As a public and community historian, I am interested in how people engage with the past in their lives in the present. In an undoubtedly historic moment like a global pandemic our anxieties tend to be on the future; but the past still matters – and right now it appears to be hyperlocal.
We are confined to our houses, with most of our daily activities taking place in our immediate vicinity. This has led to increased interest in local and community histories.
One well established local history website in Yorkshire reported: ‘Just had a quick look at the web server stats and the number of page views during the last week alone was more than the whole of January 2020.’
Local history Facebook pages are also seeing greater interaction too, for example Old Pictures of Liverpool is getting 250 plus engagements for each of its posts of historical photographs.
This suggests that people are looking more closely at the places in which they live to find out what was there before. This may be to give a sense of belonging in such a frightening and uncertain world, experienced in the homes in which we live and the streets in which we are permitted to walk. It also links to an idea about local history called ‘Dig where we stand’.
This comes from Swedish writer, Sven Lindqvist, who argued that workers were in the best position to understand the places in which they worked and should document their histories. I think this can be linked to a desire to know who we are and how we are linked to the histories of those who lived exactly where do now.
A fantastic free resource for this is available via the National Library of Scotland. They have digitised Ordnance Survey maps from the 19th and 20th centuries which enables comparing what used to there with what still exists or what has changed. This is done by overlaying historic maps with satellite imagery or contemporary maps.
It’s also possible to look at census records to find out who lived in your street (but not for free). But while walking or cycling around your neighbourhood, you could just look out for traces of the past. An example near my house is all that’s left of an old zoo – the ticket office at the entrance, which is now a pizza takeaway.
National Museums Liverpool have created the hashtag #MyHomeIsMyMuseum for 4 to 11 year olds to encourage them to make museum or gallery exhibits about their homes and their lives. Thinking about where we live in this microscopic way is important – it maintains a sense of individuality while still relating it to our social situation – our families, our houses, our neighbourhood.
The pandemic maybe global and difficult to understand, but we experience it as people – and people with history. Exploring our pasts, makes our families and neighbours and our futures more valuable still.
Liverpool Inner City Zoological Park and Gardens opened in 1884 and survived only until the early 1900s. By Phil Nash from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Professor Paul Ward is Head of the Department of English, History and Creative Writing at Edge Hill University.
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Main Photo: Edge Hill University 1950s