‘Our Place, Our Stories’: Schools and Community Public History Project at Tall Dhiban, Jordan

In this week’s blog Dr Olwen Purdue, Director of the Centre for Public History, discusses her latest project which aims to encourage engagement with heritage  among marginalised communities in Dhiban, Jordan:

Heritage is an inheritance from a people’s past, a legacy to be protected, nurtured, and handed on. However, heritage can also be divisive or disempowering. Dominant or hegemonic narratives can drown out the voices of marginalised communities, or those without the means to articulate their particular understandings of their past. This is being addressed in many places with the emergence of public history as an important sub-discipline of history, encouraging collaboration with cultural institutions and the growth of community-led projects. Oral history has likewise emerged as a key methodology for collecting under-represented or less dominant historical narratives and articulating them to a range of audiences. These approaches to understanding the past are making rapid strides in the West, underpinning much important new historical research. They are, however, much less familiar in many parts of the Middle East, something this project seeks to address as it works among the people of Dhiban, Jordan.

Dhiban, Jordan.

Tall Dhiban is one of Jordan’s most important archaeological sites having been the site of human occupation for around 6,000 years. Located 40 miles south of Amman and 12 miles east of the Dead Sea, this mound, which covers 30 acres and rises to 130 feet in height, was at various times the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab (according to the Bible, the Israelites stopped here during the Exodus from Egypt), a Nabataean centre during the Roman occupation and a thriving city of the Byzantine Empire. Dhiban was subsequently conquered by the first Islamic caliphs, and then became an important centre of agriculture following the Crusades. The modern-day town of Dhiban, which sits in the shadow of the Tell, has a population of around 15,000 which is composed of peoples from many different backgrounds and origins. Many of these are migrants from Syria and other neighbouring countries, but the largest group are Bedouin from the Bani Hamida tribe who settled here in the 1950s. Economic hardship and social marginalisation is prevalent among these peoples, and their voices are rarely heard in the historical narratives of Dhiban, dominated, as it is, by the formal, academic history of the Tell.

3. Dhiban_Tomb_Exterior.JPG
Dhiban Tomb Exterior.

This project seeks to redress this balance, weaving the voices and stories of these communities, the people of modern Dhiban, into the historical interpretation of the Tell. Building on research carried out on a previous Wellcome Trust-funded project on heritage and wellbeing in inner-city Belfast, Heritage Connects, it aims to explore the connection between individual and community engagement with the past, social capital, and wellbeing among marginalised communities. By developing this research in the very different context of rural Jordan, the project will seek to better understand the different ways in which peoples and societies understand, reflect on, and communicate their senses of history and heritage, and explore ways of encouraging greater engagement with people’s own perspectives on the past and those of others. It will also examine the approaches taken to the formal teaching of History in Jordanian schools, and the extent to which, if at all, this facilitates or encourages multiple and diverse narratives to be heard.

11. Corner of podium for Nabataean Temple..JPG
Corner of Podium for Nabataean Temple.

One of the principle aims is to encourage engagement with heritage among local communities, and to build capacity among teachers, students, children, and local enthusiasts for capturing and communicating the rich and diverse histories of their people and place. A key element of this will be a local history project, developed with local school teachers and children in Dhiban. A series of workshops in schools will introduce teachers and their classes to methods of collecting and sharing their own histories and those of their families and communities through telling and recording each other’s stories, and digitally capturing images and artefacts. The year-long project will culminate in a community History Harvest event at which the children will launch an exhibition of their own work, and invite members of the community to come along to share their stories of their past and that of their people. At this event, which will coincide with the 15th anniversary celebration of the Tell project, the schoolchildren and their teachers will work alongside the project team and students from Mutah University to digitally capture images, artefacts, and stories from the local community.

Thus, this project hopes to engage the wider community, enabling multiple voices associated with Dhiban to be heard across socio-economic, generational, and gender divides. These perspectives and stories will be integrated with the work being carried out by the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project in the developing of the Tell Interpretive Centre, incorporating local perspectives into the signposting and narratives of the site. It will also build capacity for storytelling and history collection among local communities, allowing their voices to be heard in connection with this internationally-renowned heritage site.

This project is funded by the AHRC Newton-Khalidi fund and is led at Queen’s University Belfast by Dr Olwen Purdue, Director of the Centre for Public History, with Drs Neil Sadler and Sue-Ann Harding, Centre for Translation Studies, and at Liverpool University by project PI, Dr Bruce Routledge, Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, in collaboration with the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project and students from Mutah University.


Berlin: A Metropolis of Memory or Omission?

