Sarah Mass-University of Michigan

“…I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Sarah Mass of the University of Michigan. Sarah’s doctoral work focuses on street trading and markets in post-war Britian, providing insights into the social role that they play and what they tell us about identity, especially amongst migrant communities.

What is your background?

I was born in San Francisco, but spent most of my childhood in a small suburban town north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I became interested in British history in the ways I think many Americansparticularly womenbecome interested in the subject: through novels, mini-series, and royal history. I completed my BA at Tufts University, during which time I spent a year abroad at Worcester College, Oxford. I received my MSc from the University of Edinburgh in Modern British and Irish History before I started by PhD at the University of Michigan in 2011.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, ‘This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.’”

In my first 2 ¾ years of university, I remember writing essays on Imperialism, Chartism, Jacobitism, and all the other “-isms” that seemed to matter. Yet the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, “This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.” When I returned to the States, I wrote an honours thesis on the comparative experiences of difference among the Irish and Pakistani communities in West Yorkshire, and ever since then I would say my work has been concerned with the relationship between place, belonging, and identity in twentieth-century Britain. I thought I would continue to focus on immigration and community formation, but I veered off towards shopping and consumption. Ethnicity is still one lens in my scholarship (and I’ve pursued it more explicitly in other projects), but my main question has developed into how and why traditional city centre shopping survived an era of urban redevelopment and the rise of planned shopping centres.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“…one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.”

Although I only discovered her work within the last few years, Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America is absolutely the kind of scholarship I hope to produce. Her ability to “people” the often un-peopled fields of planning and economic history is exemplary, and I only hope I can span the 1945 divide in urban history with as much dexterity. Erika Hanna’s Modern Dublin and Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place have both shown me how to write urban history through a nuanced and careful analysis of heritage movements and public history. None of these scholars work on Britain, but that’s one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“…I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly ‘unbuilt’ features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.)”

On the most basic level, I hope that Americans reading my work can learn to appreciate British urban history beyond London history. Seriously, this is a problem. On a more disciplinary level, I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly “unbuilt” features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.). I think twentieth-century urban historians have been quick to see outlying towns or the countryside as victims of urban residential growth, but there are open, public spaces in the centres of our towns and cities which are targeted by infrastructure projects or the real estate interests. Renewed interest in Jane Jacobs and issues around neoliberal urbanism have brought attention to these spaces, but I hope my scholarship can offer a pre-history to these debates in provincial Britain’s town and city centres.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment…”

As I mentioned above, I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white. While I used to write this off as simply a turn in the project, the last six months have really changed my perspective. There have been multiple Brexit features that use the town or city centre market place as a set piece for quintessential, authentic British life. I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment: markets “belonged” to localities, not to transient or outside traders. As I revise and write the last chapters of my dissertation, I’m striving to capture the categories of “local” and “English” as constructed, protected, and contingent categories wherein retail and ethnicity intersect.

Broadly speaking, what role do markets and shopping play in creating and sustaining community identity?

“…markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging.”

In Britain, many markets trace their charters back to the thirteenth century; therefore, they carry the weight of a deep, transhistorical sense of community. Since the nineteenth century, when local authorities bought market franchises en masse, these retail sites have been the spaces where public oversight meets private business. I think markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging. This makes their importance for post-industrial community identity particularly fraught.

How do you go about deciding which case studies to focus upon?

This is a great question and one I still struggle to explain. I knew I didn’t want to study London because it would invariably overwhelm other towns or cities in a comparative project. London also has a very different market culture than other localities, with the tradition of licensed street traders and street markets rather than covered retail markets. Instead, I’ve tried to get as much geographic, scalar, and structural coverage as I can. The one city that’s stayed fairly constant throughout the project is Glasgow, but other than that I’ve taken my cues from trade journals, heritage campaigns, and particularly strong local repositories. It’s not the most rigorous or systematic process, but it’s easier than going to every county record office in the country to look at their market committee meeting minutes!

Has it been fairly straightforward or quite hard to access the opinions and voices of the people and communities that you study?

“This… shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage.”

Market traders are not “joiners” almost by definition, so it’s hard to trace them in institutional records. This is really why I’ve turned to planning and architectural sources: markets come into view when they are knocked down, developed, or protected. This, of course, shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage. I’ve learned to read almost all of these accounts with an element of scepticism, keeping the politics of preservation and the professional interests of the speakers in mind.

