Historian Highlight is an ongoing series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students. In our thirteenth post, our outgoing Historian Highlight editor Cherish Watton talks about her PhD work on scrapbooking as cultural production in twentieth-century Britain.
What are you currently researching?
I’m in my second year as a PhD student researching a history of scrapbooking in Britain during the twentieth century. Scrapbooks are physical books in which paper scraps and other items are saved. Women, men, and children from an array of backgrounds, ages, and occupations made scrapbooks during the twentieth century, using newspaper clippings, photographs, leaflets, and material objects to document the unusual and mundane events of their life.
You may think you know scrapbooks as collections of embarrassing family photographs which are shown to unsuspecting visitors who come to visit, or you might think they are nothing more than an awkward hangover from the Victorian period. But you’d be wrong; there’s a much a richer history to scrapbooks that you might imagine. Though they are called scrapbooks, they are far from worthless sources, but a gateway into somebody’s world, a way of reading a history, curated by their own hands.
While we have entire books dedicated to histories of photograph albums and diaries in Britain, scrapbooks have been largely ignored despite being one of the most accessible forms of archiving used by lots of different people.
What led you to research this topic?
When I was an undergraduate student, I recorded a podcast with a PhD student, now Dr Bridget Moynihan, who was researching a series of scrapbooks made by the poet Edwin Morgan. Bridget so eloquently and passionately described how she was approaching scrapbooks as historical sources and texts in and of their own right. Bridget planted a seed, which grew during my MPhil, when I explored how elite diplomatic and political families used scrapbooks to document their life. After completing my thesis, I realised there was much more that could be written on the subject. Hence my PhD, which I envision to be the first historical account of scrapbooking in Britain.
What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month?
At the moment, I’m in the midst of writing the first draft of a chapter which explores histories of scrapbooking by and on the Royal Family. The Platinum Jubilee celebrations have led people to share their own scrapbooks made for the Coronation in 1953 on Twitter. It’s been fascinating to get a peek into these scrapbooks and to hear the different meanings which communities ascribe to them now (which I hope to explore more in oral history interviews). Often these scrapbooks are so much more than objects on the Royal Family. Their creation, inheritance, and survival can tell us a great deal about how scrapbooks can function as important family objects, which I find fascinating.
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
That’s a tough question – there are so many to choose from! One of my favourite scrapbooks that I’ve seen during my research was made by a group of rural women in Bedfordshire in 1965 for a national competition run by the Women’s Institute. The scrapbook is a time capsule, recording from women’s perspectives what it meant to live and work in rural Bedfordshire. There are fabric samples, food packaging, photographs, maps and handwritten text, which women felt were important objects for recording what rural life meant for them. I particularly love this scrapbook, because women use collage to express how much they hated putting the scrapbook together – comparing it to giving birth! It’s such an incredible source for thinking about how to offer a more critical history of scrapbooking, which captures some of the negative emotions which can arise from their creation.
And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archives?
One of my archival highlights was when I consulted a series of scrapbooks made by the suffrage campaigner Maud Mary Arncliffe-Sennett in the early twentieth century. She scrapbooked a lot – creating 37 volumes, in fact. She includes photographs, postcards, and even a key in what she describes as her ‘data’ on the suffrage movement. In the margins of her scrapbook, she talks back to newspaper articles, scribbling her own opinionated statements usually in opposition to what she’s stuck in. It’s such a noisy source, that really prompted me to think about how scrapbooking can be an important tool for activists.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
Get to the archives as early as possible! I was given this gem of advice when I was beginning my undergraduate dissertation by my supervisor Prof Lucy Delap and I’ve followed it ever since. The pandemic, and the closure of archives, has only strengthened my desire to make early trips to archives. There’s nothing like seeing the source material itself as this gets you thinking about it all sorts of ways that just isn’t possible when thinking about it at home.
And the worst?
I guess I’ve been lucky in not receiving that much bad advice (or I’ve simply forgotten it). It’s less advice, then, but more an approach by some people that you are defined by your PhD. I’m a firm believer that your PhD is one part of you, for three or four years of your life. It’s important to try and separate your own identity from it, especially when trying to get the sometimes illusive home/work life balance. It’s easier said than done, but thinking about the PhD as a marathon, not a sprint, helps me focus on how to work sustainably, productively, and healthily.
What’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
One of my favourite ways to unwind is to walk on the Grantchester Meadows and get a bite to eat at The Orchard Tea Rooms. I’ve always enjoyed going there with friends to celebrate essay hand-ins, or just to get a change of scene. There’s something very relaxing about leaving the city centre and walking in the countryside every once in a while.