Written by Stefania Zardini Lacedelli, Paul Craddock, Simon Popple, Tim Smith
One of the key areas of investigation that emerged from the workshop in Leeds on 20-21 June was the opportunity to explore the connective power of oral history, by focusing on the hidden stories of mill workers. This direction emerged as part of a wider reflection on the need to bring human stories to the objects and places related to textile industry, so reinfusing Saltaire and Lister Mills with their social history.
Before sound recording became a well-established way to record living memories, the main way to reconstruct a life story was through written sources, photographs and/or tangible objects, which today are well represented in museum collections. In the history of the textile industry, these sources are usually available to discover the story of mill owners and other ‘notable’ people, but very little survived that reflected the experience of entire generations of mill workers, and for the majority of whom we often do not have even a name.
With the emergence of ‘History from Below’, oral history became one of the main methods to collect this kind of story, and to capture the unique personal insights of the everyday life of ordinary people (see Perks and Thomson, 1997). Following this expansion of historical sources, audio recordings began to make their appearance in the collections of museums, libraries and archives.
The goal of our mini-investigation was to explore the potential of these kinds of sources to offer an alternative perspective on the connections across collections. We were interested in experimenting to see if a personal story could function as a ‘narrative thread’ to navigate through different sources and archives. An oral history interview of a mill worker can provide extremely detailed, humanized perspectives on the job and the life in the mill, and it does so by mentioning people, machines, techniques, places, and events that can enable further connections. We were also aware that any living testimony includes emotions, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, as well as accents, dialects, and tones of voice, which are usually not captured in museum collections systems. We wanted to discover the role of these emotional and sensorial elements in enabling new kinds of connections, as well as offering a new way of experiencing and understanding the past.
This two-part blog post describes the data sources we explored, the experimentations that emerged working with this material and the reflections and learnings that we hope to take forward in the next phase of the project. This investigation has been, for us, a starting point for the reflection on the connective value of oral history and personal stories, that we wish this blog post will be able to extend.
EXPLORING LIFE STORIES OF MILL WORKERS
A key starting point for us has been a subset of oral history interviews of textile workers curated by Maggie Smith for the Saltaire Collection. This is a small but important group of stories of living and working in Saltaire told by the individuals themselves, collected and recorded by Collection volunteers. These interviews are extremely rich, as they contain not only the main story, but also additional information included by Maggie to give deeper insights on some of the social, historical, economic aspects mentioned by the interviewees (see an example here).
In our investigation, we have also explored the opportunity to use the fascinating collection of life stories from the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit. This major project, which was set up by Bradford Museums, Galleries and Libraries, ran from 1983 to 2006. Its main aim was “to capture by means of tape-recorded interviews and photographs, the memories, reflections, contemporary attitudes and images of Bradford people of all ages, classes and races” and it created an archive of tens of thousands of photographs and over 800 audio interviews. The majority of these recordings are the life stories of mill workers, each of them offering unique personal insights into life in the mills and associated industries. This archive also sheds new light on diaspora communities in Bradford, with interviews with people of European, Asian and Afro Caribbean origin, the majority of whom came to work in textiles. The audio recordings and abstracts of the interviews have been recently digitized by the British Library Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. They are available at the Bradford Industrial Museum and are currently being uploaded to the Museum’s website. In the course of the investigation, John Ashton, the BIM Photo Archive Assistant, has made available for us a subset of audio recordings alongside a selection of photographs by Tim Smith taken on behalf of the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit.
RICCIARDO SISTERS: CONNECTING COLLECTIONS THROUGH A PERSONAL STORY
Stefania Zardini Lacedelli
To explore the connective value of these sources, a first experiment was developed in Omeka, a Content Management System for digital archives and online exhibitions which was employed in the first Congruence Engine pilot study (see the blog article written by Stefania and Jane). The aim was to visualize the connections enclosed in a personal story by combining the linking functionalities of this platform with the online exhibition tools.
The first step of this experiment was to identify the entities mentioned in a personal story. In Information Extraction, a ‘named entity’ is a real-world object that can be denoted with a proper name. The named entities are classified under specific categories such as people, organizations, places, events. We decided to apply this technique to a curated transcript of an oral history interview from the Saltaire Collection, comparing this method to a manual approach of information extraction. We chose the story of three women workers – Dora, Velia and Margherita Ricciardo – who emigrated from Southern Italy to work in a textile mill located on the outskirts of Saltaire. I created an Excel file listing all the entities that I was able to recognize by reading the story, including the links to related external sources such as Wikipedia pages or museum collections websites. John Stack and Jamie Unwin compared my list with the results of two machine learning techniques (Named Entity Recognition and Fuzzy Matching) applied to the same transcript, to see if there were any differences in the entity extraction. Comparing these approaches, we noticed how automatic entity extraction could identify a significant number of people, places, objects, events, but was not able to capture more subjective elements that I had identified, such as skills, personal objects, and feelings connected with specific life events (like the integration in a foreign country or marriage).
