Reflections on the Workshops

Vicky Crewe, Jayne Rimmer, Jon Kenny and Elizabeth Carnegie share some of their reflections on the Performing the Past workshops.  (Compiled by Ollie Jones).

Vicky Crewe Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

We set ourselves an ambitious task when we started the Performing the Past project. We wanted to explore the ways in which performance could be used to disseminate stories about past communities, and to examine the performance practices of those communities themselves. We also wanted to think more broadly about the links between performance and heritage. What do those links look like? Why do they matter? Where are the overlaps between the many disciplines that are encompassed under the terms ‘performance’ and ‘heritage’?

In this reflection on the project, I want to pull out some of the elements that have stood out for me as we near the end of the one-year time frame we set ourselves. My perspective is an archaeological one, but I use ‘archaeology’ in the broadest sense of word – as a discipline that explores and interprets the historical world.

A major strength of this project, in my opinion, has been the success with which we have managed to bring together such a wide range of people, organisations and disciplines. We have approached common themes from very different perspectives, yet we have managed as a group to talk to each other meaningfully. We have opened up avenues for developing truly interdisciplinary approaches, and explored fresh, new ways of looking at things. At each workshop I found this diversity of perspectives exciting and challenging.

The locations of the workshops aided this too; I enjoyed the chance to hold our workshops in venues that had something ‘different’ to offer, which allowed many participants space to think, away from their everyday environments. At the National Coal Mining Museum we experienced first-hand a living history tour, while Barnsley Town Hall enabled us to work within a civic institution and learn more about the local heritage it displays, and the amazing facilities at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York meant that we were able to make the most of high-quality visual resources.

I was also struck by the range of people who came to the workshops. From the start, we knew that we wanted – and needed – this group to have a broad membership. It was encouraging to see so many people from archaeological units, theatre companies, museums, heritage attractions, and other organisations, as well as academics from the White Rose universities. It was inspiring to hear from contributors at different stages in their careers, and from people in different roles at diverse organisations who were often working towards similar goals.

In terms of its content, there are two threads within this project that speak particularly strongly to me. The first was a concept that I had started to think about prior to planning this project, while the second became apparent to me during the workshops.

The first thread is the significance of telling the stories of ‘ordinary’ people. The working-class, nineteenth-century focus of the project was particularly pertinent for me and for my research. While this theme did not bind us – it was often used as a useful peg upon which to hang methodological and theoretical discussions – for me the use of performance in disseminating such histories is crucial. In my own research I aim to uncover ‘everyday voices’ and the experiences of ordinary people in the nineteenth century. Performance has the power to tell these stories in an engaging way, but also to draw upon the rich and diverse performative traditions of these communities.

Efforts to tell these stories do, however, bring with them potential problems, particularly around ‘dark’ histories. How do we tell stories about the past – including its darker realities – without simply engaging in ‘class tourism’ or drawing out the voyeuristic and salacious aspects of real people’s experiences for entertainment? I was particularly pleased that Dr Elizabeth Carnegie agreed to talk to us about these issues in her talk at Workshop 2. Elizabeth has written about definitions of ‘working class’ heritage and ‘the people’ in museums, and came up against many similar difficulties (Carnegie 2006). Whose stories are we telling and who owns those stories? Do people want the darker or more painful side of life revealed for ‘entertainment’?  How do we avoid generalising about a whole community or group? I am not sure there are any easy answers to these questions, but they are so important to bear in mind in the context of this project.

The second issue that I particularly started to think about during the project and the discussions we had at the workshops is the question of how we preserve the performances and products we create in performance/heritage projects. It can be easy to let these outcomes, especially when they are ephemeral or specific to a particular time or place, fade into obscurity. We need to think carefully about how we might preserve such outcomes, and especially how we might use technology to do that, for instance to project recordings of performances within heritage or museum spaces. This type of technique has been used effectively at the new Experience Barnsley museum (, and allows visitors the opportunity to see a blank space transformed into different eras and settings through projected films, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in those settings.

At the third and final Performing the Past workshop, I was struck by something that Stewart Howson, an independent playwright and one of our speakers on the day, said. Stewart has written a number of plays that focus on rural working-class communities and, for him, the key to being able to devise these performance pieces lies in ‘being able to imagine other people’s existences’. While Stewart’s work and mine are, on the face of it, worlds apart, his words have resonance for me, both in the context of this project and in my research more generally. They highlight the often overlooked and unacknowledged imaginative aspect of so much archaeological/historical research, which is at the heart of the process of turning ‘heritage’ into ‘performance’.


Carnegie, E. 2006. ‘‘It wasn’t all bad’: representations of working-class cultures within social history museums and their impacts on audiences.’ Museum and Society 4 (2): 69-83.


Jayne Rimmer York Archaeological Trust, York Hungate Project

In bringing together a broad range of academics, professionals, and postgraduate students working in drama, heritage, and archaeology, in the dynamic settings of The National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, Barnsley Town Hall and the Department for Theatre, Film and Television in York, the Performing the Past workshops have inspired us to look beyond our own immediate spheres of interest and approach to explore the wider role and application of performance in heritage, through archaeological excavations, museums, objects, and a variety of different types and forms of theatre.

A part of our ongoing archaeological explorations into the working-class neighbourhood of Hungate in York, we have been devising new ways of working with our material to draw out fresh insights into unseen communities and have explored alternative opportunities to exchange knowledge, experience, and understanding with new audiences. In thinking about an archaeological investigation as a performance, we can usefully reflect on our understanding of archaeological deposits, objects, and historical records, and how they relate to events, time and actions; producing new insights on (for example) groups of childhood objects and social relations in different spaces and settings.  We can also consider how the presentation of an excavation, and the choreography of staff and other participants on site, can effectively, and sensitively, assist and enhance our understanding of past societies.

