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3 weeks, 3 audiences

October, it turns out, has been a busy month for us. Over the course of 3 weeks we’ve participated in events involving 3 of our key target audiences: the rail industry, family historians and academics. By way of a project update, this blog post summarises a few of the aspects of each of the events.


Rail Safety Summit, London

We were invited in to speak at this event, in its 10th year and which brings together a variety of people and organisations involved in safety critical work in the current industry. The line-up of speakers for this year’s summit, which focused on staff safety issues, demonstrated the buy-in from the industry: chaired by Nicola Uijen (Health & Safety Director for Network Rail North-West & Central) and including presentations from Martin Frobisher (Group Director, Safety, Technical & Engineering for Network Rail), Richard Peters (Chief Medical Officer, Network Rail), Joan Heery (Engineering Director, AECOM), Paul Furnell (Detective Chief Superintendent, British Transport Police), Allan Spence (Head of Passenger & Public Safety, Network Rail) and Simon French (Chief Inspector, RAIB). To have been included in this line up was a great testament to the reach of the project and the way in which the industry is keen to engage with its past.

Unsurprisingly, the seriousness with which the industry treats safety was clear – and at the same time, the willingness to be critical of the current situation was refreshing. Positives were noted – but so were the challenges and areas for improvement. That included the number of near misses for track workers, including the recent fatalities at Margam. Frobisher outlined the £70m to be invested in a new safety taskforce; there was discussion about who was to be represented in this – including the unions (good) but the need for supervisors to be more closely involved as the ‘boots on the ground.’ Interestingly technology and safety culture were seen as joint solutions to at least some of the problems identified. Pleasingly, the past appeared throughout the day – sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. Heery spoke about safety efforts in her organisation including some techniques (like ‘safety coins’) which have been tried before; discussion from the floor brought in experience from BR days, too. One highlight was the passion with which Spence talked about safety issues – and, tragically, how he found it respectful and important to know and speak the names of those who have been killed on the railways, whether at work or at level crossings.

Key for us was that our session was well-received. We asked people to think about the past: if it’s used at all, and then how it might be used. Essential was the importance of understanding how the past consciously and unconsciously shapes the present, and getting people to question received wisdoms. It was a great chance, of course, to take the project to the heart of the current industry, and we’re working on following up leads. It gave us more insight into the industry and its needs, and the ways in which the past is understood – and it was brilliant to be able to recognise and thank our volunteers publicly.

Our Twitter thread of day is here.


Inheriting the Family project workshop, Oxford

Next up was the first workshop of the ‘Inheriting the Family: Emotions, History and Heritage’ network. Funded by the AHRC and jointly led by Katie Barclay of the University of Adelaide and Joanne Begiato of Oxford Brookes University, the network is bringing together a variety of researchers – family historians, academics, archivists and more – to consider why people grasp particular stories or objects relating to their past and what power those items and ideas have across generations and in public debate. This is absolutely the sort of initiative it’s great to see, really tying in nicely with the sorts of things the ‘Historians Collaborate’ movement has been working towards.

Discussion for the day focused on genealogy and genetics – not so unlikely an area for us, as of course a wide-ranging view of the topic was taken. Presentations from Tanya Evans (a project friend!) Jerome de Groot, Maria Sophia Quine, Petra Nordqvist, Delyth Edwards and others addressed a variety of areas. So far as the project is concerned, some stand-out points were to do with the methodology – how we might collaborate across boundaries, how we explore and recover voices from the past that might not have been recorded in the formal record, as well as the ethics of doing this type of research (what happens when we uncover something that was wanted to be forgotten?).

Our involvement was via a roundtable discussion, thinking about collaboration, why people engage with their pasts, and what role emotions play in this. As you can imagine, given our subject matter, we’ve had some tricky material to deal with – but people have engaged very positively with it, particularly those whose ancestors have been mentioned. We were able to draw upon that, including some testimony received that morning from the Great Niece of one of the men discussed in a blog post – she was delighted that we’d written the piece, as she saw it as a testimony to her Great Uncle. The panel worked really well, with a mix of academics and archivists, all of us working with a diversity of people who have some investment in our efforts – just as we do with their interests and efforts.

As part of this Tanya Evans challenged us to get better at thinking about methodology and about how we articulate the value of what’s going on in institutions like universities, as well as questioning how we reach people and get them involved in constructing their own archives. A really nice comment that encapsulated what a lot of the people at the workshop were trying to do came from Gary Brannan, Archivist for the Borthwick Institute, when he said that he felt he was looking after past people, via the documents that are now their trace in the world.

This account really is too brief to do the discussions and value of the day justice – this Twitter thread from the day might be better, as it responded to the debate at the time. And in particular, one question that went out to followers of our project feed on Twitter sparked some heated discussion about the ways in which academics, family historians and other types of researcher do – or don’t – interact: well worth reading the responses!

What was also very flattering was to be invited along to contribute to the meeting on the day after the workshop, about the network’s future plans. The ‘History Harvests’ (in which anyone who is interested is welcomed to come along, bringing with them items of particularly significance for their family, so they can talk about those meanings and have them recorded) and future workshops all sound great, as do the other possibilities to involve a wide range of people in the network. Watch that space!


T2M conference, Paris

It’s fantastic to have a chance to travel for work, and lovely to return to Paris, for the annual conference of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic & Mobility (T2M). There was a mix of topics and approaches that came up over the 4 days of the conference, but that included a reasonably regular flow of safety-related material – which speaks to the centrality of accidents and safety to transport (road, rail and steamship all came up) in the past (and the present). How safety interacted with other aspects like efficiency and speed of movement was a recurring theme, as was the ways in which some people and accidents were more visible than others which were obscured (whether deliberately or not).

What made some of that particularly pertinent was that on the Friday of the conference there was a strike by French railway workers, following an accident earlier in the week in which a train with only 1 member of staff on board hit a vehicle on a level-crossing. The driver had to secure the scene and then walk to find help; as a result, staff exercised their right to strike about single-staff operation on the grounds that it represented a grave and imminent threat to life.

Back at the conference, it was important and useful to catch-up with old friends, and to re-establish contact with some colleagues using digital methodologies in ways similar to us. Particularly interesting was Marie-Noelle Polino’s comments about the TGV being redesigned to include brighter headlights so that staff could see the trains coming. Beyond the conference, once again it was easy to spot the locals using the Metro – as they would (on the lines with the older stock)

Our contribution was in a roundtable session, looking at how historians might contribute insight to the present and future, by working with policy-makers and practitioners. We were able to draw upon the project, as well as some of Mike Esbester’s other experience, to inform our discussion and offer some thoughts on collaboration. There was some really interesting debate, particularly around what it was exactly that historians might be able to offer, and how we make our approaches (and articulate the value of what we do) to those we want to work with. Having recently been at the Rail Safety Summit, the panel couldn’t have come at a better time for us to be able to speak to these and other questions.


And that brought to the end a busy 3 weeks for the project – alongside all of that, the usual business continued, of course, as it does now …

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