We were delighted to formally open our ‘From the Grassroots’ exhibition last week at the Forum, University of Exeter. ‘From the Grassroots’ has, with the generous support of the HLF, been collecting memories of political activism in Devon since 1945. Here our project coordinator, Dr Kayleigh Milden, shares her thoughts on the exhibition…
Creating the exhibition from scratch has been a wonderful experience. Standing back and viewing the exhibition is really rewarding, and to me, it’s the fruition of all the elements that make-up the project as a whole: the generosity of our participants in sharing their time and memories with us, the great teamwork of our volunteers and colleagues, as well as the support of our partners.
It took a lot of searching through oral history recordings to decide what themes we wanted to focus on, but four topics did emerge very powerfully. Naturally, memories of ‘elections and electioneering’ featured highly in interviews, and we wanted to capture how the process of political campaigning has changed over the decades after the Second World War. Although we didn’t have the scope to include every election since 1945, we also wanted to highlight the history behind some of the key parliamentary contests that have featured in interviews, and more precisely, how such elections have become part of the political identity of Devon’s communities.
The other themes that we chose to explore were ‘family and politics,’ ‘youth activism,’ and Devon’s political ‘movers and shakers’. We have recorded many wonderful stories relating to how a person’s family have inspired their politics and we wanted to capture this in the exhibition, along with the experiences of other participants who, on the other hand, found that education or work had been more significant on their political outlook than family had. The role of parties’ youth organisations and student politics was spark that motivated many of our participants into political activity in their early years. The project’s timeline takes-in the 1960s, which internationally was a decade that witnessed heightened political protest and a desire for political change which, as the exhibition shows, did not pass-by Devon. Finally, we could not ignore the influence of some of the ‘big names’ in the modern history of Devon politics, for example Michael Foot, David Owen, and Jeremy Thorpe. Although we provided a brief overview of these politicians’ lives, as we are primarily concerned with ‘grassroots’ politics, the real focus of this part of the exhibition is to explore how their ‘legacy’ lives on in the oral tradition within the activist level of Devon politics.
The transcripts of these stories which are displayed across the exhibition panels, are complemented by audio clips of more oral history excerpts, which play in the background. Not only does this give us the opportunity to include more of the memories we have collated, but also adds another invaluable dimension to the exhibition – the voice. An integral part of this project, and in the oral history movement as a whole, is the importance of tone, emotion, rhythm and accent that is conveyed through the actual recording; this has a unique quality that is not always replicable in the written form. I certainly feel that the audio element adds to the overall atmosphere of the exhibition and, hopefully, brings it home to visitors that the exhibition is fundamentally about the oral histories. In addition to the interviews, the exhibition would not be the same, of course, without the stunning images (mostly supplied by Plymouth Arts & Heritage Service). These images connect beautifully to the four themes, and along with the great graphic design work by 51Studio, really give the exhibition an instant visual impact.
We were delighted to have some very distinguished guests at the launch party last Friday at the Forum, Exeter University. The Lord Mayor of Exeter, Councillor Percy Prowse, opened proceedings, before we heard from three of Exeter’s parliamentary candidates for this May’s election: the sitting Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, the Conservative candidate, Dom Morris, and the Green Party’s Diana Moore. All three spoke about the importance of political heritage, volunteering and local engagement within the political process and how these have been reflected in From the Grassroots. Finally, we heard from Hilary Bracegirdle, representing HLF South West, before one of our project volunteers – Anna Somner – officially opened the exhibition.
The process of creating any exhibition entails a lot of editing and revising until the finished product, and is challenging and stressful at times; creating the From the Grassroots exhibition has been no exception! That said, it is undoubtedly one of my favourite parts of the project. Looking back over the last fourteen months, for me, the exhibition is the cornerstone of the project’s outcomes and embodies everyone’s hard work and dedication right from the start of the project to these final few months. I hope the exhibition will give visitors an insight into my home county’s rich political history and platforms the contribution of those people at the grassroots who have made an invaluable contribution to Devon politics.
You can catch the exhibition (for free!) at the Forum, Exeter University, until the Friday 6th February, and then at Plymouth Central Library between 9th and 28th of February, and Barnstaple Library between 16th and 27th March. We do hope those of you who see it will enjoy it – do let us know what you think!
You can find out more about ‘From the Grassroots’ on the project website.