Have you developed a sense of what leads to changes in the way that use shops and markets?

“Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.”

If I knew this, I think I’d make a very successful planning consultant! From my perspective, it’s an issue of how citizensespecially womenmade claims for retail stability during socio-economic crisis and change. During periods of interwar depression and wartime austerity, women patronized informal markets to make ends meet. When New Towns or outlying estates were constructed, housewives were often the citizens demanding markets alongside multiples or supermarkets. And as inflation constricted consumer buying power and women spent more time in the workplace, many markets rebranded themselves as one-stop family outings and bargain outlets. I think markets offer a corrective to the story of shopping we usually tell about post-1945 Britain: the usual tale is one of new precincts or modernist centres, but in the basements or outdoor squares of these structures, there were often bustling retail markets that continued to serve material and immaterial needs of sellers and shoppers. Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.

Sarah can be reached Twitter and the University of Mitchigan’s History Department, where you can find out more about her work. For more urban history profiles click here.

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Phyllis Nicklin, “Photograph of the Bull Ring street market, taken on the last day of street trading, 12/9/59”, Scanned by the Chrysalis project in 2004, from original 35mm slides held at the University of Birmingham. University of Birmingham all rights reserved

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The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

“Increasingly, everyday amateur photography is a performative practice connected to presence, immediate communication and social networking, as opposed to the storing of memories for eternity, which is how it has hitherto been conceptualised” (Larsen & Sandbye 2014 p. xx)

At some point between the Marshall Mathers LP and the collapse of Leeman Brothers photography mutated and grew legs. Today everyday photos are no longer encountered sporadically reverently displayed on walls, tucked into hardback alums or folded into newsprint rather they are deeply embedded into the fabric of everyday life. As anyone who’s taken a picture of their lunch and shared it with the world (or alternately scoffed at an acquaintance who’s done so) can attest.

The short term implications of this shift are clear: photography in the 2010s is deeply, more so than ever, enmeshed with the technology through which it is created and shared with a photographer’s social networks. The ability to create and rapidly disseminate images has rapidly altered how individuals use images and the value that is attached to them. Whereas once a cherished snapshot shimmered miraculously in the face of everything that counted against its creation (cloud cover, motion blur, a finished film canister). Today’s images are evanescent, existing in the moment for the moment, showing both ourselves and those around us that we are in a moment and (whilst still performing a vital social function) are almost entirely supplanted a short while later when we next flick our phone out, open the camera app and hit the shutter button.

What the longer term implications of this are remain to be seen, but it is possible to see already how the instagramification of everyday life is starting to break out of the virtual part of our reality and impact upon the material world before us.

A couple of years ago, when I was temping at a large UK university, I was amused to notice outside one of the plusher campus buildings where my department had an open day stand, that the event’s organisers had set up a “selfie spot”. The “selfie spot” came resplendent with its own hashtag and open day attendees were being invited to stand on the spot and take their own picture. The purpose of the picture was clearly intended to encourage the prospective applicant to “picture themselves” at the institution, and just as crucially; share an image of themselves pictured at the institution with their wider social network and the world at large. A clever campaign, that probably seemed utterly bizarre to the parents and grandparents chaperoning the sixth form age attendees; but one which a scholar in the Department of Marketing at the university’s Business School could have taught as Social Marketing 101.

The snapshot in the age of the selfie, remains one of “visual culture’s cliches”, however, the inherently networked nature of everyday photographic practice makes it, if judged right, and incredibly potent marketing tool. There is nothing new about brands consciously trying to create an icon. As long ago as the 1950s, the popularity and public impact of Roland Barthes Espirt columns (collected and published as Mythologies) lead him to lucrative consulting work for companies, like Citroen; attempting to sculpt products that were irresistible to the public.

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A stylish mid-1950s Citroen DS rally car in Finland, Author Unknown (1956) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In architecture the urge to iconify goes back even further, what was the Acropolis if not a signifier for classical Athens? What were the Pyramids or the the Ziggurats of Ur? In the modern period both states and corporations hit upon the idea of using the buildings in which they were situated as physical symbols of their presence and power. From the earliest decades of the 19th Century banknotes featured pictures of the assets or offices of the banks where they were produced: an allegorical way of giving form to the abstract financial conjuring and transactions they represented. Goods producers as well, once mass advertising became a thing, began to put pictures of their premises (or an idealised set of premises) on their packaging and in information about their products. By the mid-20th Century in the words of Allan Sekula:

