Historian in Residence – Dublin City Library and Archives

In this week’s blog, Bernard Kelly and Mary Muldowney explain their roles as Dublin City Council Historians in Residence:

Bernard Kelly

To commemorate the centenary of the Rising in 2016, Dublin City Council asked Dubliners the simple question ‘How will you remember 1916?’. The scale of the response prompted the Council to set up the Historians in Residence (HIR) programme as a legacy project beyond 2016. Now, in 2018, the Historians in Residence scheme consists of five historians based in the administrative areas within the remit of Dublin City Council, with a sixth based in Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street, Dublin 2. The central objective of the program is to make history accessible to the general public. Historians in Residence talk to people about history, connect local areas with their history, uncover hidden stories within communities and, crucially, by being physically based and available in their areas in the city, people can readily contact them. Generally reachable through the local library, your HIR offers a wide range of services: walking tours (real and virtual), lectures, book clubs, local research and workshops. The HIRs also have a significant online and social media presence, as well as regular slots on local and national radio shows.

Having said that, my own role is slightly different. Unlike my colleagues, my base of operations is Dublin City Library and Archives and my primary job is to assist the archivists and librarians to research and write exhibitions, to mine the collections for documents, photographs and artefacts to display, give talks and lectures, and to contribute to the historical conversation by writing monthly blogs based on material in the collections.

Dublin City Library and Archive Photographic Collection Excavation of Viking site at Wood Quay VL003-Wood-Quay-1975-76 1
Excavation site at Wood Quay, 1975-6. Courtesy of Dublin City Library and Archive.

The role of the HIR is a fascinating and deeply satisfying one, largely due to the opportunity to find narratives that have not been told before. Writing the exhibition Doing their Bit: Irish women and the First World War gave us the chance to highlight the story of Kate Middleton Curtis, who was one of the most active and forward-thinking members of St John Ambulance in Dublin during the early years of the twentieth century. She pioneered the running of public first aid courses, was a regular contributor to the Irish Times on health matters and was matron of the Temple Hill Convalescent Home for Wounded Soldiers in Blackrock, County Dublin, between October 1914 and April 1915. Her diary, which is preserved in Dublin City Library and Archives, reveal her to be an efficient administrator, a formidable personality and the self-described ‘oldest ambulance lady in Ireland.’ The exhibition is now on display at Charleville Mall Library.

Kate Middleton Curtis in uniform
Kate Middleton Curtis in uniform. Courtesy of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Archive at Dublin City Library and Archive.

Another memorable achievement was to contribute to the Archive’s holdings by obtaining the photograph collection of Dubliner Albert Sutton, who served with the RAF during the Second World War and whose photographs of his progress through France, Belgium and Germany in 1944-45 had not been catalogued before.

Public interest in history is continually growing, fuelled by online access to archives made possible by digitising records, as well as the ongoing fascination with both oral history and genealogy. The HIR project is well placed to take advantage of this and to maintain its position in local communities after the decade of commemoration ends in 2022.

Mary Muldowney

There are five HIRs whose work is based primarily in the administrative areas of Dublin City Council. As Bernard outlined, we help local communities to connect to their histories, using a variety of approaches and projects that are linked by their emphasis on the the participants, rather than the historian. We give lectures and talks and lead walking tours, as a means of promoting an interest in history, which can then be followed up by local initiatives.

My area is Dublin Central, which covers some of the oldest parts of the city and consequently has seen significant change, in demographic and topographic terms, over at least 1,200 years. In the last century particularly, the population of the city has been augmented by inward migration from other parts of Ireland and immigration from around the globe. The buildings in which people live, the occupations that keep them employed and the languages in which they communicate have all changed, both contracting and expanding, providing a myriad of opportunities for collecting and disseminating the histories of many communities.

Dublin City Library and Archive Photographic Collection AAO8 Moore Street 1971
Moore Street, 1971. Courtesy of Dublin City Library and Archive

As HIRs, we work closely with the local libraries, of which there are three in Dublin Central. The librarians have facilitated us in setting up history book clubs, which are an excellent way of promoting discussion of history and its relevance to people’s daily lives. Out of such discussions emerges an interest in a range of local projects, such as oral history collection, creating virtual archives (photographs and other artefacts) and activities linked to primary and secondary school curricula. One of the requirements of the HIR is to be police vetted so that we are cleared to work with children in libraries, schools and other settings.

Dublin City Council’s Community Development Officers are another important link for the HIRs, particularly in some of the more deprived areas of the city. The CDOs are aware of the social needs of the residents, which can often be met by further education initiatives, and the HIRs can assist with achieving the aims of such programmes, which can be multi-generational and multi-national.

Walking tours (both real and virtual) are a valuable tool for the HIR and they are extremely popular in all the areas. They combine the sharing of the HIRs’ expertise with contributions from walk participants about their knowledge and remembrance of the communities being explored. The virtual walking tours are a useful (if less healthy) means of coping with Dublin’s uncertain weather and are usually based on photographs of the buildings and streets being explored. Participants can follow up in the real world with visits to the sites.