In this week’s blog, Martin Mulvenna discusses his recent field trip to Berlin as part of the MA in Public History at Queen’s University Belfast:

The spectre of the Holocaust haunts the streets of Berlin. In many ways the memory of the event itself has been transferred from the purely ethereal to the real, becoming an integral part of the city’s urban landscape, something which is effectively symbolised in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which disturbs the usual flatness of the city, its claustrophobic columns contrasting starkly with the exuberant width of the adjoining streets. However, whether this phantasm is evident to the public who go about their daily business in the city is another question.

Memerial to the murdered Jews of Europe.JPG
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

It’s a question that ran through my mind during the recent Public History field trip to Berlin as part of my MA at Queen’s University Belfast. The reason behind the trip itself was to understand how Berlin deals with its contentious past, and how its people remember a period of their past which many, if not all, would rather forget.  How does a city marred by its role as the one-time capital of the Third Reich face up to its past? Does it repress the painful memory, or does it dare to encounter and wrestle it?

In some sense this memorialisation of the civic space of Berlin is a natural by-product of the Sisyphean soul searching many Berliners undertook in the rebuilding of their city from the ruins of Second World War and later by the scars left by the partition of Berlin. How exactly could Berliners memorialise the victims of their past crimes, while distinguishing themselves from the perpetrators? This dilemma has thrown their history into a flux, exemplified by two neighbouring buildings separated by the Wall: the former Reich air ministry building which remains standing in all its totalitarian character, dominating its local skyline; and the one-time headquarters of the Gestapo, now demolished and turned into the Topography of Terror a centre of memory for the victims of Nazism, which barely rises to the horizon of one’s vision.

Reich Air Ministry.JPG
Reich Air Ministry.

The contradictory nature of these buildings is symbolic of the debate over how Berlin should memorialize the Holocaust. Is it better to keep these buildings standing as icons of guilt, so that the crimes of the past can never again be replicated, or will the destruction of these buildings along with the odious period they represent, prevent these sites from becoming places of pilgrimages by those who would resurrect such a period?

This raises the issue of guilt. The Topography of Terror deals with this in quite an explicit fashion: its concrete barren surroundings devoid of any foliage combine with the images of crimes it exhibits to create a sombre experience, reinforcing the utter nihilism and inhumanity of Nazi violence and the role ordinary Germans played in facilitating it, whether actively or though omission. While one might consider the morality of placing this collective guilt upon Germans, as the Topography of Terror reminds us, one must also remember that as we foreigners gaze upon the images on its wall and see only the faces of perpetrators, some Germans see the faces of their forefathers.

Topography of Terror.JPG
Topography of Terror.

Recent years have seen an effort to exonerate the collective guilt placed upon the Germans, particularly through a focus on German resistance to Nazism. This is given concrete form in the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which appropriately valorises the exploits of those who attempted to end Hitler’s regime. However, it is equally important to remember that many of those remembered in the centre, such as Colonel Von Stauffenberg, whose name is given to the street near the centre, acted not out of any altruistic motives to prevent the Holocaust. Furthermore, as our tour guide noted, many of those individuals and movements who made up the resistance weren’t brought down by the ruthless investigative capabilities of the Gestapo but by other Germans.

Occasionally one might stumble on the street, looking down to expect a loose stone only to find a small bronze plaque dedicated to a victim of the Shoah, as if the ground itself had grabbed your foot. Some of these plaques, especially those on the busy highstreets are visible, glittering if caught in the right light, while others languish in the less trampled parts of the city, only coming to the fore of the public imagination when enough blind steps have polished the bronze. The apparition of the memory of the Holocaust is alive in the city, always in the peripheral of one’s visions, haunting the corners of your sight as well as your mind. It is entirely up to the public to perceive this shade, any ignorance of it is willing, innocent maybe.

Martin Mulvenna is currently studying for the MA in Public History at Queen’s University Belfast.

Bloody Sunday, the Museum of Free Derry and the Campaign for Justice

In this week’s blog, Naomi Petropoulos discusses her internship at the Museum of Free Derry as part of the MA in Public History at Queen’s University Belfast:

On Thursday 14 March Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service made the long-awaited announcement of its decision on whether or not the former British soldiers involved in the shooting dead of 13 unarmed civilians in Derry/ Londonderry on 30 January 1972 – an event known as Bloody Sunday – would stand trial. The final decision was that one former soldier, identified as “Soldier F,” will be charged with two murders and the attempted murder of four others. Writing in the Independent on 17 March, columnist Patrick Cockburn, declared that ‘The wounds in the nationalist community in Northern Ireland opened on that day have never closed and, thanks to the meagreness of the judicial response to the massacre, they never will do’.[1]

Such polarised views have dominated the media and social media since the 14 March announcement, an announcement which proves to be a significant moment in the legacy of the Troubles of Northern Ireland, not just for the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday but also for the families of other victims killed in the conflict. The decision that only one of the seventeen soldiers investigated will face prosecution was received with shock in the city of Derry, a shock caused in part by the fact that the 2010 Saville Inquiry had produced such definitive findings regarding the events of that day, overturning the findings of the 1972 Widgery Tribunal by declaring all the victims, innocent and providing the victims’ families with the vindication they sought and campaigned for, for over three decades.

