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Ruskin College and the Museum of London: different archives, different approaches

2012 October 11
noah ablett

Early Ruskin staff and students: note Noah Ablett, joint author of The Miners’ Next Step in the back row

The Museum of London is home to a magnificent collection of material from the suffrage campaign. As I have discussed elsewhere, it was given to the museum, by the Suffragette Fellowship. The organisation’s main aim was to ensure that the collection ‘shall not be scattered’ so that the history of the movement, as a movement, could be maintained. The curator responsible for accepting the collection in the early 1950s was not a twentieth century historian but by background, a medievalist. Although it was not his own area of research he recognised the value of the collection and warmly accepted it. Today in the re-vamped galleries the collection space is larger than before – and still very popular.

That it exists at all is due to various factors: the initial suffrage campaign; the Suffragette Fellowship collecting material centrally; the offer made by Winifred Mayo; the acceptance of the collection by Mr Grimes; current curatorial staff at the Museum and, by no means least, the enthusiasm of visitors.

This is an exemplary instance of the way in which public history is created through the process of many hands.

By way of contrast, the recent actions at Ruskin College tell a different story. Former students from working class backgrounds applied, passed through the college and went back into society; former staff at the college recognised their major achievements and kept details of them for posterity including, in some instances, press cuttings about their future lives, details of union sponsorship and tutor comments; others later decided this was not important and destroyed this archive full of fascinating material meaning that future historians and descendants could not see or use it.

Alongside this explicit eradication went the dispersal of other material which, when taken collectively, presented a particular, radical, history. Archives previously registered on the National Register of archives as being at Ruskin were transferred. Many are now safe in the Oxfordshire Record archive. Other material and ephemera have also been divested to other institutions and individuals. This includes the painting of Bernard Shaw that used to adorn the former staffroom, the plaque to Charles Bowerman, former president of the TUC, the anti-apartheid mural in the Kitson block, the painting of Raphael Samuel…

Some institutions that have received major funding may be capable of scanning every scrap of paper in a file – although no scanning can preserve the smell, the touch, of original paper, the crumpled corners, even cigarette ash or rusty paperclips that can conjure up an almost tangible connection with another age. However, with the help of the Bodleian Library and the Royal Archives, for instance, the handwritten personal diaries of Queen Victoria have recently been made publicly available online. But Ruskin College does not have that sort of money. And this is not what has happened in the labour movement college.

It has been confirmed that student records have been destroyed. It is claimed that recent records have been ‘digitised’ – not scanned – with bare bones of details of name, course taken and dates so that alumni may apparently interact with each other. (This ignores, of course, that the dead cannot speak to each other…)

Gone are the files which gave details to family researchers and academics alike on where former students came from, their previous educational and work background, their trade union activities, who sponsored them and their subsequent achievements and relationship with the college and staff.

Gone is the ‘stuff’ that John Prescott referred to, in discussing his own college file: “I was amazed how detailed they were. Every little scrap had been retained, from bills to private reports on my progress. I hadn’t known how hard Ruskin had worked on my behalf to get me there.” (Oxford Mail 13 June 2008)

The curator who accepted the suffrage material culture into the Museum of London had no idea that this would be so popular in decades to come – but he did realise that he couldn’t predict the future so it was prudent and professionally responsible to preserve the fragments from the past that were offered as some one, some time might find them useful – and so they have.

The collective experience of the militant suffrage movement can still be engaged with by visitors: why has that been denied to those interested in radical history and the amazing past of Ruskin College, Oxford? Why can people read the personal diaries of Queen Victoria but be denied the subject matter of ordinary lives? Thousands of people to date including Sir Brian Harrison, former editor of the Oxford new DNB; Mr John Hendy QC, Alan Bennett, Dr. Carl Chinn, Prof. Stephen Howe,  Harry Barnes, former MP and  former Ruskin student;  Dr Nick Mansfield former director of the People’s History Museum; Dr Eve Setch History publisher at Routledge; Professor Alison Light (widow of Raphael Samuel); Professor Jonathan Rose author of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes; Stewart Maclennan, chair of the Scottish Labour History Society; Professor Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education; Professor Pat Thane, co-founder of History and Policy; Alice Kessler-Harris former President, Organization of American Historians; Dr Andrew Foster, Chair of the Public History Committee of the Historical Association; Professor Geoff Eley, Chair of the History Department at the University of Michigan; Dr. Serge Noiret, Chair of the International Federation for Public History, Italy; Dorothy Sheridan, former archivist of the Mass Observation archive; Dr. Roger Fieldhouse, joint author of A History of Modern British Adult Education, concerned historians and archivists worldwide and of course – but perhaps not unsurprisingly – many, many former Ruskin students, staff and administrators  have signed the petition or written letters and emails against this destruction. However, Ruskin management has yet to understand why its actions have been  wrong.

 The college management has yet to give any guarantee that the remaining historic student files will be saved. Pressure is still needed.

Sign the petition

Write to the governors

Background articles and comments at History Workshop Online   New pieces have been added by David Horsfield, librarian 1972 – 2004 on the nature of the destroyed student files There is also an article by Denise Pakeman recent graduate on her experience of seeing other material destroyed

may day 1968

Anti-racism demonstration  including Ruskin students May 1968



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