As the most recent addition to the HIR team, I am delighted with the enthusiasm for exploring history that I have met throughout my area. Since I became involved in May 2018, I have seen the huge range of work undertaken by my colleagues and hope that the ideals underpinning the HIR programme in Dublin will be emulated elsewhere.



Email: commemorations@dublincity.ie


The West Cork History Festival

In this blog Victoria Kingston, co-founder of the West Cork History Festival, looks forward to this year’s event:

The first West Cork History Festival took place last year, conceived and organised by myself and my husband. The second one will take place over the weekend of 16-19 August.

The first question people usually ask is “why a history festival?”, followed shortly afterwards by “… and why in West Cork?” And the simple answer is “because there wasn’t one in West Cork already”. But the story is, of course, much more complicated than that. It involves a collision of people, place and idea and some interesting insights into the presentation and consumption of public history.

WCHF largest logo - portrait without date


I am a historian and curator working in museums and historic sites across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. After studying history at Cambridge, I worked on
exhibition projects for the Imperial War Museum, Royal Museums Greenwich, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Epic Ireland, as well as curating all the content for Titanic Belfast. Making history accessible is at the core of what I do.

Simon, my husband and co-founder, was an academic historian for the early years of his working life, gaining his BA from Trinity College Dublin and his doctorate, which was on medieval Irish-Scottish history, from Oxford. Although he no longer works as a historian, he is still passionate about history and particularly Irish history.

So when a friend suggested we set up a history festival it seemed, in principle, like a good idea.

WCHF 2017 founder Simon Kingston and speaker Prof Roy Foster
West Cork History Festival, 2017.  Founder Simon Kingston and speaker Professor Roy Foster


But why West Cork ? Well for a start Simon’s family is from West Cork and we live part of the year here. The physical landscape of West Cork, once seen as remote and inaccessible, has become a major part of its attraction. It is now well known for its literature, art, music and food. The area has always been remarkably heterogeneous: politically, religiously, and socially. It has produced writers and thinkers of many traditions and this depth and diversity is something on which the History Festival draws. And whilst there are literary festivals, music festivals, food festivals and arts festivals there was, until last year, no history festival.

WCHF view of venue
West Cork History Festival Venue

It is a place that is in some ways remote: on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe and a long way from the nearest capital city. Precisely the same geography makes it outward-looking and connected. It was and is part of an Atlantic world, with long-established links to continental Europe, North Africa, and the Americas. One of our neighbours describes the personification of this in meeting men on the lobster pots off Cape Clear in the 1950s wearing P&O sweaters. Half the year they were part of an Irish-speaking small fishing community in the ‘wilds’ of Cork, the other half they were on liners that might have been sailing to Montevideo, New York or Calcutta. Remote then, but not cut-off.

West Cork’s religious, political, and cultural make-up shows the same diversity. The Rebel County was also the home of Somerville and Ross. Not all the ‘rebels’ the county has produced were Catholics, or indeed nationalists. The plurality of the place means it defies easy stereotyping the closer one gets to it.

The natural beauty of West Cork, its character, and more recently its food have attracted people from all over Europe. It now has a permanent international population which has, by and large, complemented and enhanced the communities into which it has come.  All of this is interesting in itself, but it also (it seems to us) makes it a fascinating place to talk about hidden, contested, or unexamined histories of other places too.


And a history festival ? While visiting museums and historic sites, reading history books and watching history shows on TV remain at the forefront of engaging the public with history, history festivals are another way of tapping into the growing public interest in the subject in all its forms. We are most definitely not an academic conference, but we aim to attract leading historians in their field to speak to a non-academic, intelligent lay audience and allow debate between them. Although we aim to cover the rich local history of West Cork we also feature, regional, national and international history, and explore the inter-connections between them all. We have avoided one overall theme, but instead focused on a series of sub-themes – for example the First World War, or the revolutionary period in Ireland – while also including talks on a wide variety of other themes and periods including medieval and early modern history.

WCHF 2017 speaker Prof Marianne Elliot
West Cork History Festival, 2017. Professor Marianne Elliott.

It is a fruitful time for public history, particularly with a period of centenaries providing new ways to engage the public. While in the UK, the First World War centenary has been largely commemorative, memorialising, and only occasionally controversial, the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland proves that history is still very raw. Some of the most heated debates at last year’s Festival revolved around events in West Cork during the War of Independence.

There were of course logistical challenges – car parking, toilet facilities, the weather – all entirely unconnected to the history under discussion but crucial to the success of such an event. We would like to engage with more younger audiences if we can, and are working on forging links with local schools and colleges. We received some hostility from a small number of attendees and others, particularly people who are threatened by discussions about, and challenges to, orthodoxy.

However, more than 400 people attended our inaugural Festival last year and we anticipate more at this year’s Festival. There was enthusiastic feedback from the vast majority of attendees and a high level of positive press coverage. We believe it was a success, and will be even more so this year. And if there isn’t heated discussion, and passionate exchanges, then in my view we aren’t doing our job.