Representatives of the victims’ families stand for a moment’s silence in the Guildhall, Derry. Source: Niall Carson, ‘Decision on Bloody Sunday prosecutions announced’, Belfast Telegraph (https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/decision-on-bloody-sunday-prosecutions-announced-photos-37913908.html), (14th Mar. 2019).

Over the past few months I have been carrying out my MA in Public History placement with the Bloody Sunday Trust, a community-based organisation established in Derry in 1996, whose stated claim is to assist the Bloody Sunday families in their quest for truth and justice. Armed with the findings of the Saville Inquiry and its close connections with those who attended the march, the Trust has sought to present the truth to the public through its museum, the Museum of Free Derry. The museum’s exhibits seek to connect with its visitors by presenting artefacts that directly relate to the events surrounding Bloody Sunday. Its latest project is to present the museum’s cache of posters relating to that day in a meaningful way. It will provide visitors to their website with a searchable database of posters, replacing the current view-only gallery. It will also provide visitors to the Museum with a similar searchable database in order to provide them with a clear picture of its campaign themes over the years.

As part of my internship I have been assigned the job of creating the archive and display tools for the Museum. This involves firstly creating the system for staff to add materials as they become available. The second stage of the project is to create a stand-alone system that will display the poster archive. Finally, the third stage will involve integrating the archive in to the Museum’s existing website. The inclusion of the posters in the Museum’s display is significant as they played a key part in advertising the mechanisms through which the Trust orchestrated their justice campaign. That is, commemorative marches and fundraising events.

Museum of Free Derry
Current Museum of Free Derry poster Gallery. Source: Museum of Free Derry, ‘Bloody Sunday March Posters’ (https://www.museumoffreederry.org/content/bloody-sunday-march-posters), (15th Mar. 2019).

Over the course of the almost thirty years of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign, commemorative marches and fundraising events have been utilised to ensure that the events of Bloody Sunday remain in the public consciousness in Derry. Its three core aims were: to have the Widgery Tribunal overturned and replaced with a new independent inquiry; to have all victims of the day declared innocent; and to see those soldiers who killed the protesters prosecuted. With the announcement on Thursday past, their third and final aim was realised, albeit partially. The Justice Campaign’s focus has shifted over the years and with the Saville Report, the general consensus was that it was time for prosecutions to be sought as the truth had come to light. This is displayed in the video at the end of a visitor’s tour around the Museum. The showing of the Saville Inquiry statement by then Prime Minister David Cameron and the speeches from representatives of the victim’s families reinforces the idea of vindication. In addition, the story told by the staff at the Museum is heavily laden with ‘the truth of that day’; legitimised by the fact that they were either present on the march, or a close relative of someone who was injured or killed. However, to what extent can this be seen as a weaponisation of the truth?

Picture taken at the Bloody Sunday Commemorative March in January 2011. It was the first march to take place since the Saville Inquiry’s findings were announced. Source:  Steven McCaffery, ‘Final march for Bloody Sunday,’ Independent.ie, (https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/final-march-for-bloody-sunday-26619092.html), (17th Mar. 2019).

It is clear, through the articulate manner in which the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign has been mobilised throughout the years, that their sense of truth has been a core focus. The campaign has also had an incremental approach. With the accomplishment of the first aim, the campaign was armed with a truth that was usable for subsequent campaign goals. In this sense, the truth therefore can be seen as having been weaponised. However, what is less clear after the Public Prosecution Service’s announcement, is whether or not any closure will be obtained for the families. All indications suggest that only one soldier being presented for prosecution will not be enough to erase their feelings of injustice. Conversely, the prosecution of a soldier for following orders, is equally unpalatable for those who oppose the final aim of the Justice Campaign.  It is safe to say then, that the announcement last Thursday is “not the end of Bloody Sunday, but the beginning of yet another chapter.”[2]

Bloody Sunday victims
Pictures of those who died on Bloody Sunday. Source: BBC News, ‘The victims of Bloody Sunday,’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10138851), (14th March 2019).

Naomi Petropoulos is currently studying for the MA in Public History at Queen’s University Belfast

[1] Patrick Cockburn, ‘The brutal legacy of Bloody Sunday is a powerful warning to the Tories still hoping to save Brexit,’ The Independent, (https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-bloody-sunday-boris-johnson-dup-theresa-may-northern-ireland-a8825286.html#comments), (17th Mar. 2019).

[2] Peter Taylor, BBC Newsline, (https://www.facebook.com/BBCNewsline/videos/1983955678396793/), (14th March 2019).

