Blog 3. Charlotte Bomam – Exploring the Archive and 19th Century Photographs:

The day was staged as a series of events that would together form a kind of narrative: the journey everyday objects undergo in order to become objet d’art (or at least, items homed in national archives).  We began by going ‘behind the scenes’ with 30 (year 10) students to investigate the various ways in which objects are physically handled as they are cleaned, preserved, dated, classified, boxed and so on. Rhian’s approach to touring the various workstations in the archival hinterland is very much about demystifying the pristine and orderly exterior of the archival space by explaining about the mundane realities of dust, bugs and mould that tend to accompany historical objects.

Ending up in the search room, students had the opportunity to explore a variety of historical sources and documents that tell social stories connected to their local geographical environment: 19th century police records (with photographs of inmates); detailed accounts from the city’s asylum; a Victorian school diary from the 1880s (some things, it seems, never change); an ordinance map of the now highly developed area of Cardiff where the college is located (then mostly farm land and open fields). The weird otherness of some of this material certainly featured in these conversations, but also, I think, a sense that this is somehow familiar, part of the story of ordinary life. As a way of bringing these strands together, the students used the Glamorgan online collections to have a go at researching their own ancestry.

The second part of the day focused specifically on the importance of photography as an autobiographical and familial narrative. Using images from the Thompson family collection, I wanted to stimulate thoughts (in smaller groups of 4-5) about how ideas relating to gender, social status and personality are encoded in a series of formal photographs from the mid-19th century. It was interesting to find that in feeding back ideas, the groups were generally very comfortable with reading photographs in terms of clothing, posture and so on. The responses opened up plenty of opportunities for drawing on their experiences of taking, selecting and collating digital images through social media. That is, the idea that we use photographs to construct an identity and a social context is as self-evident (and problematic) now as it was then.

The concluding part of this story of Victorian family photography sits less comfortably with our modern notions, however: The practice of memento mori photography. These photographs are really well suited to thinking about how attitudes to death have been transformed, but also changes to family patterns. So, with these questions/thoughts in mind we ended the day by watching sections from two fairly recent films that deal with this topic: Troell’s Everlasting Moments and Amenabar’s The Others.


The activities that took place during the course of the day were intended to tie in with the goals we had identified at the planning stage, such as to…

  • Stimulate engagement and a sense of ownership in relationship to the cultural history of local communities
  • Make connections between past and present experiences
  • Reflect on aspects of social identity, including gender, education and class
  • Practice study and work related skills (research, communication, IT)
  • Encourage critical and independent thinking

It has to be said that there were a few surprises (for instance, the group that came along were not A-level students, as we had been told, but first year GCSE!). This meant adjusting the pace and focus somewhat as we went along, but I felt that the comments and notes often suggested thoughtful, critical and (for me) sometimes surprising responses.

As the school year is drawing to a close, Rhian and I will meet up to discuss the feedback and consider ways of tweaking the planning. Hopefully there will be opportunities to continue with other workshops in the autumn term. I think we both feel that there is room for development of this collaboration. It was a very hectic, intense experience and I would, perhaps, aim to do less discussion-based work in the future. I have an idea about a mini-research project around photography that students could do individually (or in small groups) that is occupying my mind at the moment…

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