Image: The Dig for Victory stall.
Dr Henry Irving, senior lecturer in public history at Leeds Beckett University, reflects on his recent collaboration with a community allotment site.
Public engagement can take many forms. This is one of its great strengths, and can make the process incredibly stimulating. I count myself lucky to have been involved in a range of public events during the last few years. These have ranged from subterranean tours at the 2015 Being Human festival to a site-specific talk at an East London library. I hope my experience demonstrates that the humanities can be creative, engaging, and fun. I also hope it shows that the process does not need to be difficult.
A good example is provided by my recent collaboration with a community allotment site. It involved working with volunteers to organise a Dig for Victory stall at the site’s annual show.
Dig for victory
Dig for Victory was a Second World War publicity campaign sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and designed by the Ministry of Information. It aimed to increase the amount of food grown in Britain by encouraging gardeners to take allotments and offering guidance to novices. The result was one of the most ambitious publicity campaigns on the British ‘home front’.
The Dig for Victory message was communicated using posters, pamphlets, films, radio broadcasts, and exhibitions. It was thought to be one of the most successful messages of the war – with the government claiming there were almost a million new allotments by 1944. (Image right: INF 3/96, Peter Fraser, ‘Dig on for Victory’ [poster], c. 1942. Wikimedia).
The Dig for Victory’stall at the allotment’s annual show brought together a range of sources from the campaign. This material was chosen to give a flavour of the various messages used to encourage participation. Visitors were able to look at photographs reproduced from the Imperial War Museum’s online archive and posters from The National Archives. They were also able to leaf through an original pamphlet sourced from an online auction site, and study a 75-year-old crop planner found inside a second hand book.
Involving the public
These primary sources were combined with hands-on activities inspired by the campaign. Children were invited to design their own Dig for Victory posters (left) using the originals as inspiration. Some of the results could have come from the Ministry of Information itself! Adults were meanwhile encouraged to enter a ‘guess the crop’ competition. This involved guessing the most popular wartime crop (and the percentage of gardeners growing it) according to a 1942 government survey. This proved to be one of the most successful parts of the stall – and you’re welcome to play along on Twitter. But the answer is not what you think.
The stall also provided a space for visitors to share their own gardening stories. A number of older visitors recalled that their parents had tended allotments during the war, and could trace their own interest in gardening to childhood memories of the era. These stories often evolved into wider conversations about rationing, ‘making do’, and participation in the war. Other visitors focused on the crop planner. This was compared to modern practices, and led to some fascinating discussions about seasonal cooking and preservation techniques.
Learning from the experience
Around 40 people visited the stall during the 90-minute show. Some engaged in detailed conversation, while others simply looked over the posters and photographs. Feedback tended to be positive regardless of the level of interaction. A number of visitors explained that the material ‘made me think’, others were keen to find out more, and some even took home copies of the crop planner!
Any public engagement event is a learning experience. And the feedback gained from this event will be applied to future activities.
In November, Leeds Beckett University will be hosting a day of activities at Leeds City Museum as part of the 2016 Being Human festival. This will be based on the festival theme of Hope and Fear, with visitors being asked to recount their own Urban dreams (and nightmares). The aim is to encourage new ways of thinking about cities. Visitors will be able to talk to experts on urban history and culture, and join short walks exploring the hidden meaning of local buildings. Children and young people will be able to add drawings to an imagined cityscape.
Being Human is a much larger event than that held at the allotment. But the techniques we will use should build on the success of smaller activities. The Dig for Victory stall has strengthened my belief that public engagement does not need to be difficult. After all, it is not just that academics know their subject, we also know how to find material that can bring that subject to life. And that is a powerful ability.
Most importantly, the stall shows how public engagement is a two-way process. The source material was successful because it encouraged visitors to share their own experiences. It is this potential for collaboration that makes public engagement so stimulating.
Dr Henry Irving is a senior lecturer in public history at Leeds Beckett University and a member of the Institute of English Studies project, ‘A communication history of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’. His research interests are in the social history of the Second World War, public history and community engagement. Leeds Beckett University will be hosting a day of events on the theme ‘Urban dreams (and nightmares)’ as part of the 2016 Being Human festival. Free tickets are available now.