My Internship in a Working Royal Residence: Hillsborough Castle

In this week’s blog Faith Linehan, a recent QUB MA graduate, discusses her public history internship at Hillsborough Castle:

Let me introduce myself, my name is Faith Linehan, I’m from Texas, I love spicy food, history museums, and dogs, and I’ve just completed an MA at Queen’s University Belfast. Why Queen’s? I wanted to study Irish history because that was an area of history that I had never learned much about during my undergrad. But I also wanted to come back to Belfast since I did a Study Abroad semester here back in 2015. When I was registering for courses to take for my MA there was one that really stood out: the Public History Internship. I had no idea what all it entailed, but it sounded interesting and getting practical experience is always helpful in the job hunt. At the first meeting with the module convenor, Dr Olwen Purdue, I got even more excited by the options we could choose from for our internships. The one that most intrigued me most was Hillsborough Castle.

I should probably mention that I have researched the British royal family for years, primarily the older royals from previous centuries, but that fascination carried over into the modern family members. So when I learned that we could potentially work at the royal residence in Northern Ireland I knew I had to try for a position there. Thankfully I was accepted and assigned to the curatorial team.


As one of the official royal residences, Hillsborough Castle is managed by Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) which also manages Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and Windsor Castle. Hillsborough Castle is unique in the HRP holdings because it is a relatively new feature to the town of Hillsborough, having only been built in the early eighteenth century. It was originally owned by the Hill family before they gifted it to the Northern Ireland government in the 1920s. The Hill family has been in Hillsborough since 1611, hence the name of the town. They have also been active members of British politics, two of the most notable William Hill, who was a Privy Councillor to both Charles II and James II, and Wills Hill, who was the 1st Marquess of Downshire as well as Secretary of State for the (American) Colonies from 1768 to 1772. Apparently, Benjamin Franklin stopped at Hillsborough during one of his trips to England to petition for the colonies’ rights as British citizens. Franklin and Wills did not get along at all, but the story humorously suggests that this visit is what caused Franklin to become a proponent of the Revolution. Now, though, the Castle acts more as a testament to the history of Northern Ireland as it tries to convey the region’s partisan politics in a way that promotes healing rather than divisiveness.

Faith Linehan working with the curatorial team at Hillsborough Castle.

The first time I went to Hillsborough I was surprised to see tarps, construction equipment, and temporary chain-link fencing surrounding the castle. It was not the image I expected. Once I was checked in with security and was escorted to the curatorial team’s office, I learned that all of the activity at the castle was the result of a massive renovation project at the castle – yes, renovation, not restoration – in order to make the castle suit the tastes of the current members of the royal family. Right off the bat I felt welcomed and valued by my team. They gave me a tour of the renovation and explained the historical inspirations behind portions of the renovation as well as the uniquely original ideas. They also told me that they, the curatorial team, were preparing a “wall hang” of political cartoons from the eighteenth century to the Easter Rising of 1916 for the Castle’s grand re-opening in July.

The second day I was at the Castle I received my assignments for the term. I was going to be working on the longhand interpretations for the political cartoons. Essentially I researched all of the cartoons that were going to be used in the wall hang and wrote explanations that were one hundred words or less, and those explanations were going to be put into a room binder for guests at the Castle to peruse. The room binders are there to give information about nearly every piece in a room since the tour guides cannot delve into every item in the Castle due to time constraints. You may also be wondering why I keep using the phrase wall hang instead of exhibition. This is because it is technically not an exhibition since the Castle is a functioning home and not a museum. Anyway, for the next four months I could have meetings at Hillsborough Castle to debrief on what I had researched, and to get updates on new cartoons or changes that needed to be made. In the end I researched forty-three cartoons and as much of the obscure humor they utilized. To show how much context is necessary to understand these cartoons at one point I realized that one of the cartoons we were using was inspired by another cartoon from the late 1600s.


This entire project felt like an exercise in sleuthing. It was probably the most fun project I have ever worked on. If you have any interest at all in working with public history or historical heritage sites I would highly recommend applying for an internship at Hillsborough Castle. The staff there are very kind and welcoming, and they give you actual projects to work on that are relevant to the Castle. I felt like I had accomplished something important, contributed to my team, gained valuable experience, and grew confident in my own abilities. Thanks for reading my reflections on my internship with Hillsborough Castle, and I hope you are inspired to do your own internship there as well!

‘Researching the Ancient World’ in South Belfast Schools

In this week’s blog, QUB lecturer Dr Laura Pfuntner discusses the development of the School University Partnerships Initiative and its ‘Researching the Ancient World’ project:

The study of the ancient world is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, as historians and archaeologists take advantage of technological and scientific innovations to uncover new information and to gain fresh insights into long-debated historical questions. The remarkably well-preserved classical Greek shipwreck on the floor of the Black Sea recently surveyed by state-of-the-art ROVs,[1] and the Mayan cityscapes buried under dense vegetation but now revealed by aerial LiDAR,[2] are just two discoveries that illustrate the vast potential of the application of new scientific tools and methodologies to historical and archaeological research.