Further information on this year’s festival can be found here.



WCHF small logo - landscape

Ghosts of the Great Northern

In this week’s blog Siobhan Osgood, a PhD researcher at Trinity College Dublin, asks what the remains of the Great Northern Railway can tell us about Ireland’s architectural and industrial history:

Tracks of former railway lines scar Ireland’s landscape, creating a forgotten web of public connectivity and human endeavour. My research looks at the physical remains of the Great Northern Railway in Ireland and how its built remains can provoke an understanding of Ireland’s often forgotten industrial past.

As this lonely researcher stands in silence on now-deserted platforms looking at often derelict stations, goods sheds and rusting tracks in the middle of the Irish countryside, one finds it difficult to imagine the hubbub of noise which must have accompanied these abandoned remains. The physical ghosts of the railways stoically stand as haunting reminders of Ireland’s age of industry.

The Great Northern Railway of Ireland (GNRI) was formed in 1876 as an amalgamation of earlier railway companies. It inherited a myriad of architectural styles as each branch line was its own company, with differing attitudes to safety and maintenance, not to mention duplicate employee roles. Standardisation was needed, and the GNRI began an expansive programme of modernisation with its first chief engineer, William Hemingway Mills, at the helm.

Mills was responsible for the creation of the inimitable GNRI architectural style. His stations, engineering works, offices and employee housing featured polychromatic yellow, red and black brickwork, repetitive semi-architrave windows and doors, gabled roofs, brick-bonding, and a unification of the structural might of iron-engineering with the visual aesthetic of tactile materiality. It was to be the final realisation of the ‘idea of a railway station’[1] as a functional, identifiable space. Sitting at the half-way point on the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise line, the GNRI’s engineering works and, station and residential housing at Dundalk epitomises these traits, with Mills creating a new company identity through brick-branding.


Image 1 Dundalk station. Left Osgood S. Right IRRS Archives
Dundalk Station. Credit, left: Osgood, right: IRRS Archives.

Dundalk is the zenith of Mills and the GNRI’s architectural prowess, with earlier stations acting as experiments for key features. Belturbet station in County Cavan, for example, showcases the semi-architrave frames which signify a GNRI building, whilst the station itself is built using precisely cut hammered stone with a classically symmetrical frontage. It is the adjacent goods store and train shed which confirm the railway company’s authority, with the introduction of brick bonding hailing the forthcoming Millsian brick totalitarianism of future GNRI structures.

Image 2 Belturbet Station Museum Osgood S.
Belturbet Station Museum. Credit: Osgood.

But what do these buildings tell us of Ireland’s industrial past? Firstly, it is the direct company employment provided for engineers, architects, speculators, accountants, draughtsmen, typists, blacksmiths, upholsterers, carpenters and navigators, or ‘navvies’, not to mention those engaged with the service’s daily operations: station masters, ticket collectors, locomotive drivers, cleaners, coal smiths and caterers. “Irish labour was essential for the Industrial Revolution”[2], recognises E P Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, referring to the whole of the British Isles and its empire as the beneficiary. Broader implications on the Irish industrial economy include contractors and builders, the manufacturers of iron, brick, fabric, wood, brass, glass, and even ceramics for dining cars and the ever-essential, toilets. Finally, there is the creation of a newly-formed travelling public, telegraphic communications systems, and change in diet which demonstrate the far-reaching importance of Ireland’s former railway network. As Tom Ferris begins his Irish Railways: A New History: “’Railways are complex organic creatures, amounting to much more than the sum of their individual components”.[3]

Image 3 Belturbet Goods store Osgood S.
Belturbet Goods Store. Credit: Osgood.

Viewing railway history from an anthropological perspective is not a new phenomenon; Michael Portillo’s Bradshaw Guide-inspired TV series is a popular testament to this. But using railway architecture, especially in an Irish context, is. The term industrial archaeology is technically the method by which modern technologies from the Industrial Revolution and beyond are studied. Thankfully the industrial element largely does away with Time Team-esque trenches and Tony Robinson ponderings, with the archaeology of industry remaining above ground. However, as in the case of Irish railways, its built history is in a state of decline, with the trowels of future diggings not altogether obsolete.

Image 4 Irish Navvies Credit The Wild Geece
Irish Navvies. Credit: The Wild Geece.

Railway history is often enacted and perceived as the preservation of steam engines and carriages, with the built environment and its social implications given cursory generalised snippets, if included at all. Yet by using the built environment of the railways as the catalyst for understanding the society which created such technological advancements, the researcher can truly appreciate the magnitude and significance of an epoch of Irish public history. Unfortunately architectural historians also tend to content themselves with rather more grandiose built artefacts such as mansions, churches and monastic remains. Railway architecture is something of an anomaly in Irish architectural history. Its former utilitarian functionality deceptively undermining its design and material value, a reputation reinforced by that deity of architectural characterisation, Ruskin: “It [the railway station] is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it”.[4] As a twist of Ruskinian logic, when applied to the often sparsely decorated and formulaic Irish railway stations, this ‘escape’ is actually realised. Architectural purpose in its most functional form, perhaps?

