History and Heritage in Local Contexts: A Negotiation of Difference and Diversity in Past and Present Tyneside

Leonie Wieser by the riverside in York. Photo by Adam Fusco.

Leonie Wieser by the riverside in York. Photo by Adam Fusco.

My research project is about people’s engagement in diverse British pasts. It seeks to understand how people interact with the past and how they create meaning from it. Migration and change challenges how we think about ourselves and our surroundings, our culture and its past. The country we live in changes and has always changed with people arriving and leaving, developing in ways sometimes hard to foresee and control. Social and cultural shifts form part of a place’s past and present, but are sometimes not talked about enough. This can make it hard to have a productive conversation about these changes in our society.

My research will focus specifically on the inhabitants of South Shields. South Shields is a coastal town in Tyne and Wear where in the 19th and 20th century people from Ireland, Scotland, continental Europe and people from around the world moved to and from the area to make a living, as butchers, shipbuilders, and sailors. Over a hundred years ago, the arrival of sailors from Yemen led to the establishment of one of the first Muslim communities of Britain. Some Yemenis returned to Yemen or moved on, whilst others stayed, some of them marrying locals. A Yemeni community still exists in South Shields now. For the project I will conduct interviews and investigate how different inhabitants of South Shields reflect on this local heritage of migration. This might offer a valuable contribution to conversations about a changing society today.

Local Engagement in the Heritage of Tyneside

People engage very differently in personal and communal pasts. They negotiate these to form their individual heritage. They decide about what pasts are important for their present and future, which stories they want to tell and pass on – and why. People’s individual and common heritage and identity often informs public exchanges, and can impact institutional decisions about public history displays and commemoration. Heritage research focuses on these interconnected processes of remembrance and representation. Who and what gets to be displayed in museums, depicted on television, in schoolbooks, in local memorial ceremonies? Who is a part of a country’s past? These are political and personal questions about heritage, which all people should have a say in. My research will explore these issues together with local residents of South Shields.


I was born in Vienna, Austria, and came to the UK to study History in 2008. Since then, I have gradually moved north, starting out at the University of Sussex, in Brighton (BA in History), moving to the University of York (MAs in Political Philosophy and Public History), and am now studying at Northumbria University, in Newcastle.

Between and during my studies I have undertaken placements in Germany, at the House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin, the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, and in England, at the Mansion House in York. I worked on a project between the Buchenwald Memorial, Weimar and Euroclio, the European Association of History Educators, on teaching about places with several layers of history. The Buchenwald Memorial is a former Nazi Concentration Camp, which became a Soviet Internment Camp, and then an East German Memorial Site and is now a Federal German Memorial Site. The project investigated how these different periods can be interpreted together in contemporary Germany, and Europe.

I have for a long time been interested in how societies deal with their pasts and how individuals reflect on their belonging. People, countries and institutions have made many mistakes in the past, and continue to do so. We can learn a lot from past failures as well as from social and political actions or movements that succeeded. My main focus has been on minorities in past and present – Jews in Germany and York, as well as Muslims in York and now people from diverse backgrounds in Tyneside. I think this study can tell us a lot about how people live together and interact and what this can tell us about our place in the world today.

Supervisors: Dr Susan Ashley, Northumbria University, and Professor Clare Midgley, Sheffield Hallam University