Mapping memory on the Liverpool waterfront since the 1950s

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Sch of History


This public history project explores place and memory in the waterfront districts of seaport cities, taking Liverpool as its case-study. Historically, the waterfront zone was a vibrant, multi-functional space, frequented at different times of the day and night by a plethora of people, including mariners, merchants and clerks, shipping office workers, industrial workers, dock and warehouse labourers, bartenders, sex workers, police officers, tourists and social reformers. Many aspects of this society survived into the 1960s, when airlines and containerisation removed the need for most people to work in or even visit the urban waterfront, resulting in rapid dereliction and community dispersal. The focus of this project is the visual capture of personal and community experience of Liverpool's central waterfront district in the 1950s and 1960s, the last generation of traditional seaport society. Cultural mapping workshops and film-making will encourage contributors to identify and recreate their own histories of this space, exploring community identity and continuity, and generating findings for academic and museum research.

Outputs in the form of visual memory maps and video histories will enhance knowledge of the built heritage and material culture of these spaces, primarily by identifing and interpreting key sites of memory. The project moves beyond earlier oral histories, using cultural mapping methodology to document cityscapes and people's experience within them. The core data collection will take the form of memory-mapping workshops with former waterfront residents, workers and visitors. Participants will create annotated maps answering specific questions about the locations of sounds, traffic, different groups of people, dangers and threats, and places of varying significance to them at different points in their lives. Participants will also be asked to discuss archive photographs and film, comment on relevant museum collections, and bring materials of their own. In the course of these workshops, the project will acquire a rich collection of visual, oral and material evidence. Film-makers will then interview selected participants on location, building explict visual connections between sites of memory and recollection. Broader public debate and engagement will be encouraged through the creation of a website, which will host material contributed to the project in the form of image, text and film.

The project outcomes reflect the complementary priorities of the museum and academic partners, and will be created collaboratively. An interactive web resource will combine elements of the memory maps generated in the participant workshops with film and audio commentaries on significant locations, artefacts and images. This resource, along with the artefacts and archive collections themselves, will provide a new context for interpretation and use of collections, and should form the basis of future exhibits. An urban history journal article will explore the project's methods and findings in the context of the PI's existing (text-based) work on earlier eras of waterfront economy and culture. A museum studies or public history journal article will discuss the project's methods and findings in comparison with earlier examples of waterfront community involvement and oral history in museums, considering in particular this project's appreciable broadening of subject matter and exploitation of new media for collection and dissemination. A 20-minute documentary film will encapsulate the community, museum and academic elements of the collaboration, and will be on display in the Merseyside Maritime Museum. All project materials will be acquired into the permanent collections of National Museums Liverpool and will be publicly accessible, via the website and the Maritime Archives & Library.


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Description Mapping Memory uncovered a broad range of patterns in the public memory of the Liverpool waterfront in an era of dramatic change. Our interviewees remembered Liverpool in very different ways, but not in the sense that they disagreed with one another. Indeed, they rarely contradicted one another in any substantive sense: their recollections simply did not overlap much. They plotted different points on their maps and displayed a finely-grained set of complementary experiences. Short time periods made a considerable difference to what people remembered, with the mid-1960s and the early 1970s being quite different.

Memories of post-war Liverpool are clearly influenced by the city's sudden decline in the 1970s and 1980s, and also by its more recent revival. Nostalgia emerges as a complicated and not necessarily linear phenomenon. In particular, the abandonment of much of central Liverpool as a residential area meant that many interviewees were remembering a place that they had little current knowledge of, and which they associated with just a single phase of their lives. They were often neutral, happy to remember the period, but also confident that they had moved on to better things. A few, who continued to live in the area, took a bleaker view. This project suggests that oral history needs to be more specific about interpreting memory in the context of the interviewees' subsequent experiences, and trying to establish the overall arc of the person's life rather than just the (usually rather narrower) focus of the project in question.

Mapping Memory also addressed an unusual form of historical trauma by the standards of academic writing in the field, much of which has focused on experiences of war, the Holocaust, or major natural disasters. Memories of postwar Liverpool are not contested in the same extreme ways as those of more infamous changes and transitions, and the loss of memory and community knowledge is more the result of neglect and dispersal rather than deliberate suppression and destruction. Nonetheless, the project's findings suggest that there is a need in the historiography for an understanding of less stark, but equally revealing, forms of historical dislocation.
Exploitation Route Mapping Memory was designed as a collaborative project, bringing together museum professionals, academics and film-makers. It raised a number of questions about methodology and working cultures that strengthened our thinking about the project as a whole. Working with independent film-makers, who are not bound by the processes of large institutions, brought new ideas, energy and momentum to the project, although it also took time to negotiate whether those ideas could be pursued within our time-scales and budgets.

The core methodology of the project required the active participation of a variety of people, sharing their recollections of waterfront Liverpool in a period of major change. More than that, however, we felt it was crucial that those voices should not then be locked away in archive recordings and academic articles. The project's website includes short video and audio clips from the interviews and many participants were interviewed again on location for the film, which is now showing on a gallery screen in Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Although capturing oral history interviews on film is not original to this project, we believe that we deployed an unusually strong mix of media in conducting the information-gathering phase of the project. Putting a map at the heart of the process, and encouraging participants to point out and annotate their personal sites of memory, created a dynamic, visually-rich set of interviews that could only be interpreted on video. Listening to the audio only was much less revealing of the points being made and argued by the participants. Evident for individual interviews, this was even more striking in the group sessions, when the video revealed interactions between people, and between people and the map, that would otherwise have been lost. Such methodological development should be of value to oral and public history projects more generally, and could be readily adopted in a community education context.

Mapping Memory demonstrates that quality research can be undertaken in partnership with professionals and practitioners working outside academic and museum research contexts (in our case, film-makers). Re-Dock already had an active research component in their community film-making approach, although it would be hard to capture and preserve this in the normal academic literature without projects like this one. This confirms long-held suspicions that there is substantial untapped research expertise and knowledge in the creative sector that could energise academic projects.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy




Museums and Collections

Description Partner film-makers produced a documentary as part of the project and have continued to use the public engagement methodology. National Museums Liverpool continues to support the project website with its links to testimony gathered by the project, and this is a standing element in the Merseyside Maritime Museum's online presence.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural