“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?

Lives of the First World War: Retaining personal connections to the conflict using new technology

Lives of the First World War homepage
The home page of the IWM’s livesofthefirstworldwar.org

The year 2014 saw the start of a four year long centenary commemoration of the First World War. Remembrance programmes, local events, educational trips to the battlefields and a nationwide ‘lights out’, have all been part of the 100 year anniversary of the conflict so far. These acts of communal and shared remembering can be described as forms of ‘collective memory’. This is a concept that was coined by Maurice Halbwachs to understand the  social ‘framing’ of the past. Collective remembrance has been developed by Jay Winter to describe forms of ‘public recollection’ of the past and is frequently used in the analysis of the memory of war. Collective memories can be shaped by governments, media professionals, historians, families, museums and archivists to name but a few. My own research surrounds the study of these forms of public history, noting how and why they change over time and the efforts of groups to tell alternative discourses of the past.

The current centenary of the First World War is a perfect case study to examine how forms of public history are being used to reshape the history of the conflict in modern day Britain. Despite the family ties which have enabled the war to remain an important event in British history, redefining the war to appeal to younger generations in particular has been noted as a challenge. Dan Todman outlined how the younger generations ‘have grown up with well established myths of the Great War’ but they ‘have no personal connection to it’.

It seems that organisations such as the Imperial War Museums are turning to new technologies to enable the public to gain a greater connection to the personal histories of the Great War. Their Lives of the First World War project in particular, is innovative in its blend of memorial culture and internet genealogy. When the IWM was originally formed, it took care of artifacts, letters and medals donated by the relatives of deceased soldiers.  The original premise of housing the items belonging to ordinary people and making personal histories of war part of a national story, is prevalent in the aims of this new online endeavour. Users are encouraged to add their own memories and actively input documents and images to the individual pages, one for each participant in the war.

Acting as a sort of Facebook for the First World War generation, Lives of the First World War is something that could potentially enable a greater connection to the conflict amongst younger generations, due to its interactivity and future use as an online memorial and family history database. The platform evidently taps into the popularity of online genealogy. As Jerome De Groot notes the web allows for ‘collaborative genealogy’ where users can share, discuss and add documents as part of their research using websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past. Lives of the First World War adopts this model by creating profiles for every person with added medal roll card details and the ability for users to add further digitalised documents and collaborate with other users.

The project also serves to add to the original meaning of the Great War memorial by including all service men and women from Britain and the Commonwealth who participated in the conflict. It also includes all those that survived after the conflict. Peter Barham ‘excavated’ the forgotten stories of shell shocked soldiers of the Great War in his book Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War. One of his goals was to include these men in the public understanding of the conflict, as he feared remembrance of those that had survived the war had been overshadowed by the memorials to the dead. Lives of the First World War also addresses this issue by creating an online memorial to all. The homepage of the website states ‘we believe that each and every one of the 8 million who served in the Great War deserve to be remembered’. By forming a memorial such as this, the apparent divisions which existed between the remembrance of those that survived and those that died can be removed. It also has potential to increase awareness of the Commonwealth soldiers who served as they are also added to the database. This is clearly an aim across many organisations working on centenary projects and is outlined in the British Futures Report.  The inclusion of Commonwealth soldiers aids to reshape the memory of the war to fit with the heritage of a modern multicultural community who may have ancestors from other nations who participated in the war.  This ‘permanent digital memorial‘  fits the society in which it is being created, just as the stone memorials did in 1919, which were designed to enable personal and communal grieving in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Although that the website seems to be an innovative way in which to create a memorial for all, there are some ambiguities present in the design. Perhaps inspired by the popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, users are able to ‘Remember’ each individual soldier with a click of a button. This tool is markedly similar to the popular ‘Like’ buttons on social media websites. It is unclear what purpose this button serves. Is it to highlight famous soldiers who inevitably have thousands of users ‘Remembering’ them such as Siegfried Sassoon? Is it fair that servicemen and women who have no living relatives and whose pages have not been added to, are to be potentially forgotten on the website as in real life? A sort of popularity contest for who is being most ‘remembered’ is not the best way in which to promote remembrance in an equal way. Yet, given the connection to social media websites, it is probable that the ‘Remember’ button is simply another feature to try and attract younger audiences who could interact with the lives of their ancestors in a familiar way to how they present their own lives using social media.

This initiative by the IWM clearly represents an active attempt to sustain the collective remembrance of the conflict in Britain for the future using the latest technology. As Winter and Sivan emphasise, the memory of war is ‘dependent on people to act’ and to continue ‘mobilising resources which keep memory alive’.  If history is not retold in this way by groups in society, historic events can be forgotten. The Imperial War Museums are clearly using the centenary to ensure the younger generations in Britain can find ways to interact with the history of a conflict which is now outside of living memory. The overall popularity of the site is unclear. Is it reaching the target audience? Clearly, school groups have been encouraged to fill in the profiles of soldiers from their locality. Family historians have also added photographs and memories, but many soldiers’ lives have not been added to by living relatives. Perhaps the true value of the initiative will be revealed in 2019 after the end of the commemorations. Although there are uncertainties surrounding the website, it represents an attempt by the leading organisation of war remembrance to engage with younger audiences and reshape the memory of the war in a more interactive and inclusive way.

Harriet Beadnell is a PhD student at the University of York and a graduate of the MA in Public History. Her research explores the role, representation and identity of Second World War veterans since 1945.