Public History at the Surrey History Centre

Every once in a while, I get an email out of the blue from the lead archivist at the Surrey History Centre, which is where I do the majority of my dissertation research. I love getting these emails for a couple of reasons.

First, they help me to feel connected to my project, since my source material is across an ocean.  Julian always makes it a point to keep me posted on what sorts of monographs are up and coming, as British publication circles, especially smaller presses with a penchant for esoteric topics, do not often overlap with American libraries.  He also sends me links to conference programs that have taken place in the hopes of helping me connect with other academics, and he tells me about the public history programs happening at the Centre, particularly those related to mental health and mental health history initiatives.

Second, the emails are always warm, friendly, and ultimately concerned about the weather, in the most British of fashions.

This morning’s email contained, among other things, a mention of the snowstorms in New York and a link to a recent public history project that happened at the Surrey History Centre in partnership with the Freewheelers Theatre Company.

The theatre company’s website states that their mission is to bring “disabled and non-disabled actors and supporters, production teams and the local community together.”  They use “theatre and dance, wheelchair and voicebox technology, multimedia, animations, puppets and shadows to create innovative work.”

So, in other words, they are completely fantastic.

As part of their endeavor to broaden public awareness of disability, and to engage in a meaningful way with the history of mental illness as it relates to today’s concerns, the company and its players came to the Surrey History Centre to conduct research on the asylum records within its collection.

Here’s where Julian comes in.  As a tireless campaigner for both imaginative and pragmatic uses of history in today’s world, he met with the group, explained the archives and the asylum network that stretches across Surrey, and helped the players interpret the sources.  Check out this video to see him in action:

Then, armed with their knowledge, the involved members of the theatre company produced a series of videos where they read 19th and early 20th century letters from mental patients as filmed monologues, interspersing the dialogue with pictures of the asylums, patients, and grounds.

You can find all of the films on their website, and I assure you they are worth the time.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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