This list of entities, both manually generated and automatic, was the starting point for the Omeka experiment. My aim was to connect these entities with their identified external sources and enable an online navigation across them. The result was a geolocalized interactive which follows the story of Dora, Velia and Margherita Ricciardo through space and time, from their childhood in Caserta (Naples) to their work at the Victoria Works mill.
To create this interactive, I have ‘deconstructed’ the story into 22 separate digital memories. Each memory has been uploaded in Omeka as a single record. This allowed me to include, for each memory, connections with the places mentioned, with images, movies or documents from different archives and museums, with Wikidata entries and other online sources. The memory related to Margherita’s job in the winding room, for example, is linked to a direct connection with a photograph of a winding room from the Bradford Industrial Museum, and the sound of a spinning machine recorded by the artist Janek Shaefer. Overall, 13 collections have been connected through this story, spanning from institutional collections to online and community archives.
In the reflective workshop in July, we started discussing what this experiment could reveal about the connective power of oral history. The Ricciardo Sister prototype has highlighted the richness, density and multidimensionality of oral history and its ability to function as a narrative thread to connect personal stories with people, places, museum objects, events, as well as with social, economic, historical topics. It has confirmed what Paul Thompson envisioned in 1994: “We need to keep at the forefront the connecting value of oral history and oral testimony. That to me seems to be its unique value which moves in all sorts of different directions. It connects the old and the young, the academic world and the world outside, but more specifically it allows us to make connections in the interpretation of history; for example, between different places, or different spheres, or different phases of life” (Thompson, 1994).
We could not, however, extend this experiment to the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, because the written transcripts of the interviews were not digitally available. This made us realize the complexity of making oral history fully accessible for historical research. This kind of sources is usually only partially digitized, or not digitized at all. Without access to the written transcripts, we could not test the potential of machine learning techniques to extract entities and themes from the entire range of interviews available. Realizing this is a key barrier for enabling connections through oral history recordings, we decided to experiment with speech-to-text software to understand if these tools could facilitate access to machine readable versions of the interviews. We believe this could be a fascinating area of investigation for Congruence Engine, knowing that a significant number of oral history projects have been conducted around industrial history, that are currently not fulfilling their potential. In our first conversations for the next phase of the textile investigation, other potential sources emerged, such as the Living Linen project at the National Museum of Northern Ireland, and the oral history archive of Quarry Bank Mill.
However, we are aware that written transcripts would not allow us to fully explore the subjectivity and emotional side of audio recordings. The latest developments in computational technologies on oral history suggest the importance to focus on the non-spoken, subjective dimension expressed in the interviews (see, for example, Pessanha and Salah, 2021). Therefore, in parallel with this experiment, we have started to explore other storytelling tools to unleash the emotional, performative, and sensorial dimension of oral history archives. Part two of this blog post will describe the video narratives developed by Paul Craddock and Tim Smith, and Simon Popple’s reflection on the potential of Yarn to engage communities in the re-use and re-mix of these memories.
Cohen, S. (2013) Shifting Questions: New Paradigms for oral history in a Digital World. The oral history Review Vol. 40, No. 1, Special Issue oral history in the Digital Age (Winter/Spring 2013).
Perks R., Thomson A. (eds.) (1997) The oral history Reader. London Routledge.
Pessanha F., Akdag Salah A. (2021). A Computational Look at oral history Archives. J. Comput. Cult. Herit. 15, 1, Article 6 (December 2021), 16 pages.
Thompson, E. (1994) ‘Believe it or not: rethinking the historical interpretation of memory’. In Jeffrey, J. and Edwallx, G. (eds) Memory and history: essays on recalling and interpreting experience. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Giving voice to hidden connections: insights from the oral history investigation
HISTORY BEYOND WORDS
One of the Congruence Engine video experiments set out to explore using video production to make and elaborate connections between museum objects, oral history, and other collection items. Might we use video as a method to privilege the stories of those whose perspectives have been historically overlooked? Might we combine archival video and newly recorded video of collections being used and talked about? Might we animate objects and emphasise the rich role they played in working culture and working lives?
Screenshot from the first video experiment at the Bradford Industrial Museum.
Our surfeit of archival sources, diaries, and secondary literature on notable people is matched by a lack of sources pertaining to workers. Books have been written about, for instance Samuel Crompton (inventor of the Spinning Mule) or John Kay (inventor of the flying shuttle). Their lives have been fleshed out, their stories supported by their own writings and those who knew them. As the late Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern pointed out, notebooks, archival documents, diaries are abundant and easily accessible.
