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Centre for Worktown Studies

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Centre for Worktown Studies

Image: © Bolton Council. From the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services.

This case study has been generated by a collaborative research study of community-university partnerships. Part of the ESRC-funded Imagine Project, the study was conducted jointly by Susanne Martikke, research officer at Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation alongside Professors Angie Hart and Andrew Church of the University of Brighton.

This project is led by Dr. Bob Snape, University of Bolton and Mary Keane, Bolton Library and Museum Services.

In 2009, Bolton University and Bolton Library, Museum and Archive Service launched the Centre for Worktown Studies, a virtual research centre dedicated to the promotion and development of the Humphrey Spender archive of 1930s Mass Observation photographs. Bolton was named “Worktown” by Tom Harrisson. A Memorandum of Understanding committed both institutions to the Centre.

The project originally started in 2008 with Bob Snape’s idea of a leisure history conference and to invite the museum to exhibit photographs from the archive there. It turned out that the photographs could not be taken out of the museum; therefore the conference was hosted at the museum. This sparked a whole series of developments that eventually culminated in the establishment of the Centre for Worktown Studies.

Because the conference was hosted at a public building, the admission fee was set at £30, making it possible for Boltonians with an interest in the Mass Observation photographs to attend. As a result, the conference not only attracted academic historians from Scotland and Cornwall, but also amateur historians from Bolton, thus creating a great space for public engagement, and the post-conference publication included papers from non-academics.

Press coverage of the conference in the Guardian created more awareness of the existence of the Spender archive and generated a stream of enquiries. That’s when Bob started thinking that it might be useful to have a mechanism for coordinating this interest and promoting academic research on the archive.

Collaborating on the Centre created mutual benefit for the university and the council, whilst keeping expenditure low by dedicating existing staff resources to maintain a fairly low-key virtual coordinating body. Making the Spender collection more accessible has benefited the university by inspiring academic research and raising the profile of the University of Bolton in the Research Excellence Framework. The museum, on the other hand, has benefited by attracting new audiences to the museum and improving the interpretation of the photographs, thus making them a resource that is well-used, rather than something that gathers dust in the archive. Both the university and the museum have been able to raise their profile as a result of the collaboration having been featured as a good practice case study by UNESCO.

The Centre has attracted funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through a doctoral studentship. The Centre has also been able to tap into funding from Bolton Rotary Club to establish a Humphrey Spender scholarship in social documentary photography. Both of these scholarships include interpreting the Spender photographs for a contemporary local audience through talks, workshops and exhibitions. The Centre for Worktown Studies also collaborates with the citizens of Bolton to document the collection. Advertisements in the local newspaper, as well as internet-based publicity invite the public to share their own memories of Bolton and help identify where some of the Spender photographs were taken and what they show.  

The collaboration through the Centre has sparked other collaborations between university staff and council employees, for example an exhibition that utilises information from the university about new types of textiles to enrich a display about the historical context of the textile trade in Bolton.

In sum, the Centre for Worktown Studies is a catalyst for strengthening the cohesion and visibility of Bolton as a community with a proud heritage and creates both tangible and intangible benefits by pooling different skill sets and experiences around one organising principle with a strong identity.


Dr. Bob Snape, Reader in Leisure and Sport and Head of the Centre for Worktown Studies, University of Bolton:

Mary Keane, Collection Access Manager, Bolton Library and Museum Services:

Useful weblinks:

The University of Bolton, Centre for Worktown Studies

Bolton Worktown

Bolton Library and Museums Services

Image above: In 2009 Caroline Edge was awarded the Humphrey Spender John Marriot scholarship for social documentary photography. The scholarship was set up to enable contemporary photographers to explore themes linked to the Worktown study of 1930s Bolton. Edge spent nearly a year documenting life in Bolton on the theme of “Holidays”. Her photograph Eid, Bolton was taken in 2009. It offers a subtle updating of Spender’s late 1930s image. Eid is a day of great merriment and thanksgiving. Muslims celebrate by gathering with friends and family, putting on new clothes, and giving each other gifts. The mood of celebration is captured in this photograph of children playing in an old school yard.