To those who did travel on the GNRI, the network also provided a speedier access route to emigration, as this new technology enabled direct routes to the ports at Derry, Dublin, Cobh and Belfast, with ferry and railway tickets often combined. One horrific account describes the sight of wailing families at a platform edge, distraught at the departure of their children and young adults who may never be seen again, departing for foreign lands in the wake of the Great Famine and the subsequent extended period of poverty and economic starvation.[5]

And so it is the personal recollections and artefacts of human endeavour which enrich this architectural research and act as a reminder to avoid the more popular hyperbolic praise of engineering monuments and their masters, and to record the impact of the railways, positive and negative, emotive and physical, on Irish industrial and social history.

Siobhan Osgood is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin researching the architecture of the GNRI. She was awarded the Association for Industrial Archaeology (AIA) Dissertation Prize in 2017 for her master’s research into the GNRI architecture at Dundalk. Publications include AIA Journal, Architecture Ireland, Irish Railway Record Society Journal, Dundalk Democrat and National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. She has given talks, lectures and radio interviews, and is due to speak at the TAG conference in December 2018. She has also conducted research on St Mary’s Abbey, Dublin for the Office of Public Works for which she will be published in the forthcoming Medieval Dublin XVII alongside a presentation at the Medieval Dublin symposium in May 2019.

Irish Railway Architecture is Siobhan’s blog, Twitter and Instagram:

Email: irishrailarch@gmail.com or osgoods@tcd.ie

[1] Meeks, Carroll, The Railroad Station: An Architectural History, Dover Publications Inc.: New York, USA, first edition 1956, this edition 1995.

[2] Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin Group: London, 2013 (first ed. 1963), p. 473.

[3] Ferris, T., Irish Railways: A New History, Gill & Macmillan: Dublin, 2008.

[4] Ruskin, J., The Stones of Venice, Volume the First, The Foundations, Smith, Elder & Co.: London, 1851, pp. 110-111.

[5] Ferris, T.



Exploring Portland’s Past: Public History at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education

In this week’s blog, QUB PhD student Jack Crangle discusses his internship at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education:

In recent years the Arts and Humanities Research Council has increasingly championed the benefits of professional internships for doctoral candidates. My AHRC funding body, Northern Bridge, offers students the opportunity to spend up to six months at a host institution, developing professional experience and applying skills in a new environment. With the spectre of submission otherwise looming, I decided to embark on such a placement, taking a break from my PhD research on the history of immigration to twentieth-century Northern Ireland to go and work at a museum.

When seeking a placement, my ideal workplace was a museum that bridged my research interests – oral history, immigration, and minority communities – with an aspiration to broaden public knowledge. Thankfully, I found just such an institution willing to take me on. The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE) is located in the heart of downtown Portland, USA. It is where I will spend six months working from July to December 2018. The museum contains three permanent exhibitions tackling ‘Discrimination and Resistance’, ‘Oregon Jewish Stories’, and ‘the Holocaust’. It also houses temporary exhibits, currently featuring paintings by the renowned Jewish artist R.B. Kitaj. Tours are regularly given to local schools, and a variety of educational resources are available on its website, all demonstrating an impressive commitment to public history.

OJMCHE permanent exhibitions (3)
OJMCHE permanent exhibitions.

But what excited me most about the museum was its oral history collection. The oral history archive boasts over 700 interviews about Jewish-Oregonians. New interviews are conducted continually, with a database of prospective interviewees meticulously compiled by museum staff. Far from sitting unused, a large number of interviews are available on the museum’s website. In a few clicks you can access sound recordings and transcripts, hearing testimony about the Holocaust, Jewish life in America, and the history of Portland. More unusually, the interviews are available in full. Whereas most museums upload oral testimony in small excerpts, OJMCHE leaves it to the reader to digest and interpret content, refusing the temptation to impose a narrative upon interviewees’ voices.

The museum does more than simply stockpile interviews. Oral history forms a key part of its public programme. A case in point is the museum’s walking tour of Portland’s old Jewish neighbourhood. Having attended the tour earlier this month, I was struck by its utilisation of powerful oral testimony. These words brought to life an area that was once a hub of Jewish-American life. Since their arrival in the city in the nineteenth century, the majority of Oregon’s Jews settled in South Portland. In its heyday the area featured six synagogues, a drugstore, a kosher market, and dozens of shops, bakeries and delicatessens. The neighbourhood was not exclusively Jewish; it became home to other immigrants, including a sizeable Italian community along with Greek, Chinese and Japanese residents.

Caption - Example of housing in S. Portland c. 1962 City of Portland Archives (1)
Example of housing in South Portland c.1962, City of Portland Archives.

However, little of the original neighbourhood remains. In the 1950s, Portland embarked on an ambitious scheme of ‘urban renewal’. Similarly to UK ‘slum clearances’, American civic authorities were determined to modernise the nation’s cities, removing areas plagued by so-called ‘urban blight’. South Portland was the first neighbourhood in the city slated for redevelopment. During the 1950s and 1960s, virtually the entire area was razed.

