Heritage Quay’s special collections on the institutional history of the University of Huddersfield dating back to its founding as the Young Men’s Mental Improvement Society in 1841 (which was swiftly renamed the Huddersfield Mechanics’ Institute) have been an integral component of my research on northern mechanics’ institutes. As a student of the university I was also already very familiar with both organisations that I worked with for my placement.
I worked with the University of Huddersfield and Heritage Quay on a year long programme to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Young Men’s Mental Improvement Society. The main activities and outcomes of my placement were researching and producing content for an interactive online timeline of the History of the University of Huddersfield in 175 things, curating two ‘pop up’ exhibitions and designing, producing and delivering a public open day recreating a Victorian Reading Room.
I was a member of the HUD175 project team which meant that I attended and contributed to meetings with the Universities Pro Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, Director of marketing and communications and senior staff members representing the School of Education and Professional Development, Faculty of Music, Humanities and Media, Heritage Quay and marketing and events. The insight gained from participating in these meetings into what is involved in several different departments developing and producing such a programme of events and accompanying appropriate web content, logistically, has been invaluable and will no doubt influence how I approach future projects. From the very beginning of the project, despite being the least experienced member, I was encouraged and supported by the team and even included in decision making tasks such as coming up with the HUD175 name for the project and choosing a design for the logo.
There was a Tea Party Event to celebrate the Universities 175th anniversary and also launch the online timeline and web content at which I curated a pop up exhibition which contained physical highlights from Heritage Quays special collections of objects included in the HUD175 timeline. This event also provided a unique opportunity to talk to former and present students and teachers about their experiences as part of this institution and find out how they felt about the University being part of their heritage.
Building on the experiences of the placement I then had the opportunity to create my own event Educate Your Selfie: Social Media Victorian Style. Heritage quay’s public space was transformed into a Victorian reading with a twist for a day. This included activities and a pop up exhibition. The twist was that we introduced the concept of a Victorian Reading room by explaining how they were the earliest form of social media. We did this by taking modern social media platforms and apps and illustrating their Reading Room equivalent. The public were invited to look and physically engage with the objects in the exhibition and participate in activities at several stations throughout the exhibit which combined media technology from the Victorian era with its present day equivalents.
The day was a success and the biggest challenge in designing the event was thinking about how to present content on the subject of Victorian adult education in a way that demonstrated its relevance and impact on society today that could also appeal to family members of all ages, including children. What initially presented itself as a problem actually in itself provided a solution to the issue of introducing a wider audience to the Mechanics’ Institute Movement. Aiming the activities at children and holding the event on a Saturday meant that families attended because they were looking for something to do with their children at the weekend and this provided an opportunity to talk about Mechanics’ Institutes and get people to an event about Mechanics’ Institutes that were previously unaware of the movement.
The response to HUD175 of those I engaged with was overwhelmingly positive and what I will take away from the experience is that people want an opportunity to talk about their experiences and celebrate their connection, their heritage at an institution they helped to shape by being part of. Even those that thought they had no connection with the University or a mechanics’ institute can often find one, whether it’s that they have visited a museum that’s original collection came from a mechanics institute or themselves or parents and grandparents attended a technical college. This experience has helped me think about ways in which I might be able to illustrate these connections between mechanics’ institutes and the impact they’ve had on our everyday lives.