“Imagine the gaze of a stockbroker (who may or may not have ever visited a coal mine) thumbing his way [through a company annual report or a share prospectus] to the table of earnings and lingering for a moment on a picture of a mining machine… The concrete source of the abstract wealth being accounted for in those pages.” (Sekula in Wells eds. 1995)

Approaching our own time as sources of value have become ever more abstract (and in societies like the United Kingdom intangible values like prestige and spectacle have come to be as valuable as physical products) so the importance, for any public or private authority, of possessing an iconic building has only increased. Since the emergence of rollfilm in the late 19th Century it is hard to doubt that, slowly but surely, the “snapshot value” of a building has begun to be taken into account by both architects and those who commission them (interesting Kodak predates the Eifel Tower by a single year).

The great World Fairs of the early to mid-20th Century are a brilliant example of where this tendency began to emerge. To quote Douglas Murphy “it seems hard to believe now… But once whole families would travel to see the world’s fair”. From the clashes between the Axis powers and the USSR at the World Fairs of the 1930s to the last gasps of modernist optimism at New York in 1964 and Montreal in 1967 the pavilion designs at the World Fair were crafted with at least half an eye on the potential for them to provide a good backdrop for family portraiture.

Similar concerns can be observed on a more localised level. Writing in the early 2000s Tom Phillips recalled seeing a “tintype photographer”, hawking a primitive form of instant photography, at the Festival of Britain in 1951. A clear indication that the organisers thought it important that visitors were able to immortalise themselves besides their iconic displays, and of course; return home to share with their friends and family a memento of their trip to see Britain’s bright socialist future. Outside of Europe, doubtless a more modern impulse than a craving for shear gigantism, lay behind the leaders of newly independent “Third World” countries to build grand parliaments, convention centres and national monuments in their capital cities. From India and Brazil in 1950s, to the “Red African” countries in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Iran the middle east after they became mass oil producers, surely the desire that their people’s showcase their modernity through capturing snapshots of themselves in  Chandigarh, or Brasilia or posing before Azadi Tower, provided part of the impetus for their construction?

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

Azadi Tower Tehran, By Hooperag (File:Azadi_Square_in_Tehran,_Iran.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

All of these iconic constructions, however, are best suited to pre-digital photography. The bold statements that they make are perfectly shaped to fit the contours of an age prior to our own, when photography was not something that could be-in the words of Nancy Van House-done “any time, any place, without any prior planning” (Van House 2011). Twentieth Century tourists flocking to national capitals and coming home with a few dozen cherished frames, were relatively easily satisfied with a few sightseeing snapshots, a few intimate moments captured, maybe a frame or two providing a dash of local colour. Today’s highly networked camera phone wielder might still take “old fashioned” snapshots whether out of a sense of tradition or proprietary or for the sake of older relatives or acquaintances who are familiar with and comforted by the older style of picture (a similar logic presumably attaches itself to the lingering ritual, perhaps peculiar to the UK, of the posed school child in their school uniform). However, given how much a part of their everyday life photography is, it is necessary for the 21st Century iconic structure to offer a larger palette of photographic possibilities.

Tate Modern in London is a classic case in point. Designed in the 1990s at the tail-end of the traditional snapshot era, Tate Modern is designed to be encountered from the far side of the Millennium Bridge. Here the snapshot taker can arrange the objects of their affection, friends, family a lover, on the north bank of the Thames-opposite the squat gallery building with its distinctive chimney, the Millennium Bridge providing a graceful and easily legible way into the picture-and immortalise their own instantly classic shot.

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Tate Modern opening day 2000, Wurzeller at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to this traditional, snapshot album friendly vista, the Tate Modern Extension-opened in the summer of 2016-is a mishmash of crazy angles, making it very hard to get the whole structure into the frame when trying to compose a shot. Which is surely the point. Whilst bracingly curved, anti-geometric museum and gallery structures; have been something of a fetish in the cultural sector ever since the Bilbao branch of the Guggenheim Museum appeared briefly on screen in The World is Not Enough just prior to James Bond abseiling out of a window, it is clear that the Tate Modern Extension has been designed for a very 2010s purpose: the selfie.