Caption - S. Portland prior to urban renewal c. 1935 City of Portland Archives
South Portland prior to urban renewal c.1935, City of Portland Archives.

In its walking tour, the museum is careful to avoid painting a rosy or idealised picture of the area. Despite the neighbourhood’s rich history, South Portland suffered from dilapidated housing, a high crime rate, and significant deprivation. By the mid-twentieth century it had lost much of its vibrancy, with social mobility prompting the majority of former residents to relocate to the suburbs. At the time of its demolition, the area was home to only 2,300 hundred people. The double-edged nature of redevelopment is reflected in the mixed responses of oral history interviewees when discussing redevelopment. Whilst some interviewees were resentful about the area’s destruction, others were more pragmatic, acknowledging the area’s problems. Others believed that renewal had been good for the city. Former resident Leon Feldstein, interviewed in 1973, believed that renewal ‘cleaned up the area, widened the streets, there are beautiful trees having been planted, new buildings, and I think one of the happiest things that has been done to Portland, Oregon is the renewal of that area’.

Caption - S. Portland after renewal1966 City of Portland Archives
South Portland after renewal c.1966, City of Portland Archives.

The walking tour encompasses these varied perspectives. In one poignant reflection, the tour’s leader – museum director, Judy Margles – acknowledged the municipal progress that urban redevelopment had brought, but also asked ‘what do we really mean by progress?’ She provided no answer, leaving attendees to reflect upon this question themselves. As well as providing critical insight, the walking tour preserves the memories of a once-thriving area. Shirley Tanzer, a local oral historian, collected most of these memories. In the 1970s, shortly after redevelopment, Tanzer began recording interviews with the area’s former residents. These conversations – conducted when oral history was still in its infancy – comprise a core feature of OJMCHE’s wider collection, preserving the voices of those who have long since died.

One of my key roles at the museum is to help expand the walking tour of South Portland. To date, the tour has focused exclusively on the Jewish history of the area. But this was more than simply a Jewish enclave. In 2014, the Oregon Jewish Museum merged with the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center to form OJMCHE. Along with its new name, the organisation developed a new mission: challenging visitors to ‘resist indifference and discrimination and envision a just and inclusive world’. The expanded walking tour will reflect these additional goals, encompassing untold stories of Portland’s broader social justice movements (e.g., women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, religious freedom, anti-racism, etc.). I am currently conducting research to identify sites of interest, incorporating them into the existing tour.

The most striking aspect of the placement so far is the smoothness with which the museum combines research with public work. As academics, we are encouraged to engage with partners from other sectors, ensuring that our research is beneficial and impactful. However, this is usually presented as a secondary outcome, subordinate to a successful thesis, article, or monograph. At museums such as OJMCHE, research and impact go hand in hand, widening our collective access to knowledge.

Facing these exciting challenges, I am looking forward to spending the rest of 2018 at OJMCHE. Also, Portland is an amazing city with brilliant food and beer. Come visit!

Further reading

Abbott, Carl, Portland: planning, politics and growth in a twentieth-century city (Lincoln & London, 1983)

Eisenberg, Ellen, The Jewish Oregon story: 1950-2010 (Corvallis, 2016)

Toll, William, Making of an ethnic middle class: Portland Jewry over four generations (New York, 1982)


Jack Crangle’s PhD research examines immigrant communities in twentieth-century Belfast. In addition to archival sources, I am interested in using oral history to research the historical experience of ethnic minorities. I am particularly interested in how ‘other’ communities fitted into Northern Ireland, a society which was primarily defined by two oppositional identities.

Preservation and Commodification at the Former Charles Street Jail

In this week’s blog, Kara Zelasko discusses the transistion of a former Boston prison into a boutique hotel:

The Charles Street Jail is a resilient structure. It has survived the Great Boston Fire of 1872, dodged the bulldozers of urban renewal, eluded the calls for its demolition after the jail closed, and sat in disrepair for years after it was abandoned.  In 2007, the Charles Street Jail re-opened as the boutique Liberty Hotel following a $150 million renovation.[1] The building has a unique history, but serves as a fairly typical example of how history can be simultaneously highlighted, obscured, commodified, and preserved in a single place through adaptive reuse.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Charles Street Jail Complex, 215 Charles Street, Boston, Suffolk County, MA. Boston Massachusetts Suffolk County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/ma1484/.

The Charles Street Jail opened in 1851 to national acclaim. Architect Gridley Bryant worked closely with prison reform advocate Rev. Louis Dwight to design a structure that would promote the rehabilitation rather than punishment of inmates held in the jail. The central rotunda was a defining feature of the structure. Not only did it provide immense sunlight, but this design element facilitated a communal space for prisoners to gather during the day. The rotunda still stands and now serves as a lobby, which remains the central gathering spot in the hotel. The Liberty Hotel is lauded for its preservation of the jail’s architectural bones and its early fame is often used as evidence for the building’s historical significance. However, despite Bryant’s original intentions, the building itself became a source of punishment to its inmates.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, Gridley J Bryant, Milton Lau, and Jack Alvarez, Alvarez, Jack, photographer. Charles Street Jail Complex, Jail, 215 Charles Street, Boston, Suffolk County, MA. Boston Massachusetts Suffolk County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/ma1642/.

