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Posts Tagged ‘Heritage’

The Silver Studded Blue, resident of Prees Heath Common (photo: butterfly-conservation.org)

I was invited over to Prees Heath Common, near Whitchurch in North Shropshire, by Meres and Mosses/Shropshire Wildlife Trust to run a heritage comics workshop with some of their community archaeology volunteers. Prees Heath Common was an airfield during World War II, and a military muster site before that. Now it’s – in part – a butterfly reserve, managed by Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The site has a team of volunteers who look after both the ecology and the archaeology. A few weeks ago they dug a series of test-pits across a small corner of the site, at the edge of  one of the WWII airfield turning circles. Last week I got together with the group to run a workshop about making comics – hopefully showing them how comics could bring the story of their small local heritage site to a wider audience.

We held the workshop in the fantastic Raven Cafe – an old-skool biker and transport greasy spoon (that served proper strong tea – thank you, Lynne). There, at one side of the main dining room, next to a collection of old bikes, and overseen – appropriately enough – by a poster featuring the cartoon biker Ogri, the group and I spent from ten until one talking comics, WWII archaeology, common law, butterflies – and more! So much more.

I was astonished not only with how much history and heritage there was associated with the site – but the range and diversity of it. Yes, there was tons of military history and archaeology – from the middle ages through the Civil War to both World Wars; yes, there was transport history – Roman roads, mediaeval tracks, railways, Australian flying corps, bombers; yes, there was ecological heritage – the silver studded blue butterfly, peacocks, brimstones and cinnabar moths; regrown heathland with ling and bell heather; lizards, frogs and lapwings. We talked about all this heritage – and I showed the group how these stories could become educational and informational comics for schools, site interpretation boards and visitors centres.

These were the heritage stories I was expecting to hear – but I also heard other stores: stories about the social history of the common, about the injustices it has seen, about how it came to be transformed into arable fields, about how it affected and changed the lives of the local inhabitants down the generations – and about how those changed lives have in turn changed the future history of the common. These individual, family and social stories are the other side of the coin to the historical, archaeological, geological or ecological information that make up “heritage”. They give the bare bones of heritage facts and figures a human, grounded dimension – reminding us that the past is personal, not abstract; that our shared past both shapes and is shaped by, the people who live it.

From tales of mass trespasses and gypsy weddings, to biker memorabilia (and comics!) in roadside transport cafes – the past is made meaningful and human. When I talk with community groups about telling stories about the past, I am increasingly convinced that these are the stories that count – because these are the stories people want to hear.

I had a fantastic time with the Prees Heath group, and really hope that they take some of their surprising stories and great ideas and make some excellent comics!

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Week Two: What is Heritage?

That’s a good question – and the subject of this week’s Oswestry Heritage Comics. When I first started this project last summer, I thought about titling it “Oswestry History” or “The Story of Oswestry” or something like that. But “history” – just like “archaeology” – is only one aspect of way in which we study and understand the past. I wanted the comics to have a wider scope than just looking at things which fit into the categories of “history” or “archaeology” – what about re-enactors? Are they “history” or “archaeology”. Not really. What about traditional arts and crafts, like signpainting on narrow boats? What about native plants, here since the end of the last ice age? What about geology or topography? What about footpaths and walks? What about art, music and drama? None of these things are “history” or “archaeology”, yet they all can fit into both the study and understanding of the past – and perhaps more importantly, are significant parts of appreciating the past.

The term “heritage” has come to mean many things in different contexts, ranging from a vague reference to “olden days” to specific ideas about traditional culture and ways of living. I find the term useful because it covers a wide range of ways in which people find meaning in the past. The Center for Heritage and Society at the University of Massachusetts has an interesting (if slightly wordy) definition of heritage on their “What is Heritage?” page:

Heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture.  Most important, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from them.

Heritage includes, but is much more than preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things.  It is both tangible and intangible, in the sense that ideas and memories–of songs, recipes, language, dances, and many other elements of who we are and how we identify ourselves–are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.

Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.  What is worth saving?  What can we, or should we, forget?  What memories can we enjoy, regret, or learn from?  Who owns “The Past” and who is entitled to speak for past generations?  Active public discussion about material and intangible heritage–of individuals, groups, communities, and nations–is a valuable facet of public life in our multicultural world.

Heritage is a contemporary activity with far-reaching effects.  It can be an element of far-sighted urban and regional planning.  It can be the platform for political recognition, a medium for intercultural dialogue, a means of ethical reflection, and the potential basis for local economic development.  It is simultaneously local and particular, global and shared.

Heritage is an essential part of the present we live in–and of the future we will build.

My definition, in this week’s comic, is a bit shorter –

If history is about what happened in the past, then heritage is what we have of the past in the present. Heritage is more than just “the past” – it’s about how the past makes us who we are.

– but it conveys the same idea. I’ve tried to find a good way to describe the scope of this year’s Oswestry Heritage Comics – history, archaeology, narrow boat signpainting, native plants, old tracks and footpaths, geology, traditional arts and crafts: all of these things contribute towards making us who we are, and all of these things are our heritage.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - Heritage Open Days, 2016.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – Heritage Open Days, 2016. Click for a larger image.

