A large voice of many anonymous people: Mass Observation at The Keep

By Sarah Jackson | 28 January 2014

The Mass Observation Project archive has recently moved to a new home in East Sussex - but what is it about this archive that makes it worth a visit?

A poster with red writing reading Happiness - What is Happiness?
Happiness (1938). From the Mass Observation Archive© University of Sussex Special Collections
It’s a cliché to say that history is written by the winners, but it's one that's hard to deny. We tend to know more about the kings and queens and military leaders of the past than we do about ordinary people. Yet it’s these ordinary people that most of us probably have more in common with.

The historians of the future might have better luck in learning about the lives of the masses thanks to the Mass Observation Project. Founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, journalist and poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, the project’s aim was to create a definitive “anthropology of ourselves”.

Fiona Courage, Special Collections Manager and Mass Observation Curator at The Keep, the new home of the project’s archive, explains that Mass Observation was “supposed to provide an alternative, almost a balance, against the perceived opinion of the public as reported in the media or by politicians. Mass Observation basically sought to gauge the gulf in public opinion.”

Two methods were used to discover this: the first saw a panel of volunteer writers from around the country writing diaries detailing their lives and answering “directives” – specific topics chosen by Mass Observation itself. The second was a team of investigators who conducted ethnographic field work style surveys – anything from knocking on people’s doors and asking questions to just sitting in dance halls or on buses and writing down what they observed.

Courage explains that while the investigators provided an answer to the question “What is Britain doing?”, the volunteer writers explained why.

“It was a reaction against the establishment’s perception of life,” she continues, “and it was very much that idea that if people are involved in looking at themselves than they are more likely to enact change that can benefit them rather than having it assessed and imposed on by another section of society.”

Cover of an orange and cream coloured Penguin Special book titled Britain by Mass-Observation
'Britain by Mass Observation (1938). From the Mass Observation Archive© University of Sussex Special Collections
There was a clear desire to create social change, which probably attracted many people to participate in the project.

“Perhaps they participated because they wanted to be part of a larger whole,” muses Courage. “They all had a social consciousness and they all wanted to move the world on and make it a better place rather than simply being watched.”

Today, the project no longer aspires to create direct change. “As far as Mass Observation now is concerned,” says Courage. “It’s very much about recording, collecting and gathering data.”

The data it has collected is utterly unique in its depth and breadth. Similar studies have been made in the past, such as Charles Booth’s survey of London during the late 19th century, but none have come close to matching the length of time that Mass Observation has been collecting data, nor the breadth of material collated.

It is an astoundingly deep and diverse collection that epitomises life in 20th century Britain, which probably accounts for its ongoing popularity.

“I don’t know what it is about Mass Observation that does trigger people,” says Courage. “I think it’s to do with the fact that it’s about a large voice of many anonymous people.”

The range of people and groups using Mass Observation is, likewise, incredibly diverse, from schoolchildren to writers, filmmakers to academics – even scientists have used the archive to collect observations on the weather. Many of those users have become fascinated by how much they can relate to the anonymous voices that have been recorded.

“I can read Kipling or Woolf [whose archives are also held at The Keep] and get hugely excited and moved by it,” says Courage. “But I can’t tell my own story to make more of it, whereas I can with Mass Observation.”

Thanks to ongoing education and outreach projects, openly accessible resources are being created for anybody to use, even if they can’t visit The Keep.

Additionally, by early 2015, the entirety of the original Mass Observation project will have been digitised and available for use for free access to anybody visiting The Keep. Other institutions will be able to purchase access for a fee as well.

The Keep is not just home to Mass Observation but also combines the holdings of East Sussex Record Office and the Royal Pavilion and Museums Local History Collections.

“It’s a massive process of getting to know each other’s collections and where the synergies are,” adds Courage. “It might be years before we see the true fruition and true benefits of bringing all the collections together, and I think that’s really exciting.”

Thanks to the work of Mass Observation and The Keep as a whole, it may be that in the future the large anonymous voice of the masses is just as powerful as the voice of the rich and powerful.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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