Arts Engaged Blog

Public Engagement and the Ministry of Information

Senate House

Senate House, University of London, the wartime home of the Ministry of Information. (c) University of London

This is a guest post from Henry Irving, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of London, and former PhD student in the School of History, University of Leeds. Here he reflects on public engagement in this new project. Henry will be speaking about the project at the School of History’s Global History research seminar on 22nd October 2014, at 5pm in the Grant Room, Michael Sadler Building Room 3.11.

On 27 January 2014 – after eight and a half years as an undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoc at the University of Leeds – I began work for the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies. I was at the very beginning of a four year research fellowship working on an AHRC-funded project exploring the ‘Publishing and Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-45’.

The Project:

The project was an exciting prospect. The Ministry of Information (MOI) had been established in 1939 to maintain domestic morale and influence foreign opinion during the Second World War. It was responsible for both propaganda and censorship. However it was not given the honour of an official history and remains surprisingly under researched (despite a flurry of publications in the early 1980s and pioneering work by the late Philip M. Taylor at Leeds’ Institute of Communication Studies).The project would therefore involve a good deal of primary research using the 990 files of papers, 74 portfolios of printed publicity and 1,861 separate piece of art work held by the UK’s National Archives.

This was made even more exciting by the project’s commitment to public engagement. The School of Advanced Studies had pledged to publish an illustrated ‘popular history’, host an exhibition and create a ‘digital museum’ to enable those who have helped fund the research benefit from its findings. These promises were an important factor in my decision to apply for the position and were placed at the centre of my application. As someone who had pursued similar opportunities at Leeds, I was able to show how my blogging, tweeting, experience of adult education and work as a volunteer oral historian would be used to good effect. I was duly put in charge of such efforts when the project got underway.

Potential for Public Engagement:

It is particularly fitting that the ‘Publishing and Communication History of the Ministry of Information’ project should have made a commitment to public engagement because it is writing the history of similar efforts during the Second World War. The MOI was designed as a ‘centre for the distribution of information’ and was described as a ‘vehicle of communication’ between the government and the public. It was a body that experimented with all available modes of communication and which had an enormous reach. Print runs for its pamphlets and posters were often over one million and there was a staggering 40 million visits to MOI-run exhibitions in 1944 alone.

The topic also seemed to hold much potential for public engagement in the present day. I had spent much of my time at Leeds researching a political debate which surrounded economic controls in the years after the 1945 General Election. That debate remains incredibly important but had always been a challenge to articulate (imagine a future historian attempting to succinctly explain campaigns against health and safety legislation in some 70 years’ time).Terms like ‘censorship’ are more immediate and the MOI’s cultural legacy is more recognisable thanks to slogans like ‘Make do and Mend’, ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Seizing the Moment:

The ubiquity of the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ provided a particular opportunity. A mixture of good fortune and good planning meant that we were able to launch our website in time to mark the slogan’s 75th anniversary on Friday 27 June 2014. The results of our media offensive were overwhelming: a piece written for The National Archives was publicised by the UK government, an article for The Conversation was picked up by the New Statesman and read over 30,000 times and our website had over 100 hits despite it not yet showing on search results. I was even interviewed by a US radio station!

These examples will no doubt be used to demonstrate ‘impact’ in our reports to the AHRC. But it is arguably more important that they were pursued for a reason. Indeed, while the popularity of the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has reinforced a particular view of the Second World War, it obscures the complicated history of a poster that was never officially sanctioned for display. Each of my ‘outputs’ sought to explore this point. The aim was to encourage public engagement with the topic rather than to simply publicise the project.

The extent to which our project has achieved this aim is difficult to measure but anecdotal evidence suggests some success. For example, I have received various emails and comments providing further sources of information about the poster. One correspondent even provided copies of photographs proving its unofficial display. This has added a further level of complexity to our findings and will be of great use as the project develops. It is evidence that would have otherwise been missed. And it is a great example of the difference between public engagement and outreach.

Find out more about ‘Publishing and Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’ on the project website or by following @moidigital on Twitter.

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