At the Oswestry Town Museum’s Christmas party this year, it was announced that the town had received a number of accolades for the way in which it participated in Heritage Open Days. In particular, national organisers were impressed with the range, variety and inventiveness of events and activities which took place – a range and variety that far surpassed many other towns with more “impressive” heritage. One of the things that got a mention was my own Oswestry Heritage Comics series, published throughout this past summer in the Oswestry Advertizer.

Oswestry’s approach to Heritage Open Days has always been characterised by a very strong volunteer ethic. Hundreds of people help out at excavations, lead local history walks, put on re-enactment events and staff museums, visitors centres and attractions. This ensures that even small, inaccessible and off-the-beaten-track venues can be part of the event. Oswestry’s local heritage community – rather than it’s local heritage industry – makes it’s Heritage Open Days special and worth marking in the calendar.

Designing Heritage Open Days events around this strong volunteer ethic, and bringing the people behind the heritage firmly into focus has been called “The Oswestry Model”, and it’s something I’m pleased the Oswestry Heritage Comics have been part of. As I now start to talk with people about what I might do next with the Oswestry Heritage Comics, I want to make sure this people-centred approach continues. Comics can do a very good job of getting people – literally – into the picture. For local history, archaeology and heritage, this means showing how the research, preservation and interpretation of local heritage depends on the willingness of local people to get involved. Next year, I’m really hoping that we can develop the Oswestry Heritage Comics a bit further by incorporating local history workshops into the production of the comics, so that they don’t just tell people what’s important about their heritage – but they reflect the community’s sense of what’s important, too.

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It’s the end of September, we’ve only a few weeks to go until Heritage Open Days, and the Oswestry Advertiser has now published half of the twelve-week run of Oswestry Heritage Comics – and so I thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on some aspects of the project.

When I first proposed the idea of “a comic about Oswestry heritage”, my aim was to try and create something which would help introduce the subject to an audience which maybe didn’t know a great deal about it. What I perhaps hadn’t anticipated, however, was just how broad that subject was.

I’ve always been interested in the history and heritage of Oswestry and its outlying regions – after all, it’s on my doorstep – but I’d never really delved into it to any great degree. I knew, of course, that local history of any kind is fractal in nature – the more you investigate it, the more detail reveals itself to you, and the more you discover there is to learn. I originally assumed that I could accommodate this infinite level of detail by confining the comics to a brief overview of any given aspect of heritage. That, I feel, I’ve been able to do fairly successfully. Each of the comic strips has a very definite “theme” – military heritage, transport heritage, business heritage, etc. – which has provided me with ample material to fill each comic. What I had not anticipated, though, was the extent to which each of these “themes” would be connected.

I now understand much better that it’s the restricted nature of the overall subject – the history, archaeology and heritage of a small market town – that makes these connections so much more important. It simply isn’t possible to talk about the Cambrian Railway without mentioning its role in WWI, connections between transport and agriculture, the role of Oswestry’s markets, and Oswestry’s position and character as a settlement on the border between England and Wales. As such, even a brief visitation of a topic such as “Business and Heritage” becomes an act of picking a single thread from a very, very tangled web of historical and heritage interactions. At times, I’ve felt like the process of simplification – so much a part of writing a short, four-panel comic – has tipped over into “over-simplification”: there just isn’t enough time or space to explore all the connections between themes that give the individual historical facts and figures their real interest.

But, herein also lies the great strength of the comics medium – and of the use of a local newspaper as a means of publication. Each comic is not an independent informational entity – each comic is simply an element in a twelve-part informational entity. The fact that the comic has a regular weekly slot has made it possible – over the course of multiple episodes – to continually reference multiple elements of the “Oswestry story”. By re-visiting those elements, it has been possible to build up a sense of connection. The “whole” story emerges “interactively” out of all the shorter stories I have simplified for the individual strips.

However, given the multiplicity of topics, elements and themes, some have, inevitably, received greater focus than others. For example, there’s nothing specifically on the heritage of churches and chapels – although St. Oswald’s parish church does feature, as does the man himself and his well. There’s plenty more on transport that hasn’t had much of a mention – not just the Cambrian Railway, but all the early industrial horse and tramways in the area. And there’s a lot of industrial heritage that hasn’t been covered in any detail, either – although the Llanymynech limekilns do feature a bit. Something else that I haven’t been able to cover is the surprising number of re-enactment and “living history” groups which operate in and around Oswestry: the House of the Blackstar at Whittington Castle, and the World War I trenches at Park Hall farm, for example, make appearances in individual panels, but it would be great to cover them in a bit more depth.

So much heritage – so few panels! I think the title of the first strip, “Small Town – Big Heritage” says it all. What I think I’ve enjoyed most about this project is being able to make a start at getting at least some of the extraordinary depth and breadth of Oswestry’s history down in comic format. What would be nice now is to get the chance to continue. There’s so much history, archaeology, built and natural heritage in and around the town, it seems a shame not to try and do it justice.