Such headline-grabbing finds also offer university researchers from across the sciences and humanities exciting opportunities to engage with the public, including school-age audiences. This year, ancient historians Laura Pfuntner and John Curran teamed with Prof Chris Allen of the School of Biological Sciences, Prof Eileen Murphy of the School of Natural and Built Environment, and Patricia Hampson of the Widening Participation Unit to develop the School University Partnerships Initiative (SUPI) project ‘Researching the Ancient World’. The project was inspired by Prof Allen’s involvement in an interdisciplinary effort to identify the precise route that the Carthaginian general Hannibal took over the Alps to invade Italy in 218 BC, in the course of the Second Punic War with Rome. Prof Allen’s examination of microbiological evidence (namely, animal dung) from soil samples taken in the Col de Traversette helped to confirm that Alpine pass as a likely stop for Hannibal’s troops and animals on their famous trek.[3]

The SUPI project’s goal was to provide Year 9 students in the South Belfast Area Learning Community (ALC) with hands-on experience of the complementary methods that university researchers in Ancient History, Archaeology, and Microbiology use to answer questions about the ancient world. As a first step, the SUPI team presented a day-long programme of interactive activities at Methodist College in June. Dr Pfuntner and Dr Curran, with the assistance of MA students David Green and Barry Trainor, guided students through a selection of textual and visual evidence for Roman family life, entertainment, food and diet, and attitudes to death.

Dr Curran discusses Roman family life with Year 9 students from the South Belfast ALC at Methodist College.

Students made a follow-up visit to the Queen’s University campus in September, at the beginning of their Year 10, to get a taste of university teaching facilities and to continue their exploration of the three disciplines. The ancient history team, with the additional help of former History undergraduate Rachel Newell and Stranmillis University College student Amber Taylor, led group discussions aimed at giving the visiting students the experience of conducting historical research by using textual and visual evidence to answer questions about the Roman world. Students used a variety of documents, ranging from historical narratives to graffiti and price lists, to identify unusual objects from across the Roman empire, including a set of surgical tools from Pompeii, a statue of a snake-god from the coast of the Black Sea, and a silver pepper pot from Britain. During their campus visit, students also gained practical experience in Microbiology, by extracting DNA from a strawberry; and Archaeology, by classifying and labelling different animal bones. In feedback collected after the event, most of the students agreed that they enjoyed their time (74%), that they had learned new information (80%), and that they would come to a similar event in the future (80%). Most participants agreed that they now knew more about the research that takes place in a university (65%) and that they would like to attend university when they were older (68%).

Dr Pfuntner and Stranmillis University College student Amber Taylor discuss textual and archaeological evidence for Roman surgery with Year 10 pupils in University Square.

To consolidate what they had learned throughout the project, students were then invited to create posters that answered the question ‘How does investigating the past help us solve future problems?’ The posters were submitted for judging by Queen’s researchers and a representative from the South Belfast ALC. The top three entries were announced at an event at the Whitla Hall in early December, with a poster submitted by students from Rathmore Grammar School receiving first prize.

The winning poster, submitted by students from Rathmore Grammar School.

The posters submitted at the project’s conclusion offer further evidence that students came away from ‘Researching the Ancient World’ not only with a taste of university-level research in Ancient History, Archaeology, and Microbiology, but also with an appreciation of the relevance of the distant past to understanding and solving the challenges we face in the present. In the words of one of the winning poster entries, ‘It is important to study our past because it can tell us how we evolved. It can show us what mistakes our ancestors made and how to learn from these mistakes to have a better society today’.

For further information on Dr Pfuntner’s research, see her QUB research profile.


[1] ‘Shipwreck found in Black Sea is “world’s oldest intact”’, BBC News, 23 October 2018 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-45951132).

[2] ‘Sprawling Maya network discovered under Guatemala jungle’, BBC News, 2 February 2018 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-42916261).

[3] Marguerite Holloway, ‘Searching for Signs of Hannibal’s Route in DNA from Horse Manure’, The New Yorker, 8 May 2016 (https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/searching-for-signs-of-hannibals-route-in-dna-from-horse-manure).