The later history of the jail is glossed over in the media and its promotional materials, but its stories are tied to the exposed cells that remain in the hotel as decoration. In 1973, the jail was in such bad shape that inmates refused to return to these cells. They began chanting “we want the press” and “we need help” during a peaceful four-hour demonstration that protested the jail’s overcrowding and dilapidated conditions. The press answered and deemed the jail an “embarrassment,” declaring “Boston can no longer tolerate Charles Street Jail on her conscience” in the Boston Herald. Two years earlier, inmates had filed a lawsuit stating the conditions were so poor it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The US District Court agreed, and ruled that no inmate could be held at Charles Street Jail while awaiting a trial after 1976. The last prisoner didn’t leave until 1990, with conditions never improving. [2]

Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, Gridley J Bryant, Milton Lau, and Jack Alvarez, Alvarez, Jack, photographer. Charles Street Jail Complex, Jail, 215 Charles Street, Boston, Suffolk County, MA. Boston Massachusetts Suffolk County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/ma1642/.

“We wanted to keep a certain amount of jailness,” says Gary Johnson, a principal architect who worked on the adaptive reuse of the jail.[3] Outside of its architecture, the “amount of jailness” present in the Liberty Hotel is shown mainly through cheeky puns. The bars are named Clink and Alibi and are plastered with photos of famous historical prisoners, many of whom have no connection to the Charles Street Jail. Guests can drink $18 cocktails where the drunk tank once stood, practice yoga in the former prison yard, or dine next to granite cells that had previously been overcrowded with inmates. Despite its status as a national landmark, the ironically-named hotel minimally and selectively engages with its former life as a jail. The small exhibit (housed by the restrooms) and the website emphasize the impressive architecture and centres the narrative on its architects, ignoring the experiences of the people held there.

Liberty Hotel Lobby
Ade Oshineye, photographer. Liberty Hotel, 2010. Digital image via Flickr.

The Liberty Hotel is an interesting case study because unlike other historic prisons, it is a public building turned into a commercial endeavour. While the property developers had to maintain a large portion of the original architecture in order to benefit from the historic tax credit, that does not automatically translate into a responsibility to thoughtfully interpret its history. The commodification of the history attached to a structure means the stories told are usually more palatable, where even difficult histories tend to be discussed in a salacious manner. When prisons are turned into sites of learning, like Eastern State Penitentiary or Kilmainham Gaol, visitors are expecting to grapple with the difficult histories that the structures represent. The same cannot be said for the adaptive reuse of the Charles Street Jail. These visitors are paying a premium first and foremost to stay in a boutique hotel, some are even celebrating a wedding or holding a corporate event. Does that mean they should be burdened with the reminder of the deplorable conditions and unfair treatment of prisoners who also happened to previously share this space? Or are small gestures to a building’s past enough when a historic property is repurposed?

As an example of public history, the Liberty Hotel is part of an onslaught of properties using adaptive reuse to capitalize on historic properties. This is not a new trend. It is in the same vein  as clichéd signifiers of gentrification such as factories-turned-lofts or churches-turned-breweries. Many of these projects that aestheticize historic architecture have a clearly defined public: those who can afford the products and services these places provide, which typically do not come cheap. The original architect of the Charles Street Jail hoped the jail would reform the people being held inside the building. Now, the Liberty Hotel contributes to changing the neighborhood outside its walls. The West End has a similar history to many neighborhoods that were affected by “slum clearance” policies. The once diverse community underwent urban renewal efforts that erased most of its buildings and the stories embedded in these places. Although the Charles Street Jail survived urban renewal, the building’s existence as the Liberty Hotel now serves a similar purpose: to erase the complex history of the space it occupies.

[1] “Inspired Recycling: Landmark Charles Street Jail Reopens Today as $150 Million Liberty Hotel.” PR Newswire, 5 Sept. 2007.

[2] Joseph McMaster, Images of America: Charles Street Jail (Arcadia Publishing, 2016).

[3] Jay W. Schneider, “Hotel Notorious,” Building Design & Construction, 1 Dec. 2007, p. 38.

Kara Zelasko is a recent graduate of Northeastern University’s Public History M.A. program. She is originally from Chicago, where she completed her B.A. in History with a concentration in Public History at DePaul University. This blog post was inspired by a panel she originally created for Humanities Action Lab’s States of Incarceration traveling exhibition.



Oral History Interviews in the Arts and Humanities: A Two-Day Workshop on Recording, Analysing and Disseminating Oral History

In this week’s blog, QUB’s Sam Manning discusses last week’s workshop on oral history interviews in the in arts and humanities:

In January 2018, me and my colleague Mark Benson both began a post-doctoral creative economy engagement fellowship, supported by the AHRC and the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. The aim of this fellowship is to support researchers in the arts and humanities to engage with organisations in the creative economy. Alongside the funding of our fellowships, the scheme also offered financial support for training and development activities.