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intro_panelThis week, the Oswestry Advertizer is featuring a full-page comic introducing the Oswestry Heritage Comics project. I talk about how I got into using comics in archaeology, and why I thought using them in a local newspaper to shine a bit of a spotlight on local history, archaeology and heritage might be a good idea. It’s a very quick introduction to everything I’ve been doing with comics, information and public outreach over the past ten years – right back to the Çatal Nedir? comic I did way, way back in 2005.

My basic argument has always been that when we talk about the past – history, archaeology or heritage – we use a very specialised language full of concepts and assumptions that most people don’t recognise. This is because these concepts and assumptions don’t feature a great deal in the day-to-day of ordinary life. So public outreach has to provide a context for these things in order for them to be best understood by an audience unfamiliar with them: and the narrative and visuals of comics do that very well indeed.

Over the next twelve weeks, the Oswestry Heritage Comics series will hopefully demonstrate how this can be done even with a subject as rich and diverse as “heritage”, and within the confined parameters of a four-panel strip. It’s an artistic and informational challenge, certainly – but it’s an opportunity to really test the idea that comics can be effective as a means of communicating information about the past.

The comics are only part of the package. There’s a Facebook page which will provide onward links and additional information based on the subjects of each week’s strip. Plus, over the course of the twelve weeks the comic series is running in the newspaper, I’m going to be hosting a professional-level workshop and a family activity on comics and heritage at Underhill Farm during Heritage Open Days, a kids activity on comics and family history at Oswestry Library, plus a Learning at Lunchtime talk about the project, also at Oswestry Library, a mini-exhibition of the comics and preparatory artwork at The Willow Gallery in September, with an introductory talk on the process. If funding materializes, there will also be a pop-up exhibition of some of the comics at venues around Oswestry during Heritage Open Days, plus I’ll be giving a talk to the Chirk History Society which will be about public outreach in heritage, which will draw on (no pun intended) the comics project. I’ll put links to each of these events up here, closer to the time. I’ll also put up posts here about each weekly comic strip in turn, discussing some of the “behind the scenes” process, as well as talking in more detail about the way each of the strips was written.

I’m extremely excited about this project. If it proves to be successful, I’m hoping it might provide a model for other comics and local heritage projects – both in Oswestry, and beyond!

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tizer_1My Gillray-inspired political cartoons about Old Oswestry have been part of an exhibition of art inspired by the iron age hillfort put on by the Artists Hugging the Hillfort group. The exhibition has been at The Willow Gallery in Oswestry, and is now at Blossoms Gallery in Aberystwyth all through June.

As part of the exhibition opening at The Willow, I gave a short talk about the connections between art and archaeology. The response from the audience was really interesting. Most people attending the talk were completely unaware that there were any connections between archaeology and art – but most were also immediately enthusiastic about the possibilities and potentials of those connections.

For archaeologists, connections with art are opportunities to explore relationships between past material culture and the wider social and cultural meanings of ancient landscape, environment and ecology. But for local communities, connections between art and archaeology are opportunities to help express intimate, contemporary relationships between people and place.

This exhibition brought home to me how much the connections between art and archaeology have to offer those who often feel powerless in the battle to preserve and protect their local heritage. Art about archaeology gives members of a community the chance to show the lived importance of their historical, ancient and ecological heritage – to politicians, to developers, to friends and neighbours… even to archaeologists.

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Comics in York! Part of the "Heritage & Play" sessions. March 26th.

Comics in York! Part of the “Heritage & Play” sessions. March 26th.

There’s a great event taking place up in York for anyone who’s free next Wednesday, the 26th. It’s the latest “Heritage and Play” session organised by Sara Perry and Colleen Morgan – and next week it’s all about comics!

To quote Colleen’s FB post:

During the next Heritage & Play meeting, we’ll consider the productivity of using and making comics to share ideas and create knowledge in archaeology. We’ll begin by discussing (and viewing samples of work from) various individuals who’ve been applying comics to archaeology (both in the past and in the present). We’ll then lead participants through a preliminary drawing session where we start to articulate aspects of our practice and/or current research through comic–style depiction.

The Heritage & Play group is an informal series of events which Sara and Colleen are organising with Gareth Beale. The open sessions bring together play with a focus on a particular heritage, history or archaeology theme. You can follow the sessions on Twitter via #heritageandplay @clmorgan @ArchaeologistSP.

Heritage & Play

26 March, 2014

12:00 – 13:00

Room: K/157

 NO SKILL OR PREEXISTING DRAWING TALENT REQUIRED!!

 Bring: A pencil/pen/preferred writing implement & your lunch

I’m excited about this event – comics, archaeology, play and education are all natural partners. I’ve exploited these connections in the comic-format activities I designed for my Anglesey Prehistory comics, and I know Hannah Sackett is working in a similar vein down in Southampton. Best of luck to Colleen, Sara and Gareth for the day – I look forward to hearing how the day went!

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