The Tate Modern Extension’s jagged form from its heavy dark bricked protrusions, to its gash like windows providing views over central London, is not supposed to offer a sense of the whole. Instead it offers up small individual chunks of itself and of London for the visitor to snap pictures of themselves against and promptly pass on to their social networks. The shear array of potentially interesting posing places offered by the new gallery (and many other buildings of the 2010s for instance the Library of Birmingham) is perfectly suited to an age when the “entry barriers to art [or merely artful photography” (Van House 2011) have crashed down. The purpose that the building’s endlessly selfiable aesthetic serves is similar to that offered by the optimistic national monuments of the mid-20th Century and the millennial naivety of the Millennium Bridge/Tate Modern vista: it allows for a certain limited kind of bourgeois self expression and self fashioning, whilst proclaiming the power of certain institutions. It also, thanks to the networks from which 21st Century digital photography gains its power, offers the Tate as an organisation, London as a “global city” and the United Kingdom as a worldwide brand brilliant exposure.

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By Jim Linwood from London (The New Tate Modern Extension – London.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for the 2016/17 academic year the University of Birmingham completed the switch from its old main Library, built in the late 1950s, to a brand new one. There were many reasons for the switch, many of them very good as the old library really wasn’t fit for purpose, however, one that wasn’t openly discussed was the potential for either of the University of Birmingham’s Libraries to serve as a photographic object.

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Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

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New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

It was clearly grasped in the 1950s that the University’s Library was a potent symbol of the institution and its values. There is for example newsreel footage of the Queen Mother opening Library in 1958. This is however, nowhere near as interesting as the role which the old Main Library came to play in one key aspect of the University’s life: graduation. When they have had access to cameras students have always been keen photographers, however, given the relative difficulty and barrier to taking photographs prior to the invention of digital photography and the camera phone, students until into the 2000s probably did not take all that many more pictures than the rest of the population. One occasion when photography was very likely to be present was at graduation right at the end of the students’ studies, when the family camera clasped in the hands of a proud older relative; would snap pictures of the proud newly minted graduate in their full regalia clutching their hardwon scroll.

At the University of Birmingham the sweeping rise of steps up to the terrace in front of the Main Library became the natural location for graduation photography. It is certainly a fairly well established tradition. My Mum and my uncle graduated from Birmingham Medical School in 1985 and 1990 respectively. Many of the half a dozen or so photographs from their graduations feature the Library and its steps prominently. Like a World Fair pavilion or the sweep of the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern the old University of Birmingham Library provides the perfect situation for the quintessential graduation picture. Its appearance solid, plain, vaguely modernist but with traditional flourishes, hewn from safely bourgeois redbrick (deeply evocative of the buildings built by the Edwardian Birmingham elite that created the institution) provides the perfect backdrop for a newly minted graduate about to step out into the world of respectable, comfortable employment.

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Frontage, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

 

The “visual cliche” (Berger 2011) of a graduate stood before a building that oozes with visual signifiers that connote the popular image of what a civic university’s buildings should look like carries with it the full weight of the expectations that are placed upon graduates. The photograph, once printed, framed and situated on the sitting room wall, carries with it the weight of the graduate’s expectations for their future, the family’s pride that they have achieved a university qualification (with all the social power that connotes) and on an ideological, level society’s wider investment in reproducing certain codes, values and behaviours in its middle class citizens.

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Entrance, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Birmingham’s new Main Library also lends itself to photography, but not of the traditional snapshot kind. As with the Tate Modern Extension it is very hard to fit the entirely of the new Main Library in one photographic frame. Suggests that the photo taker is not supposed to try and do so, as with the Tate Extension the granularity of the Library’s structure, the intricacies of its casing and its gaudiness lend itself to being the backdrop for a selfie.

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The author takes a selfie (completely unironically) outside the University of Birmingham’s new Main Library (all rights reserved, 2016)

Whilst there are certain angles from which it might be possible to pose a reasonable traditional snapshot with the new Library as a backdrop, in future graduates who want a classic graduation shot will have to make do with the Aston Webb, Law School, base of Old Joe or-if needs must-cross University Green to the Faculty of Arts Building. This suggests that if-viewed as a photographic object-serving as the site for a graduation photo is not its purpose.

Whether intentional or not the old Main Library building signified the end goal of western higher education: the reproduction of a certain kind of patriarchal bourgeois order. By contrast the new Library signifies and provides a backdrop for the higher education journey itself. To return to the “selfie spot” it can be read as a marketing tool with forty miles of shelving. On open days and school visits in the future it will act as a tempting canvas against which potential applicants will be able to picture themselves at University. Once they arrive the distinctive metallic cladding and gold fins will provide an infinite number of social media starbursts fleeting signifying the University to those who glimpse them on their newsfeeds.