We decided to use this funding to host a two-day workshop aimed at those who record (or intend to record) oral history interviews, linking academics, external organisations and members of the public. The workshop aimed to provide foundational knowledge for those recording interviews, to promote current oral history projects, to learn from those who archive and disseminate material, and to consider the ways we can promote our research. The growing interest in oral history at QUB made Belfast an ideal location to host the event and we received further support from QUOTE Hub and the Centre for Public History. We invited numerous speakers from across Britain and Ireland and attendees ranged from oral history newcomers to seasoned practitioners.

In the first session, Mary Muldowney—Dublin City Council Historian in Residence— shared her expertise on designing projects and developing interview plans, stressing the importance of preparation and research. She also charted her own career trajectory and the eventual acceptance of oral history as a legitimate research method. In my presentation, I discussed ethics in oral history, emphasising the importance of a sound ethical strategy through all stages of research. The next session turned its focus to recording interviews. Peter Carson outlined the audio collection held at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and then offered technical advice on achieving the best possible sound quality. The next two presentations focused on interview experiences. Amy King introduced her Bristol Dockers project, emphasising the importance of open questions and avoiding jargon in interviews. She then discussed her experiences of recording  testimony in Rome and the challenges of interviewing in a foreign language. In her presentation, Sinéad Power-Quinn stressed the importance of preparation and (bravely!) shared a clip demonstrating how not to do an interview, with the sound of pots and pans in the kitchen making the interviewee mostly inaudible.

In the afternoon, discussion turned to transcription and analysis. I discussed the benefits and drawbacks of transcribing audio recordings and showed how the transcriber can shape the meaning of oral history testimony. Matthew Jones then shared his research on British cinema-going of the 1960s and his experience of analysing this material. He considered the difference between narrative and memory, and the challenges of analysing large datasets using NVivo. In the final panel, three speakers reflected on their recent or current projects. Matthew Jones discussed how he used the material from the British cinema-going project to develop an immersive theatre performance recreating the experience of visiting a cinema in the 1960s. Sarah Culhane continued on the topic of historical cinema attendance, introducing her new project on Irish cinema audiences in the 1950s. This project links data collection and archival research to a placement with Age Action Ireland, where she will develop a community outreach programme.

The second day began with a panel on ways to store and disseminate material, featuring speakers from a range of institutions across Ireland, including Dublin City Library and Archive, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and the Digital Repository of Ireland. Attention then turned to quantitative and qualitative methods of measuring success. Jane Ritchie—QUB’s Digital Marketing Officer—gave a practical demonstration on how to make the most of Google Analytics. Sarah Culhane discussed her previous research on the Italian Cinema Audiences project and her collaboration with partners such as Unitre (University of the Third Age) and Memoro.  The penultimate panel featured academics, such as Dianne Kirby, who discussed the challenges of putting oral history testimony in the public domain, and speakers from other organisations, such as Sarah Lowry (Royal College of Physicians), who discussed collaborative projects, working with external partners and the challenges of forging a career as an oral historian.

I hope that the workshop both encouraged newcomers to continue with oral history and offered an opportunity for experienced practitioners to reflect on their research methods and practice. While participants came from a wide range of backgrounds, almost all of them agreed on the importance of good preparation, communication and co-operation. The final panel discussion provided an opportunity to dig deeper into some of the issues discussed during the two days and left us with many important questions: Is oral history really history? Are oral historians deceptive and do they often deceive themselves? How do we acknowledge the specificity of oral history? QUB will hopefully provide a space for future discussion of these issues.

I wish to thank Mark Benson, Annie Tindley, Lynda Mahon, Sharon Dunwoody and everyone who participated, attended and helped to organise this event.

In 2017, Sam Manning completed his PhD thesis at Queen’s University Belfast, which he is now adapting this thesis into a monograph for the Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives series. In 2016, he published an article in Cultural and Social History on post-war cinema-going in a working-class Belfast community. A further article on television and the decline of cinema-going in Northern Ireland is due for publication in Media History in 2018 (available online). He is also a postdoctoral researcher on the AHRC European Cinemas project.


















People’s Histories? Photography, Public History and Museums.

In this week’s blog, QUB PhD student Lucy Wray reflects on ‘People’s Histories? Photography, Public History and Museums’, a colloquium organised by the Centre for Public History:

Photography is often inextricable from discourse concerning public history and museums. Indeed, in their work Uncertain Images Elizabeth Edwards and Sigrid Lien comment that,   museums as institutions and practices are saturated by an ‘invisible layering of photographs in which they are used in a myriad of significant ways as both tools and objects’. While the prevalence of photographs in public history contexts is therefore clear, their meanings, connotations and impact are not. The Centre for Public History at Queen’s has provided a platform for dialogue on such issues, through its research, collaboration and, of course, its blog. Furthering these endeavours, the Centre hosted a public history colloquium entitled, ‘People’s Histories? Photography, Public History and Museums’.