The Performing the Past workshops have widened our understanding of the issues, debates and opportunities for using performance and identified how, in working collaboratively, we can extend the potential of our discoveries through excavation-driven research and wider community-based activities.  In doing so, we might think about how drama can be a means of stimulating debate and discussion about working-class culture and how objects and object groups from our artefact collections can be used in museum displays and handling-sessions to encourage participation in discussions about the archaeological process and generate knowledge of their function and meaning in poorer communities.

Jon Kenny York Archaeological Trust Community Archaeologist

The Performing the Past programme has allowed me to reflect on YAT experiences working with communities. From playing the role of archaeologist in public, encouraging people to practice archaeology or trying to inspire people about the past to undertaking more formal performance. In the case of the latter I felt able to give to the programme because I had helped to create a performance. Working with a group of people with learning difficulties and a community theatre group to take archaeological and historical narratives and turn them into a successful play performed at the York Theatre Royal.

Participation in the Performing the Past project has also encouraged YAT staff to include performance in community projects. The current project Plotting the Past, supported by the HLF and which looks at allotments in York, included the group creation of poetry inspired by allotments. I am now in the process of putting together a project bid that will record and investigate workers housing in Selby and will also use folk music and performance to help disseminate our work.

Elizabeth Carnegie University of Sheffield

Representing Working Class Lives – a reflection 

When I was asked to present at the second workshop ‘Performance, Working-Class Heritage and Museums’ hosted by Barnsley Town Hall, I was keen to raise a few questions. These were questions I had grappled with as a curator of working class lives at the People’s Palace, Glasgow Museums, and ones which continued to drive my current work as an academic exploring the representations of working class people within local government funded or sanctioned spaces.  While largely concerned with the impossibility of offering ‘true’ depictions of the past which were relevant to all, I was keen to define what was actually meant by the ‘working classes’ in the context of social history museums and therefore in the context of the workshop. Museum constructions of ‘pastness’ I had worked on were often limited by the demands of silences and stigma management, or else we encountered the other curatorial crime, the pitfall of representing a ‘poor but happy dancing throng’. Therefore, it seemed to me when preparing for my talk that it remains important to first define in order to represent and that raises further questions about who is doing the representing.

My recent work on who are the ‘people’ within the constructed ‘People’s museums’ (Manchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Glasgow), reflects my, and indeed society’s, ongoing preoccupation with class, resulting in the often well-meaning people’s histories created by ‘non-people’ using the definitions of ‘people’ as ‘working classes’. Museums, as communities of practice, remain ‘peopled’ at managerial and therefore curatorial level by staff drawn from different social background to those being depicted, running the risk of ‘othering the working class’. There is a very real fear of exposing people to the weight of their own past when it is reflected back to them as museum text or, as was discussed at the workshop, ‘performed’ within an emotional medium of theatre which may well prove positive or cathartic. A greater worry for me and my curatorial colleagues at Museums Glasgow was the tendency towards sympathetic and ultimately sentimental readings of the ‘working classes’ as a salve to the present, avoiding tackling serious issues for fear they alienated communities or – just as likely – made the staff feel uncomfortable. In short, all representations reflect the political agendas of our times.

Of course, in taking this seemingly absolutist stance, framed in post-modern hyperbole, I recognise that I am at risk of saying it is impossible to achieve ‘truth’, therefore let us not try. I also recognise that museum texts are often created from ‘performances’ as individuals, groups and ‘communities’ are increasingly included as advocates, offering life histories as oral testimony or have been instrumental in lobbying for certain topics to be covered, or others, like alcohol abuse, not to be covered, such as was the case during my time at Glasgow. Indeed, accepting the limitations of any representational medium, I have written object theatres (mini radio style plays where objects referred to in the text light up as they are discussed), created dramatic monologues on the perils of deep sea fishing performed by professional actors for National Fishing Heritage Centre, Grimbsy, and been involved in the creation of oral history led professional plays.

What all my work in representing the past has in common is the foregrounding of the ‘real’ where objects are props, talismen, and time travellers with a tangible role in the present. While we may as academics, curators, historians or ‘people’ disagree as to their meaning, legitimacy or current value or role in the present, their potency as survivals and witness, as links to the past in the present, cannot be denied. This was ably demonstrated by Mark Westgarth’s moving discussion of the meaning of photographs, of him being absent from the frame, and experiencing a link to the past through the framing of others. I also enjoyed Tiffany Webster’s discussion on the cultural dimensions of masculinity evidenced within regional church stained glass.

I would argue, then, that drawing on the material evidence of the past, and through engagement with ‘people and things’, an understanding of the past allows people to face up to that past –  whether it be the stigma of poverty, profession or background. In engaging dramatically with visions and versions of individual, local or communities elements of a shared past, there is the potential to gain a better understanding of the present and the potential for improved living.  So while I appear to have come full circle reflecting on my presentation at the Workshop,  from arguing that there can be no historic ‘truth’ in representation, I agree that performance – precisely because it is an ‘emotional medium’ – allows for a different kind of experience for performers and audiences and, in that, I accept it achieves a form of ‘truth’.

I therefore left the workshop with an interest in how ‘real’ spaces such as Manor Lodge, fragmented and changed by time, can add to the understanding of place through dramatic reconstruction. Certainly, I would be interested in working more closely with performers within a heritage setting, exploring whether, and if so how, the engagement with ‘actual place’ is intensified by the addition of dramatic content. I enjoyed the day and found it stimulating and thought-provoking.