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Frontage, New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Internally as well as externally the new Library provides a perfect playground for curating and cultivating certain images of University life. Countless Instagrammed, Snapchatted and Tweeted images of airy, well equipped, yet welcomingly informal study spaces, reinforce the (if not glamourous then at least worthily exciting) conception of university life that is the dominant code in popular discourse and the media. Social media posts provided for free do the work of the University Marketing Department more effectively than several Scandinavian forests worth of paper flyer and prospectuses thrust into wilting arms on a summer’s open day.

Reading the University of Birmingham’s libraries as photographic objects brilliant illustrates how networked digital photography and the emerging practices surrounding it has transformed popular photography. It is clear how the graduation photographs taken by generations of Birmingham students, and the countless everyday pictures of University life taken and shared by their successors, connote and reinforce certain key social meanings and messages. Today’s photography, like the photography that preceded it and like visual culture throughout time; speaks to the society in which it is created and the relationships through which it gains its meaning. It serves to illustrate a society in which technology has brought near infinite abundance and possibility in some spheres, whilst at the same time experiencing a sense that everything is ephemeral, provisional and liable to vanish into air.  

“LCC Municipal”

“What I have enjoyed about collecting and sharing all of this material is the many and varied tangents that the journey takes you on.  I found a load of old cigarette cards that documented the crests of the inner London boroughs.  The GLC campaign and protest badges from the 1980s connect me with my teenage years…”

For the latest in my series exploring how people engage with, interpret and share their interest in the urban past, today I was lucky enough to catch up with Ian who curates the “LCC Municipal” Twitter feed.“LCC Municipal” exploits the potential of Twitter as a visual medium to tantalise its followers with pictures of colourful, poignant and times somewhat eccentric, examples of municipal ephemera from across Greater London.

What is your background?

“When you are at the periphery the sense of belonging can be stronger than when you are at the centre.  You have to try harder to belong.”

Well, it isn’t anything to do with local government although I am fortunate enough to find myself working in one of the more ornate and extravagant former London town halls rendered obsolete in 1965.  My academic background was economics and economic history with a bit of politics thrown in, but after university I trained and qualified as a chartered accountant with one of the so-called “Big Four” accountancy firms.  It may sound defensive, but my interest in all things to do with the LCC, GLC, and the boroughs – past and present – that make up Greater London is purely that of the amateur hobbyist.  There is no professional connection and no PhD in the offing.

I think the fascination with Greater London has had a lot to do with growing up one street away from the London/Surrey border.  When you are at the periphery the sense of belonging can be stronger than when you are at the centre.  You have to try harder to belong.  Even now, I live four houses in from the edge of Greater London – it may be an invisible and largely ignored border for everyone else, but it has always exerted a powerful pull on my imagination.

Where do you find the municipal “relics” and “memories” that you tweet?

Being a dedicated hoarder, I have accumulated quite a few items over the past 25 years or so with only the vague notion that some form of definable “collection” was being formed.  These days, life doesn’t really permit the leisurely trips to Hay-on-Wye bookshops or the aimless wandering around London that used to be such a fruitful source of material.  So, I would be lying if I denied the impact that bookfinder.com, eBay and so forth have had on me!

What encouraged you to start sharing them?

“…I have always thought [that Twitter] is quite a visual medium.”

I tend to use Twitter mainly as, despite the focus on the character limit, I have always thought it is quite a visual medium.  If you go on Twitter in order to be outraged or to indulge in a spot of gratuitous trolling, then I guess it is largely about the words.  But I have always been drawn to the pictures that people post – the digitised archives, the fragments of documents and so on.

My original plan was to photograph and tweet objects that reflected council identities of the past.  I was inspired by the commemorative plaque in Cheam library that records its 1962 opening by the then Borough of Sutton and Cheam – a last gasp progressive act by a borough that was seeing out its final days.  The goal was to try and capture this type of stuff and share it to see if anyone else was interested.  Except it slowly dawned on me that the chances of getting out to go exploring were pretty slim – “you look after the kids, I’m off to photograph municipal relics” doesn’t really wash.  So my focus has been on sharing images of all the various bits of London local authority ephemera that I have picked up over the years.  Rather pretentiously, I describe it under the catch-all of the “aesthetics of local government”.