Organised by QUB’s Dr Emma Reisz, the colloquium focused on photography’s ability to communicate stories in public history and museum practice. Participants were asked to consider whether photography can shift both historical storytelling and community engagement in deeper ways, how photographic sources best help in the sharing of public history, and how photography can be used to involve a wider public in historical stories.

The uncharacteristically good weather did not impinge upon turnout and the Old Staff Common Room was filled to capacity. Excellently chaired by QUB’s Dr Aglaia De Angeli, the conference consisted of three panels. Panel 1, entitled ‘Photography, social documentary and public history’ began with a paper, ‘The photographer and the city: A.R. Hogg and the streets of Edwardian Belfast’, which I co-presented with my supervisor Dr Olwen Purdue. Held in the National Museums Northern Ireland’s archive, Hogg’s 5,000 strong collection provides a visual distillation of early twentieth-century Belfast. This presentation discussed the character of the changing city which these photographs capture. The city’s spaces, ranging from impressive architecture to slum conditions, and its inhabitants of all classes, are recorded by this collection.

QUB’s Dr Kieran Connell, continued proceedings with a paper entitled, ‘Archive, memory and the civil contract of photography: the photographs of Janet Mendelson’. This presentation was based on Connell’s 2015 public exhibition, held at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. It concerned photographs of Balsall Heath’s ‘red light district’ taken by Janet Mendelsohn, during her time as a research student at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1967-1969). Concentrating on photographs of ‘Kathleen’, a woman who Mendelsohn identified as a sex worker, and incorporating contemporary and historical interviews, Connell raised questions about the relationship between photography and memory, as well as the role of ethics for the photographer and the historian alike.

Panel 2 was entitled, ‘Photography, identity and state’ and began with Dr Emma Reisz’s engaging presentation, ‘To free China from the intrusion of aliens? Photography and public histories of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion’. This paper used an array of fascinating images including those from the Sir Robert Hart Collection held at Queen’s University Belfast’s Special Collections and Archives, many of which concerned the Boxer Rebellion. It raised a number of significant points on the nature and role of conflict photography, particularly that taken through a colonial lens, and the disparity that often exists between a photographer’s intent and what is communicated.

Next was Ulster University’s Briony Widdis, who delivered an insightful presentation based on her current PhD research, entitled ‘Reflections? Family slide collections and the benefits of “deep” biography’. Focusing on a collection compiled by her grandparents, that captured their own experiences of 1950s Hong Kong, Widdis provided a window into the ways in which photography can be used as a source of colonial propaganda and how Chinese identity as framed from a colonial perspective.

This panel was completed by Dr Dominique Bouchard of the National Army Museum. Her absorbing presentation, ‘Identity in the shadows: Special forces, secrecy and memory’ left those in attendance both informed and entertained as it highlighted many of the questions and obstacles that arise when using photographs in public exhibitions. Moreover, it left one pondering the many ways exhibitions tell stories and the meanings photographs and objects impart to the visitor.

The final panel, ‘Photography and memory in a divided society’, began with Ulster Museum’s Dr Vivienne Pollock. ‘Photographs and local history: new additions to the contemporary historic collections’ centred on a plethora of captivating photographs, many of which were used in the museum’s Conflicting Images exhibition. Photographs that both shocked and amused the viewer were found in this fascinating array that ranged from the Troubles to the noughties.  Dr Pollock discussed many of the considerations that go into selecting images for public exhibitions, particularly those of a contentious period, such as the Troubles.

Finally, Pauline Hadaway of University of Manchester delivered, ‘Cohesion in contested spaces: an artist commission at Belfast Exposed’. Serving as its director between 2000 and 2013, Hadaway was well equipped to give an overview of the history and development of Northern Ireland’s first dedicated photographic gallery, Belfast Exposed, which began in 1983. This presentation coherently outlined many of the obstacles that arise with such socially and politically engaged work and community photography within the complex and fraught political landscape of Belfast.

The event concluded with an excellent roundtable discussion, that drew together some of the prevailing and overarching themes from the day, that included the ethics of photography, the role of photography in presenting the marginalised and the censorship and ownership of images.

Special thanks to the Centre for Public History at Queen’s for hosting the event, Dr Emma Reisz for organising the event and Dr Dr Aglaia De Angeli for chairing.

If you would like to read more about the event, tweets from the day can be found on twitter at @qubpublichist and via the hashtag #peopleshistories

Lucy Wray is a first year Ph.D. Student at Queen’s University Belfast where she previously received her B.A in English and History and M.A. in History. Her thesis examines A.R Hogg and his contemporaries, exploring the role of the photographer as an observer and actor in early twentieth-century Belfast. It will discuss the relationship between photography and themes such as working-class social conditions, public health and social welfare. Moreover, it will consider the links between photography, associational culture and philanthropy in the British industrial city. Lucy is a Northern Bridge Doctoral studentship award holder and is working  in collaboration with the historic photographic collections of National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI).