Henshaw's Deaf School, Manchester //1895 – Ref: m68118

This time it was a very soggy day in Manchester (very different weather to when I last posted a blog about the Chinese archive screening). I attended the Archives & Deaf Communities event held at the Manchester Deaf Centre which aim was to explore the archives of Deaf communities, both actual and potential.

There were 5 presentations in all, kicked off by Nicola Waddington and Deepa Shastri who at first gave an outline of archives (specifically community archives) and what they’re for. I particularly liked the quote:  ‘A collection that is social, local and about us.’  They highlighted why it’s important for a community to have an archive: to record the unwritten story, to showcase a culture and to give a unique perspective.

In relation to the deaf communities, they talked about the potential obstacles they might come across in creating an archive, such as the difficulty of bridging the generation gap, making sure it has a lasting impact and ensuring that it is engaging and interesting. Media and technology was seen as a key tool in setting up a deaf community archive doing stuff like blogging, vlogging and using a smart phone to record history in motion. Other ideas were talked about such as acting out stories; deaf led walking tours and exhibitions/posters in public areas to get people passing by familiar with deaf history and hopefully encourage them to get involved too. They were keen to emphasize that deaf history should appeal and be accessible to hearing and deaf people alike.

The 2nd presentation was by Rachel O’Neill who had researched and written a paper on the life of James Herriott, a deaf leader and organiser. Her research started in 1994 and her talk discussed some of the issues that has affected deaf people’s records in the past and her idea of using a network of many archives to corroborate stories about deaf histories. Her visits to different archives whilst conducting this research meant that she saw deaf records being kept in a variety of states, from small cupboards stuffed full of damaged books to excellent online catalogues with easy to follow indexes. She stressed how important she thought keeping the records of deaf schools accessible was, how she thought more organisations need to put their catalogues online and that it was important to continue to record and copy things for posterity. There was also some discussion on how information regarding deaf history was often mixed up and some things were not always clear. She ended with saying that the information is there, it just needs to be collected for both the public and private sectors.

The 3rd presentation was by Peter Jackson from the British Deaf History Society based in Warrington who talked about their Deaf Roots Project. The main purposes for the project is: To deliver conservation training for volunteers to enable them to engage with conserving artefacts from the National Deaf Archives; To conserve and restore a number of items from the National Deaf Archives; To deliver training for volunteers to access and develop historical records (of School Pupil Rolls); To produce an electronic database of some of the artefacts belonging to the National Deaf Archives; To create a touring exhibition about the project and promoting the new database. He explained that the project came about after the society held a stand at the annual ‘Who Do You Think You Are? Live’ event and enquiries from the public doubled each time they were there. From that they applied for funding to start this project which continues until 2013. The project is an arduous task, not least because of the pure scale of the information that needs to go on to the archives but also finding ways to share their collected information and actually get people using it. Ideally Peter would like to have a one stop shop for people looking in to deaf history and to get the database listed as a sub website linked from the National Archives website or at least put it on a nationally recognised archive database. He believes it is very important for deaf people to have access to their past but understands that there are always hindrances in order to be able to do it properly.

John Walker was the 4th speaker from The University of Sussex who was doing a presentation about his Hidden Histories Archive Project which looked in to deaf education in the 1970’s. In the 1970’s, University of Sussex launched the Phillips Deaf Unit to undertake research in deaf education. One of its outputs was a film, Base of a Spiral, which visited three schools. The hidden histories project went back and interviewed ex-students and teachers at those schools to create an archive and exhibition (which they hope to turn in to a travelling exhibit). They also created an interactive website where people can upload photographs and comment on any of the findings therefore deaf history is being held in a very active place. John believes that reminiscence can be very therapeutic and that it establishes a collective identity. The project is funded by the EU and it has 3 separate strands: Rural, Immigration & Deaf which are each being led by different universities around Europe. The deaf strand seems to be leading the way in terms of progress and outreach but wants to continue doing so because as John says it strengthens the community.

The last minute ‘mystery’ speaker was John Hay from The University of Wolverhampton who talked about his findings from the 2006 Churchill Fellowship study tour where he visited deaf archival centres abroad (Europe, USA & Canada). He visited 35 centres in all and came across a lot of different practices and ideas. He was particularly intrigued by the way the deaf centres were held in a variety of different places, some being large dedicated museums whilst others being a small room part of a medical centre. John hopes his findings will be used to set up a UK museum and archival centre related to deaf culture and history. He had a lot of ideas of how such a museum would be run and set out; he was adamant that it should be held in a separate building and that everyone should be able to access them for whatever reason, be it students, academics or historians. Other ideas included creating a leaflet and also, inspired by the Finnish deaf centre, having a changing exhibition with evolving information to maintain interest and developing a membership scheme to raise funds in order to continue the work.

From a personal perspective I found the event fascinating as I know very little about the deaf community and I was really interested to find out about their past and the needs that they have especially with regards to archives. The event gave me lots of food for thought and I would like to go on and research the possibility of involving the Manchester Archives in a project or event with the deaf community in the future.

By Alison Kennedy – Opening Up Archives Trainee