 

What I have enjoyed about collecting and sharing all of this material is the many and varied tangents that the journey takes you on.  I found a load of old cigarette cards that documented the crests of the inner London boroughs.  The GLC campaign and protest badges from the 1980s connect me with my teenage years.  I have unearthed a few fascinating documents that record Charter day celebrations, for example when Urban District Councils attained full Borough status.

“Part of me probably hopes that there is someone out there who appreciates the material, can make sense of it all and turn it into a coherent narrative.”

As I said, I am an amateur and I am just sharing an interest.  Part of me probably hopes that there is someone out there who appreciates the material, can make sense of it all and turn it into a coherent narrative.

Do you have any thoughts on what role councils’ logos and symbols play in developing people’s sense of local identity?

The “lost logos of the London Boroughs” is a good example of one of those tangents.  It started as a bit of fun, but the completist in me seems to have turned it into a life’s mission.  I think everyone in my family breathed a sigh of relief when I found the London Borough of Barnet logo from the 1980s.

“It is always dangerous to assume that your perception or framing of things is the same as anyone else’s, so while these logos and symbols have always exerted a strong influence on me, I accept that I may be in a minority of one.”

I’m not convinced the logos, or indeed the wider visual identities of local authorities, play that much of a role in developing a sense of local identity, although I am happy for a branding expert to challenge my thinking.  It is always dangerous to assume that your perception or framing of things is the same as anyone else’s, so while these logos and symbols have always exerted a strong influence on me, I accept that I may be in a minority of one.  For example, opposite the house where I grew up there was, in the 1970s and 80s, a smart council noticeboard – navy blue with “London Borough of Sutton” written in white in a simple modern font.  Sutton Council rebranded itself around about 1990 and this noticeboard was painted a rather ugly shade of jade green together with all the new corporate branding.  For me, a powerful and ever-present point of reference had gone and it felt like something was missing, but I cannot imagine anyone else on my street noticed the change.

At the risk of labouring the point, I tweeted a bunch of pictures the other day of some recently removed Croydon lampposts. These silver lampposts with the comforting orange glow of their GEC and Revo lanterns have been an ever-present in my lifetime.  It was a Council decision to install them in the 1950s and 60s.  It was a Council decision to paint them silver.  They are a form of Council symbol aren’t they?  (Indeed, many carried the crest of the old County Borough of Croydon).  They existed in Croydon but not in neighbouring boroughs, so they were a point of differentiation.  When I think of Croydon, I think of them.  And now they are all gone.  But did they create a sense of local identity for anyone else?  Probably not.

“I can share an image of council literature that is, say, 30 or 40 years old and it will generate a strong emotional and nostalgic response with people…  Yet that literature would have been ignored at the time and probably discarded by most.”

I suspect that it is in retrospect that logos and symbols play a much stronger role and for a much wider group of people.  I can share an image of council literature that is, say, 30 or 40 years old and it will generate a strong emotional and nostalgic response with people.  The power of the image comes from the ability to trigger or anchor a memory, so increases as the years pass by.  Yet that literature would have been ignored at the time and probably discarded by most.  The objects that survive – the “relics” to use your apt term – gain a mythical power and exert a disproportionate influence on our grasp of the past.

Have you noticed any particular “types” of people interacting with the content that you share, or is it a very diverse array of people?

“In a world of Brexit, Trump, post-truth politics… I suspect a lot of my Twitter crowd probably feel that the “Future” has receded into the past.”

It’s a good mix of local historians, museum professionals, archivists, academics, local councillors and local government officials to name but a few. One comment I received really made me reflect on who (if anyone) all this was resonating with.  In response to a post about the demolition of Croydon’s 1960s municipal offices, someone responded “we want our Future back”.  I think the capital F was intentional – a big concept was being alluded to.  The demand resonated with me as it captured the slow death of that post WW2 sense of optimism and of progressive politics and policies that underpins so much of what interests me and many of those people I interact with on Twitter:  strong local government, New Towns, social infrastructure (especially housing), transport, motorways, concrete, brutalism, modernism (a term that I tend to use liberally and inaccurately).  Not everyone in this little universe shares all of those interests, but there are a lot of overlaps and intersections.  In a world of Brexit, Trump, post-truth politics and what many of my academic work colleagues badge as neoliberalism, I suspect a lot of my Twitter crowd probably feel that the “Future” has receded into the past.

You can follow “LCC Municipal” on Twitter. For more profiles like this see here.