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Peter Mouncey Blog

The Mass Observation legacy - exhibition review


The Photographers’ Gallery in Ramillies Street in central London is featuring the work of Mass Observation from the late 1930s, and its subsequent resurrection by the University of Sussex in the 1980s.

It’s a fascinating experience, not simply for the photographs but also due to the notes made by observers, discovering how observers were trained, and the examples of questionnaires used to provide empirical data. 

For example, as part of the ‘Worktown’ project, which focussed on life in Bolton, there are delightful examples of three and two point scales: ‘like it; don’t like it; not so bad, for people to rate where they work. Or, good money; want more money, to rate wages! 

Training included memory tasks, such as recalling items on a mantelpiece, to aid the development of accurate and detailed observation. The observers even followed the population of ‘Worktown’ on their annual summer break in Blackpool.

The exhibition includes a letter written by the photographer Humphrey Jennings and the journalist Charles Madge published in the New Statesman on January 30th 1937 announcing the founding of an ‘anthropology at home…a science of ourselves’. The letter called for volunteers to become observers of everyday life, such as: behaviour of people at war memorials; shouts and gestures of motorists; anthropology of football pools; female taboos about eating. 

Coincidently, in the same issue of the New Statesman a poem was published by the anthropologist Tom Harrison who was conducting a study of The British. On reading Jennings' and Madge's letter Harrison realised they all shared the same ideals. Harrison contacted Jennings and Madge, leading to the two projects to being amalgamated and Mass Observation was born.

The exhibition also demonstrated the ethical tight-rope that Mass Observation methods walked. They published a two-part study, ‘Exmoor Village’ in 1947, based on life as observed in Luccombe during 1944. 

Whilst some villagers welcomed the publicity, others felt betrayed as their permission to publish the observations had never been sought. Certainly informed consent was not at the heart of their methods, as it soon would be in the ESOMAR and MRS Codes of Conduct published in the next few years. 

As the diaries show, recording was often meticulous – either in terms of behaviour (e.g. counting people passing a shop and recording whether they entered; paused to look at the window display or simply walked by without a glance), or verbatims of over-heard conversations.

A fascinating insight into a past world, together with the comparison of more up-to-date lifestyles, as recorded by the University team.

>>Find out more about the exhibition at The Photographer's Gallery which ends 29 September.

>>Read a brief history of Mass Observation.

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