Trying to organise an approach to a massive research project – by someone who has never done anything like this before
I had a go trying to organise how to go about covering the best part of two centuries of history of the parts of Cambridge that are all too often ignored by the guidebooks. The stereotype is that government ministers (of all parties in recent times) think Cambridge is King’s College Chapel, punting and ***Oooh! Complicated science stuff that we don’t understand but apparently it’s good for the Exchequer so we’ll just nod and smile for the cameras when we visit!***
The more serious points as I’ve stated in previous blogposts is that there are a number of fascinating stories that, when woven together tell an incredibly exciting and emotionally charged story of our city.
The matrix – time crossed with issues
This is what I mean by “it’s complicated”
My early doodles trying to map out my thoughts.
The first thing I’ve tried to identify (but not really populate just yet) is a timeline. (This was at stupid-o’clock in the morning, hence putting ‘Puffles arrives’ at the end). Big things such as the corruption scandals of the mid 1800s wonderfully curated by Keith Edkins here, to the coming of the railways, and the building of the horse-drawn street trams were not listed. The full list will be much greater and more diverse.
The bit that I’ve been struggling with is in what order to put this all in – or whether to dispense with any order at all and try and adopt a wheel-with-spokes approach. What I’ve done is listed the themes other than ‘The University’ to get a feel for how complex it would be with arbitrary 50 year periods. The themes thus far are:
- Local government
- Social issues
- People and equalities
- Civic society
- Sport and leisure
Inevitably there will be a huge amount of crossover. Florence Ada Keynes, Mary Paley Marshall and Eglantyne Jebb going after Cambridge’s social issues will inevitably cover at least four of those strands, if not more.
Questions – lots of them
I tried to write them down
I have a lot more. Some of them are contemporary – for example on how developers are gaming the planning system at the expense of Cambridge. Blame here lies squarely with ministers – they tabled the legislation having effectively been ‘convinced’ by representatives of the property building industry. Others will be more random or causes close to my heart – such as the demolition/loss of a host of public venues and the non-construction of others.
Tracking the legal and administrative changes
***This*** is the most challenging part. Not least because there is so much of it but it is written in a language that is not automatically accessible to the general reader.
The screenshots above are from the online catalogue of the Cambridgeshire Archives, specifically a list of their records on Acts of Parliament and bills laid before it. One of the things that strikes me are the sort of issues that legislation is tabled in Parliament for. In the grand scheme of things, as time goes by we see fewer town-specific bills and Acts of Parliament, rather we see Cambridge being affected by legislation that affects the whole country – such as local government reorganisations.
Not wanting to replicate Enid Porter’s work with the Folk Museum
The first museum I can remember my mum taking me to when I was about five was the Cambridge and County Folk Museum – http://folkmuseum.org.uk/. Enid Porter, one of the founding mothers of Cambridgeshire local history was the curator for the best part of three decades. It does what it does very well on a shoestring budget. With such limited resources and being on such a small site means that the museum is yet to fulfil what I think is its true potential (as an institution) as ‘The Museum of Cambridge’ which it rebranded to just over a decade ago.
As you can see here though, they are clearly going in the right direction through their Capturing Cambridge project and the up-and-coming Cambridge History Festival. I’d like to think that in a decade or twos time, the latter festival could be as big as say the Cambridge Science Festival is – also coming up in the very near future. Recall that the science festivals are a very recent invention. Which makes me think about one other theme: Cambridge University’s outreach activities over the past 20 years, and how they have changed.
But at the moment, with such a small budget, small team and small site, the team simply don’t have the resources or the space to tell the full story of how Cambridge got to where it is today. To tell that story dare I say it, will need the active and willing co-operation and support not just of the University of Cambridge but also of its component colleges too. It would also need the active support of local government, of the longstanding large employers and of the whole city too. But with Whitehall’s treatment of local government despite the rhetoric of devolution, I can’t see much changing until local councils are able to raise significant funds through taxation themselves.
The risk of losing focus
In one sense I feel I already have. Each of the themes that I’ve listed above is a potential book in itself. At the same time, and in part this is my mental illness/anxiety showing its face here, there are some themes where I don’t feel I have the right to be covering – or rather that there are other more qualified and better people to be covering those themes. Everything to do with the votes for women campaign. The newspapers from the time are telling me that there was a huge amount of activity kicking off here, to the extent that a number of the major figures of those days were visiting fairly regularly from London, if they weren’t already here anyway.
Another example is local government. Shouldn’t it be a current or former local councillor that writes the history of local government in and around Cambridge? On the other hand, such is the bruising that councillors and activists take that I wouldn’t blame them for wanting to put their feet up after years attending council meetings. Especially those that hardly anyone acknowledges you putting in the time in for, but that if you and other councillors didn’t put the time in, the city would grind to a halt.
What is it that people want to see, read and hear?
I can’t remember who said it – I think it was one of Tony Blair’s acolytes, but he said that if you want to make a lasting impact in politics, you had the choice of making a speech, writing a book or setting up a think tank/institution. As the 1980s moved into the 90s, noughties and to the present day we found that setting up an institution was becoming more popular – especially those on the political right. My Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb did all three. She wrote a book, she made speeches all over the place, and she founded one of the most well-known children’s charities the world has ever known – Save the Children. Further more, she’s got her signature at the top of a ground-breaking international treaty – The Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child 1924. She should have been awarded the Order of Merit for her works.
In this digital age, it’s not just a speech or a book – or even an institution that I’m looking at. It’s more that … well this is our shared history. Be inspired by it, take collective ownership of it and go out and create the next chapter in our city’s history. Hence why in earlier blogposts I spoke about art, music, dance and drama that has a ‘Wow!’ factor as being integral to it all.
The items that have really got people talking are the buildings that have been demolished, and the large, colourful maps.
Holford-Wright proposals from 1950 – The Cambridge Plan
The above-map can be found both in the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Cambridge Central Library, and also in the County Archive at Shire Hall. Out of all of the books and maps I’ve acquired, this is the one piece above all others that really captures the imagination of people.
It’s one of the reasons why I’d love to see maps of the same size and colour created by skilled cartographers (yes, I know I’m skint) that features Cambridge at different points in its history.
At a digital level – and this would break the bank, what would a 3-D visualisation of walking through lost Cambridge be like? Or even paintings of communities, buildings and scenes now long gone? This exhibition about The Kite – where The Grafton now is, gives a hint of what the area was once like.
Food for thought?