by Alexandrina Buchanan and Michelle Bastian
This article explores the way archival material has the potential to become a core component of activism, through an evaluation of an AHRC-funded collaborative research project on the histories and futures of local food in Liverpool. “Memories of Mr Seel’s Garden: exploring past and future food systems in Liverpool” is a collaboration between four academics, two arts/heritage professionals and three community groups, around the theme of local food. The community groups were brought together by their mutual interest in exploring how historical work might contribute to the developing local food movement. The project aimed to undertake research into the history of local food systems, using three different methods: archival research, map research and oral history, in order to develop deeper understanding of food systems, both historically and geographically and to explore what this understanding might contribute to future community activism. The project examined whether undertaking the research changed participants’ awareness of the value of historical research (including the value of different methods); their understandings of the local environment and local food issues, or provided new perspectives on the possibility of future change and their role within it. In short, could historical research assist local activism? The article will describe the methods used and the research findings, which suggest that even “traditional” archival materials, neither created nor selected for activist purposes, have the potential to be valuable resources for activist projects, both for challenging simplistic activist narratives about the past and for empowering members of activist communities to develop new narratives for change and communicate these to wider society.
The Memories of Mr Seel’s Garden project demonstrated the potential for hybrid research/community projects to meet locally-identified needs while also producing rigorous academic outputs. Working with members of the local food movement in Liverpool, the academic team trained volunteers in a variety of historical research methods. In the process new historical resources were produced which were then used to engage people in Liverpool more widely. The outputs of the training sessions were used as the basis of a range of creative tactics that challenged linear stories of progress, instead troubling the relationship between past, present and future and between the local and the global. These tactics included a bespoke iPhone app, an interactive online map, a postcard series, local food storytelling and poetry, as well as branded food packaging. The team is currently engaged in writing up their analyses of the process, which will contribute to debates around affect in the archive, digital versus analogue tools in community archaeology, perceptions of time in the local food movement and ways of ‘reterritorialising’ the cloud in digital arts. The methods we developed for utilising historical research in future-oriented activist projects will also be shared more widely through a Handbook for Excavating the Future.