“We’re the Only Steel Town to Make it Out Alive”: Post-industrial ‘Success’ and Erasure in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In this week’s blog, QUB PhD student Pete Hodson discusses social memory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and his internship at the National Museum of Industrial History:

It’s late November 1995. A steelworker whistles ‘Amazing Grace’ through the plant tannoy as Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnace is tapped for the final time. As the molten metal gushes into transportation cars, workers adopt solemn poses for commemorative photographs. The media turn up for interviews and film workers streaming out of the gates who will never return. After constant operation since 1863, Bethlehem’s steelworks falls silent. It’s a familiar story replicated across the United States. Economic void, cultural loss and social vacuum are terms to describe what usually comes next. Bethlehem, however, likes to market itself as the city that escaped shutdown unscathed: ‘we’re the only steel town to make it out alive’. If it has, what’s the magic formula? If it hasn’t, how has it avoided being written-off as a rust-belt failure?

Bethlehem’s ‘South Side’, with the five blast furnaces in the background.

I arrived in Bethlehem in July 2018 for a Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership internship, based at the Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH). I knew next to nothing about the city nor its inhabitants, but I was well versed in North American deindustrialisation literature. As such, I expected a Detroit, or a Youngstown – in essence, a place still convulsed by the economic aftershocks of industrial decline. This is where the literature takes you, to the towns and cities where the negative effects of deindustrialisation are writ large on bodies and landscapes. Outwardly, downtown South Bethlehem appears to be in relatively good shape, using the standard metrics of urban regeneration success: nice paving, the presence of high-end shops and trendy bars. But these measurements are useless without exploring local social memory. Landscape aesthetics are unimportant; it is how people feel, use and understand spaces that can unlock deeper meaning, and expose hidden power structures.

NMIH occupies Bethlehem Steel’s former Electrical Repair Shop. Built in 1913, this imposing brick structure is one of a handful of repurposed buildings in a vast brownfield site hugging the Lehigh River. Over the road, the thirteen-storey headquarters lies asbestos-riddled and vacant. Looming into view across the car park are the five, rusting, blast furnaces. Regeneration is work-in-progress. Sands Casino, opened in 2009, is the area’s new commercial ‘anchor’ and occupies the eastern end of the sprawling site. Intriguingly, Sands Casino owns all of the land – including the iconic blast furnaces – and controls access to (and use of) space. Local people are sceptical about the durability of the new casino economy. The community is only too aware of the risks of placing all the eggs in one basket. One South Bethlehem interviewee recalled, as a child, she saw: ‘Things puffing away and the lights were all on at these main offices. And you saw something that was so vibrant. Will it ever be that again? I don’t know that gambling will ever do that’.[1] Bethlehem has endured Marx’s dictum of ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – and is braced for a second wave.

Slot machines at Sands Casino, South Bethlehem.

NMIH opened in July 2016 after a somewhat turbulent genesis. Importantly, Bethlehem Steel is not the museum’s sole focus. NMIH dedicates substantial space to the Lehigh Valley’s textile and garment industry. The dominance of “The Steel”, physically and psychologically, served to obscure deindustrialisation in other sectors. The predominantly female-employing textile trade shed hundreds of workers after 1945, yet barely registered beyond immediately affected families. Hierarchy is apparent in popular memory: steel is ranked above garment manufacturing. NMIH is addressing this imbalance and has created a permanent textile gallery at the museum.

NMIH exterior. Twin building, to the right, lies abandoned like much of the brownfield site.

My primary role at NMIH is to collect the oral testimony of Bethlehem families who lived through the deindustrialisation process. Oral history’s ‘deep, dark secret’ is that orality is often lost.[2] Typed-up transcripts create an enormous ‘flattening of meaning’.[3] To help combat this, NMIH decided to capture oral history on video and make the interviews digitally accessible for the public to research their ethnic, industrial and social history. Local historical societies have already begun the task of collecting oral history, but their work is patchy and rarely in the public domain. There is also evidence of bias towards early twentieth-century European ethnic history at the expense of more recent Hispanic immigration. Today, South Bethlehem is a majority Hispanic neighbourhood. Terraced homes originally built for first-generation European migrants have, in turn, been colonised by new arrivals from Puerto Rico, Mexico and further afield. Early Hispanic migrants, like ninety year-old Ismael Garcia, were actively sought by Bethlehem Steel to toil in grimier trades (notably the coke works). “The Steel” provided Ismael with a dangerous but lucrative living and the opportunity ‘to better myself. I didn’t care about how hard I worked’.[4] More recent arrivals have struggled in the post-steel low wage economy: ‘Now they want to chase them [Hispanics] out of here’ remarked Ismael, with more than a hint of irony.[5] The voices of Latino Bethlehem are seldom heard in narratives of the city’s industrial heritage, or those concerning its cultural rebirth. As Jackie Clarke reminds us, power structures and agendas also exist at a local history level, as well as within larger public history institutions. Dominant perspectives can bury others.[6]

