As part of my doctoral research I worked with the Telecommunications Heritage Group and a fine group there were too. I spent hours winding dials, chatting at swapmeets and visiting group members at home and at local museums. It was great fun. Well, my new job involves some work with another aspect of telecommunications heritage, in this instance a manual telephone switchboard used in Enfield between 1925 and 1960. However, this time my research participants are the female telephone operators who diligently connected the calls locally and nationally in Enfield. Fantastic.
This photo is of the manual switchboard on display in Enfield. Very evocative. You can see the ladies in action on the panels.
The project website for this exhibition is here and you can also find us on Facebook. The main purpose of the exhibition is to gather the stories and memories of those Enfield residents who worked with the switchboard at the telephone exchange. This has been no mean feat. However, following a series of adverts in local publications as well as a magazine for retired BT staff, we have over 10 people to talk to. But we know there must be more. So the hunt is on. I found this ‘knit and natter’ group at a local department store in Enfield so I will definitely go along to their next meeting to advertise the exhibition and project. Some might say any excuse for tea and cake.
What is most interesting for me about all of this is that I am working with women. I haven’t really discussed gender too much on this blog, but the majority of my research participants have been retired men. I will be working with women from 60 to 90 (or perhaps older) and this makes me very happy indeed. A big area of research that requires further investigation is women’s enthusiasm and leisure activities, particularly older women. So hopefully the oral histories I gather – and that is what I will be doing – gathering the stories of their working lives with the exchange – will form the basis for a paper on women and a pilot piece of work for another project on women and leisure. If we were to understand more fully older women, we might be able to value their contribution beyond ‘merely care-givers’ in later life – looking after grandchildren. I’m stereotyping now – but you get the picture. The women I have encountered during this project and in my own leisure time – I belong to a local aqua aerobics club that meet 3 mornings a week – are smart, conscientious, engaged and committed to a variety of causes and activities that for various reasons are often overlooked. Some respondents in my previous research have told me, ‘well, women don’t have time for hobbies – they have families, they don’t have that space’ – but they do have time and space – it is just rather well hidden.
So back to the exchange. There are all sorts of aspects to this project from putting the switchboard on display – here my colleagues John and Helen have done a fabulous job. It has involved research in the archive, searching the collections for suitable objects. Plus an events programme – so far we have guided walk – encompassing the sites of telecommunications heritage in Enfield (see the marvellous picture below – isn’t the font delicious),
plus a matinee showing films like ‘The Fairy on the Phone’. Yes, folks, I get to do this sort of thing for my day job.
Finally, enthusiasm and museum geography – two of my passions. The skills learnt here on this job are invaluable for my planned work on public engagement and harnessing citizen enthusiasm. I’ve been fascinated by how a national/international institution like the Science Museum generates enthusiasm in its audiences and somehow that enthusiasm is transferred back making the staff stronger and strive for better. I want to thank the AHRC for funding this project. It is great fun!