University features

Archive captures life experiences of those less heard

Lewis Prison inmate's view of his cell

Beyond Boxes display

Anthony McCoubrey listening to transcripts of interviews with Lewes Prison inmates

“What a day! Woke up and I was in prison! No surprises there, but it always registers on first awakening.” So wrote a 54-year-old inmate at Lewes Prison on 12 May, 2017.

On the same day, a 90-year-old blind war veteran related how he was woken by Alexa (a smart home device) and had breakfast with his “lovely girlfriend”, on whom he had used the chat-up line: “Will you make my Horlicks?”

For a 51-year-old homeless man in Brighton, the day began with a walk along the seafront looking for cigarette ends, followed by a shower and breakfast at First Base (Brighton Housing Trust’s day centre) and a browse in the library.

These day diaries, currently on display at The Keep in Brighton, were produced as part of Beyond Boxes, a project that aims to capture the experiences of groups that have been underrepresented in the University of Sussex’s Mass Observation Archive of ordinary lives.

The two-year project, which began in September 2016 with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund,  has so far involved more than 60 workshops and events with project partners Lewes Prison, Brighton Housing Trust and Blind Veterans UK.

In addition to the diary entries, the exhibition, which is on until 31 May, also includes letters, drawings, pieces of creative writing and audio interviews.

Project co-ordinator Anthony McCoubrey says: “It’s been an amazing experience to work with all these groups.  It’s not easy for some to open up and talk about their life experiences.”

“I hope those who have contributed to the archive understand that their lives are important, no matter their circumstances, and that in the years and decades to come, people will be interested in reading their words.”

A directive to the regular contributors of MOA on the subjects of homelessness, disability and prisons has also captured a wide range of voices and opinions.

One contributor wrote in response to the homelessness directive: “I need to hold on to every penny to avoid ending up in their shoes.”  Another’s views on prisons opens with: “The words that come to mind is HOLIDAY CAMP”, while another deplores prisons for the “dehumanising” conditions.

Suzanne Rose, MOA Education and Outreach Officer, says:  “It’s great to do these community projects, especially with groups who may not have had easy access to the archive. 

“We have seen how they have enjoyed participating, and how valued they feel.  Those who came to our workshops in prison ranged from 18-year-olds to those in their sixties, and they were all so supportive of one another. 

“Some are now writing home and to their sweethearts for the first time. The project has given them confidence to put their feelings down on paper, and not to worry about being judged.”

  • Anyone who would like to contribute to this year’s MOA one-day diary on 12 May, which is being partnered this year by Action for M.E as part of M.E Awareness Month, can find out more information here

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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Sunday, 22 July 2018