So to return to the original question: has Bethlehem weathered the storm, relative to other former steel towns? We need to find methods of describing deindustrialisation in ways that moves beyond the simple binary distinction of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. The reality is murkier and more complex. The often crass boosterism of local authorities and the popular tendency to talk-down deindustrialising communities can become hegemonic labels. On the surface, Bethlehem has indeed ‘made it out alive’. A combination of luck, foresight and close narrative control saved the city from a worse fate. A number of key factors are at play. Crucially, the plant died slowly. Closure was neither sudden nor brutal. Economic diversification occurred from the 1960s, so other local employment soaked up job losses. (North) Bethlehem was founded by German Moravians in 1741 lending the city other (pre-steel) cultural resources to fall back on. Perhaps most significantly, there was an early recognition of what must be done to thrive in a consumer economy: investment in place-based arts, culture and urban beautification. The deprivation afflicting sections of Bethlehem’s Hispanic population reminds us that this economic model does not work for everyone.

How do we really measure post-industrial transformation? By unemployment figures, or the number of hipster bars? Local community social, economic and cultural well-being must remain the most important consideration. Whilst it is clear that Bethlehem emerged comparatively unscathed, it still bears the hallmarks of a community adjusting to relative economic trauma. The froth and excitement surrounding cultural regeneration can further obscure the plight of the marginalised. NMIH’s oral history project is an important means of excavating the myriad lived experiences of the unfolding deindustrial process.

Pete Hodson is a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast. His thesis is titled Memory, conflict and class: the experience and legacy of deindustrialisation in Belfast and North East England since 1970′. It adopts a comparative approach to examine the consequences of ‘managed’ and ‘catastrophic’ deindustrialisation. He has recently published in Cultural and Social History and has a forthcoming article in History Workshop Journal.



[1] Michael Frisch, ‘Three dimensions and more: oral history beyond the paradoxes of method’ in Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy (eds), Handbook of emergent methods (London, 2008), p. 222.

[2] Interview with Kathie Klein, 5 September 2018.

[3] Michael Frisch, ‘Oral history and the digital revolution: toward a post-documentary sensibility’ in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds), The oral history reader (2nd edn., London, 2006), p. 102.

[4] Interview with Ismael Garcia, 5 October 2018.

[5] Interview with Ismael Garcia, 5 October 2018.

[6] Jackie Clarke, ‘Closing Moulinex: thoughts on the visibility and invisibility of industrial labour in contemporary France’ in Modern & Contemporary France, vol 19 (2011), p. 454.


Big Pit National Coal Museum: Commemoration, Oral Interviews and Public History


In this week’s blog, Rhianne Morgan examines how communities commemorate the loss of the South Wales mining industry:

The Valleys
Still from The Valleys, MTV.

When people hear my South Wales valleys accent four discussions usually follow.

Firstly, “You are from the valleys, I bet you love Tom Jones”

Secondly, “You Welsh love the rugby”

Thirdly, “Have you seen that TV Show called the Valleys? Is it actually like that?”

Finally, “I bet most of your family were miners”

For the focus of this blog, the last statement is the most important. This piece focuses on how local communities remembered and commemorated the loss of the mining industry in South Wales. The South Wales Valleys are renowned for their role in the coal mining industry and the bitter industrial dispute which took place from 1984-5. Since the end of the strike and subsequent pit closures the area has suffered both economic and social hardship. Communities, after all, were built around pits. Mining was the dominant industry, which employed thousands of men and supported local families.

NUM Strike Poster
South Wales NUM strike poster.

One mine which had a slightly different story to tell was the Big Pit in Blaenavon, Pontypool. Blaenavon was once a thriving industrial town; during its peak, Big Pit employed 1,500 people. The mine was shut down in 1980 as part of a national programme of pit closures. The pit was re-opened in 1983 as a heritage site and museum, a move that was backed by the Wales Tourist Board and the local council. This was controversial at the time as there were still working mines in the surrounding villages, and the loss of Big Pit as a working mine was still very raw. Thirty-five years on, Big Pit is  the flagship attraction in the Blaenavon area, drawing thousands of tourists annually. Visitors can see a range of exhibits and interpretive facilities, but the highlight for most is the underground tour of the pit led by an ex-miner. The main focus of the museum is on how the coal mining industry and surrounding communities changed from the Victorian period up until the pits closure.

Pwll Mawr
Pwll Mawr.

Miners responded to the late twentieth-century demise of Britain’s coal industry in various ways, one of which was a desire to commemorate the loss of industry that had shaped them. A “heritage boom” took place during the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom that led to an unprecedented development of the tourism and leisure sector. It has been argued by scholars such as Robert Hewison and the late David Lowenthal that this heritage boom was an expression of a strong cultural reaction to the decline of Britain both economically and globally. Despite this, there has been a lack of research into how ex-mining communities feel towards commemoration and museums such as Big Pit. I decided to examine ex-miners reactions to the museum as part of my MA dissertation: ‘Collective identities and memories of the 1984-5 strike in Aberdare’. I recorded oral history interviews with ten ex-miners from my local area. Oral history was a crucial methodology for my piece because it gave the ex-miners an opportunity to say how they felt they had been represented in public history museums, and whether they agreed that they could function as sites of commemoration.

