(via Archives hub)
At 11am this morning, I was in the garden raking yet more leaves. It was extremely quiet. I wondered what my neighbours were up to. Having brunch? Reading the paper? Out Christmas shopping? Where were they all? What were they doing?
We all have a fascination with the lives of others (please nod. It’s not just me, is it?). I often look in the baskets of fellow shoppers. They may have found something amazing I haven’t spotted. And at this time of year, I love to see what presents they’ve picked and I like to imagine the recipient’s reactions.
Which is why, I guess, I’m interested in the Mass Observation movement.
I heard about it a while back. I remember finding the idea fascinating at the time. And then I forgot all about it. I came across it again a few years later whilst reading Tim Moore’s Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair. That time, I made a point of finding out a bit more about it.
And this year, the Photographers’ Gallery held an exhibition all about it. Mass Observation: This is Your Photo.
The Mass Observation (an independent social research organisation) set out to document the attitudes, opinions, and every-day lives of the British people between 1937 and 1949. The idea of recording the day-to-day existence of ‘ordinary’ people may seem innocuous to us. After all, this is what we’re doing ourselves through blogs nowadays. But back then, it was a bold move. A radical departure from the conventions of Anthropology. Through the lives of these ‘ordinary’ people, we come to understand the tensions and turbulence of the period.
The exhibition, as you can imagine, was fascinating. All these tidbits of information. Facts. Photos. Lives.
The directives you received as a Mass Observer could be to document a certain aspect of your life, or that of people around you. Not surprisingly, mass observed people felt threatened by this. They felt spied on.
I learned that the archive (1937 to early 1950s) is now in the care of the University of Sussex. And astonishingly, they also look after the newer material collected continuously since 1981.
Because yes, the experiment was restarted in the 80’s and is ongoing.
I’m guessing it takes a certain kind of person to be a Mass Observer. And so maybe the research amassed over the year is slightly skewed. But it is fascinating all the same.