South Yorkshire Police bore the largest share of the blame because of the poor decisions made on the day by commanding officers.  An investigation into the aftermath and the cover-up, Operation Resolve, is now underway, for which a further 70,000 documents are being disclosed.  These include the original notebooks carried by police officers on duty which were withheld from the Independent Panel.  For the families the Panel’s report and the inquest ruling represent the end of a 27 year battle for justice for their loved ones.

They are landmarks in archives practice too. Preserving and opening up archives in this way has broad implications for how archival institutions and archivists understand their work in society.  Historically the archivist has been positioned as a neutral and objective gatekeeper, whose work to select and catalogue records is an invisible prelude to interpretation and use by others.  More recently postmodernism has challenged this paradigm, re-envisioning the archivist as a subjective, independent actor whose choices impact on what will be remembered or forgotten and what types of history will be possible. The social justice agenda takes this impact a step further, envisioning archives work as a form of activism that can make real changes in the present. In the dark corners of archival theory journals a battle is raging over whether this is a reasonable or desirable shift in perspective.

As a PhD student working on the social, cultural and historical values of archives to communities, as well as a practising archivist, these debates dominate my research context. They ask questions about the relationships between the creators of archives – who may, in future, be implicated in injustices or criminal acts – the people described in the archives, the archivists who decide what should be kept for the future and the people who use them. Who has and can exercise power?  Who decides what is valuable and important? Who has the right to access and interpret surviving documentation? How should it be catalogued and described, and by whom?