All of the interviewees liked the concept of commemoration through Big Pit and supported it. Firstly, some backed the museum as they wanted their coal mining identity and community to be preserved. As ex-banksman of Penrhiwcieber colliery Bernard explained:

I reckon they should have a pit open in every valley, just for the people to realise what they [miners] went through during those years and all of their lives… Big Pit is excellent… I would recommend it to anybody.

It was not just the loss of identity that the interviewees were keen to commemorate. The majority of the miners also wished to emphasise the pre-1985 community spirit that existed in this mining community. As former weighbridge clerk at Tower colliery, Jeff explained:

To me it [the miners strike] changed the whole area. I mean the valleys have never been the same since…There was a sense of community but I’ve noticed in the last ten to thirteen years… It was a better place to live in then than now in my opinion.

Such a statement highlights not only the demise of the mining industry but of the community that surrounded it. Heritage, in this case, is seen as valuable for areas such as Aberdare in seeking to retain pride, identity and the means for regeneration in an increasingly mobile society.

Another reason for commemorating the mining industry was to ensure that younger generations were aware of their family or local heritage. The thought of children growing up within Aberdare not knowing what a miner was, or how the mining industry impacted upon the area, was a reoccurring fear. As ex-fire officer of Tower colliery Leslie explained:

I thought Big Pit and places like that should definitely be kept open and it shouldn’t be that it dies away [the mining industry]… our children should never forget it. Even in the valleys today I was quite shocked, I heard a story that… this young boy said to his dad… “Dad I have to dress up for Easter” and the father said “what do you want to be, a rugby player or a miner?” and the boy turned round and said “what’s a miner?” How quickly they forget see, it’s sad. So it’s nice that museums and that are kept for children to see.

Big Pit
Big Pit on a beatiful day.

Surprisingly some of the interviewees, while supporting Big Pit in general, had never actually visited the new museum. In this case study all of the ex-miners wished to remember and celebrate their heritage as they all supported local museums. Yet, in some cases, they did not feel the need to visit. David, a former development worker at Penrhiwcieber colliery, explained:

I’ve never been to any of them…I finished underground and thought ‘leave it there’.

Pit closures are still raw and painful memories which some miners do not wish to relive through a museum. As Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda argues, ‘The impact of major emotional events does not diminish with the course of time. Time does not heal wounds; it only softens scars.’[1] Other miners, however, were more open to a trip down memory lane. Bernard, for example, took two friends from Birmingham to Big Pit and described a very different feeling:

You can be there close your eyes and be a part of it again you know? It’s a wonderful thing.

Bernard took solace in visiting the museum, as the underground tour gave him the opportunity to reminisce about pit life. Although every ex-miner believed commemoration is important, some interviewees were still not ready to visit mining museums. Nevertheless, from the overall response of the interviewees towards commemoration, it is clear how captivated, passionate and proud these men still are of the mining industry to which they had dedicated most of their life.

underground tour
Underground tour.

Oral history interviews can shed light on the tensions that exist between heritage projects and the communities they represent. It is clear from these testimonies how important heritage museums such as Big Pit are to areas that are struggling with the affects of de-industrialisation, as the museum is viewed by the ex-miners as a symbol of civil pride. Big Pit can be viewed as a successful heritage project as it elated the community it attempts to represent. This is due to ex-miners having a crucial role and say within the museum space. Ex-miners work at the museum as tour guides, bringing with them their life stories and passion. Communication between the different groups involved in the museum and the prominent role of the ex-miners makes the Big Pit experience. Successful community heritage projects such as this one are crucial not only for attracting tourism into the area but most importantly for retaining the local community’s culture, pride and sense of belonging.

Me and my mother following in my grandfather's footsteps down the pit
Me and my mother following in my grandfather’s footsteps down the pit!

Rhianne Morgan is a social, public and urban historian of the 20th century, working mainly on Britain. Her interests include: working class family and community; masculinity and work; collective memory and identity; commemoration; industrial heritage; civic pride and the regeneration of post-industrial urban areas.

She is currently undertaking a PhD with the working title ‘Belfast Baths: Exploring and interpreting the historic spaces of the Victorian industrial city’ in partnership with Belfast City Council.


[1] Nico H. Frijda, ‘Commemorating’ in J.W. Pennebaker, D. Paez, and B. Rime, (eds), Collective memory of political events: social psychological perspective, (New Jersey, 1997), p. 105.