The nameless multitude working in Crompton’s mills were the operators of his Mules, including child scavengers. Their tiny bodies were small enough to flit under the machine as it was working, pick up dropped and broken thread, dust away cotton dust, and keep going for the seven-hour day with splinters in their hands and feet and cotton dust on their lungs. Similarly, the workers in Kay’s story are mostly presented as members of an angry mob chasing him out of his home – a scene immortalised in a Ford Maddox Brown mural on the walls of the Great Hall at Manchester Town Hall. Either way, the workers in textile stories are faceless and nameless victims, or angry, anti-progress masses. But there are no individuals here. Each child scavenger, every member of the angry mob had their own histories, but they are left untold. Notebooks, archival documents and diary entries from the perspective of individual workers occasionally turn up – towards the end of his life, in 1816, the historian William Hutton was able to recall being a child apprentice at Derby Silk Mill – but working lives were mostly left unrecorded. It would seem their stories are lost to us.
When Latour wrote about the abundance of historical materials, he also wrote about a second ‘half’ to history: ‘brute, silent remainders’. These are the machines, tools, and other physical remnants of cultures. Traditional avenues of text-based investigation might be closed, and the possibility of telling individual worker stories closed off with them, but the ghosts of working lives at least partly manifest in the objects people touched, the machines they used, the music they heard and made. Audio-visual technology offers surprising possibilities to record, frame, and connect with the past by focusing on these objects in use and connecting them with a variety of other collection items. Using video in this way is an attempt to engage with the material, performative dimension of history – Latour’s second ‘half’ of history – that represents the material reality of working lives. Strictly speaking, using video in an historical investigation is problematic to say the least. Video creates a different emphasis, however, and arguably has a valuable role in shifting the narrative, in creating a richer engagement with historical working lives. Through video, we might emphasise the material and performative dimension of history, and the significance of the object as both a part of working culture, and an artefact that can tell us about the people whose working lives were entangled with them.
This video experiment could be seen in the context of my previous work, where I used video to emphasise the role that the gendered craft of embroidery played in the history of vascular surgery (10.1353/con.2022.0009), and the knowledge involved in artisanal and industrial making and production (https://www.vam.ac.uk/research/projects/vari-encounters-on-the-shop-floor). This video experiment for the Congruence Engine extends the ideas I worked on in these projects, asking if similar methods might be used to acknowledge the material and performative context of working lives – a dimension of industrial culture that finds itself underrepresented in traditional historical accounts.
Video methods allow us to emphasise the non-written, non-spoken – even non-linguistic and non-discursive – dimension of history. That is, history that is difficult or impossible to put into words: how objects were used, and by extension reconstructing not only an important part of a worker’s life, but also their contribution to textile production and the culture around textile manufacture. Being able to manipulate audio-visual material enables a video editor to make and elaborate connections between new recordings of re-enactments or objects in use with other collection items and oral histories (see the story on YARN here: https://congruence.naseem.dev/stories/8). This can be a powerful means of making connections, and so we have started to reflect how we can invite others to take part in this process, to furthermore contribute their own stories, reflections, photographs, recordings. The experiment on YARN [see Simon Popple’s contribution below] was born from the desire to democratize this process.
TEXTILES TO TOUCHSCREENS
My video experiment, like Paul Craddock’s, is rooted in the context of my previous work, which goes all the way back to my arrival in Bradford in 1985 to set up the photography department at the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, where oral historians were keen to complement their interviewing work with images taken by documentary photographers. I later oversaw the incorporation of the Unit’s audio and photographic collections into those of Bradford Museums where they have become part of the Congruence Engine’s investigations described above.
Since 1985 I’ve been based in the Bradford District. Much of my work as a photographer, film-maker and creative producer has involved collecting and reflecting stories based on its textile industries and the people and places connected to them: either locally, nationally or internationally. Working in collaboration with communities, curators and other creative professionals I produce multi-media exhibitions shown in galleries, museums and other venues, such as former textile mills. Photography, film, sound and oral testimonies assembled by myself and other creatives usually provide the narrative spine of a show, complemented with objects, documents, images, and ephemera loaned by communities or drawn from museum collections. That is why I came to be involved in Congruence Engine, and why I’m keen to embrace the idea of using what Stefania Zardini, recalling Paul Thompson, has described as the “connective power” of oral history.
What’s often struck me during my work connected to textiles is how difficult it is to delineate what we mean by the term “textile industry”. Making textiles was what made Bradford. During its growth, its heyday and its late C20th decline it was so steeped in the culture of wool that the textile industry permeated every aspect of most Bradfordians’ lives. They were part of a complex ecosystem of people, places and things. A tiny percentage of these things – including machinery, raw materials and finished products, written records, photographs and (latterly) audio recordings of people’s memories and reflections – have survived to comprise the contents of our museum’s textile industry collections. So much more is missing: either lost, forgotten, scrapped or, in the case of much machinery, moved to another part of the world. Moreover, like the ecosystem that evolved around Bradford’s textile industry, museum collections are also very porous things, and what is relevant to whatever narrative we are pursuing may reside in collections which, according to their classification, don’t contain items relevant to the textiles story. This makes the aims and objectives of Congruence Engine, of finding ways of “connecting collections”, so important.
My video experiment drew on ideas I’d begun to investigate in an exhibition, Weaving the Future, exhibited at Salts Mill. Part of this was a film installation fusing art and technology. It explored two ideas. The first was how lots of the repetitive movements performed by textile workers could be perceived as some kind of performance: strip away their surrounding machinery and they could almost be dancing.
The second idea was how textile technologies link our analogue and digital worlds, as articulated in 1843 by the mathematician Ada Lovelace who wrote: ‘The analytical engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard Loom weaves flowers and leaves.’ She is credited with writing the first algorithm for a machine whilst working with Charles Babbage, the “father of the computer”. She was referencing how patterns of holes punched in pattern cards were invented to enable Jacquard Looms to weave an infinite range of patterns from coloured threads making up the warp and weft of a finished cloth. The creation of this binary system (of hole or no hole) led to the development of digital programming (of ones and zeros): the first step on a journey from woven cloth to the digital technology that drives our modern world.
My video experiment, called Textiles to Touchscreens, is built around a film first made for Weaving the Future, of dancers performing movements inspired by textile workers and machinery. I then combined this with film footage and stills illustrating both textiles and computing processes, overlaid with light patterns generated by both Jacquards and modern digital technologies. The soundtrack combines industrial recordings with music made in response to the rhythms heard in textile mills. These multi-media elements were all gleaned from diverse collections.
I hope that the ideas showcased in this short film will provoke thinking about how the first phase of our research, currently examining the textile industry, could be connected to the final phase, which will examine the communications industry. I hope the film demonstrates how stories about industrial processes and their interwoven histories can be told in creative and engaging ways.
As novelist Hilary Mantel said in the 2017 Reith Lectures about her craft of writing historical fiction:
“The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts. Even the driest, most data-driven research involves an element of interpretation. Deep research in the archives can be reported in tabular form and lists, by historians talking to each other. But to talk to their public, they use the same devices as all storytellers — selection, elision, artful arrangement.”
Similar ways of working apply to many media, including researching and curating items from our collections to create authentic stories that weave together our industrial histories with our imaginations.
ENABLE PEOPLE TO MAKE THEIR OWN CONNECTIONS: AN EXPERIMENT ON YARN
The Congruence Engine project provides us with the opportunity of working in creative ways to tell stories and make links between collections, histories, and personal experiences. It has been interesting observing how other people have been working on their projects and how stories and enquiries have increasingly overlapped and benefitted from collaborations. The branching out of historical threads has encouraged us to draw across different sets of resources and think about creative interventions.
The role of ‘remixing’ has also become a potent way of thinking about how people make sense of stories, data, and creative interventions ‘in and with’ different data. Much of the experimental approach that has emerged has relied on mixing often discrete elements and making potent connections. Several connections are already emerging such as the relationships between people and machines, migration stories, family histories and the meanings of place and community. As Stefania Zardini-Lacedelli describes above, one of our early experiments has for example integrated the oral history of the Ricciardo sisters and augmented it with film and photographic elements from a wide variety of collections to provide context and seed the potential to take elements of their story and produce new narratives using this data. You can see the experimental version here.
We see YARN as a space in which we can use a range of digital data- moving image, sound, images, and text to construct and deconstruct narratives, and surface evolving connections. As a storytelling and research web platform it allows users to curate across collections, adding their own materials and to remix narratives that are ongoing and never fixed as is the case on institutional platforms where the viewer can ‘look’ but often not intervene. It allows them to ‘connect data through narrative ‘and augment and even challenge institutional interpretations and fill the knowledge black holes that exist across all collections. Such practices inevitably open debates about voice, ownership and institutional authority and test just how far we trust our publics to engage in the shaping and use of collections data. Remix or bricolage culture is often wayward and highly creative, driven by personal interest and expertise. But it is exactly these practices that uncover and make visible connections hidden in data sets from discrete or institutionally bound collections. What resides outside the formal structures of museums and archives is also revealed and conjoined.
As the project develops, we will seek to explore these issues and the practices that emerge using YARN and encouraging a remix approach to both explore data emerging from our collective research and make broader connections with our partners and participants.
We also see YARN as a site for experimentation and documentation across the project and it is already starting to host elements that are discussed in this post- you can find them here.
Please feel free to sign up and build your connections.