Institute for Social Renewal

The Past in the Present

The Past in the Present


Social renewal is not a new idea. Many previous generations have believed themselves to be living in periods of ‘rapid change’ or facing ‘unprecedented crises’.

Like us, they have sought to meet these challenges with self-examination and reformation, by legislating or by mobilising, and with a variety of projects and schemes, some successful, some not.

This theme encourages researchers to investigate social dysfunction in the past and to consider the ways in which it has been depicted, understood – and addressed. Such troubles – and attempts at solutions – have formed the subject of literature, music and art, as well as being embedded in architecture, economics, education, jurisprudence, utopian philosophy and many other fields of human activity. These past experiences, and their manifestations in culture, provide a reflecting pool in which we can see what social renewal can and should mean, and what it can and cannot achieve.

Our academics have expertise in understanding the broad meanings of heritage; from museums to popular culture to personal histories passed down through generations, as well as more standard sources of economic, cultural and social history. We also place great importance on the concept of memories and reminiscence. Intrinsic to this theme is the idea that the past can inform the future on an individual level as well as at the level of communities and society as a whole.

It is, in short, on a foundation of knowledge of the past that we can more securely build our understanding of the challenges we face today and the ways we can address them for the future.

Theme Champion: Professor Helen Berry, Dean of Postgraduate Studies, School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Pupils taking part in 'Beyond Frontiers' project, with hand-painted images of Greek and Roman faces held against their own.

Quayside Lives

Quayside Lives – The Past in Our Future.

Newcastle University Robinson Library worked with Key Stage 3 Humanities students from two local schools to run a project showing the rich history of Newcastle’s quayside and the range of special and historic artefacts held by the Robinson Library.

The young people went on field trips and were able to use the Robinson Library, the City Library, Tyne and Wear Archives, the Baltic Gallery and Newcastle City Council to research how the Quayside has changed during the 1880s, 1980s and the present day.

The young people enjoyed learning about how their heritage relates to the present and to their future. The website of the project makes the resources available to other schools.

Living Legacies

Living Legacies 1914-18: From Past Conflict to Shared Future.

NISR supports Newcastle University’s involvement in the AHRC-funded ‘Living Legacies 1914-18: From Past Conflict to Shared Future’ Coordination Centre for the Commemoration of the First World War (in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other institutions). Recent events run at Newcastle include:

  • A successful Postgraduate Symposium on the First World War, 15 April 2015 (16 speakers from around the UK). The speakers covered a wide range of fascinating topics, from literary and artistic responses to the First World War to the role of women in both war and pacifism, and from military technologies and empire to activities on the home front.
  • ‘Connecting Communities Through Researching First World War Heritage’,16 April 2015, a symposium bringing together community and academic researchers working on projects during the First World War centenary commemorations in the North East of England. The projects showcased at the event approached the war from a range of different perspectives, and through a variety of different methods. These included the artistic and creative responses of Applied Comics Etc. (Newcastle University), Wor War (YMCA North Tyneside), Wor Women on the Home Front (Tyneside Women’s Health & Curiosity Creative), and Decoded 1914-18 (Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums). Alongside these, several projects focused on using digital technologies to either map the impact of the First World War on the region, to digitize and preserve archival materials, to investigate and record the lives of those featured on local war memorials, and to preserve the memorials themselves. These projects included: Durham at War (Durham County Council & Record Office); Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project; Northumberland at War (Northumberland Archives); The Universities at War and the Armstrong Memory Book (Dr Jane Webster of Newcastle University); and CARE of War Memorials in North East England (Dr Myra Giesen of Newcastle University). Following presentations from Living Legacies staff, and a keynote on non-invasive landscape archaeology of the First World War in Flanders from Professor Veerle van Eetvelde (Ghent), the event concluded with a lively roundtable discussion in which community and academic researchers developed initial plans for future collaborations.

These build on a series of previous events, for more details of which see:

Further events are scheduled, including:

  • Hosting ‘Your Community in the First World War: A Road Show’ on 19 September 2015. This will be the third part of a ‘Northern Roadshow’, with Newcastle staff also present at the previous two events (8 Sept. at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, and 9 Sept. at the City Museum, Leeds). The events are intended to bring members of the public together with professional and amateur researchers, asking: ‘How did the First World War affect your community? Do you know where the people named on your war memorial fought and died? What was life like for those who went away to fight? What happened to those who stayed at home? Did the First World War change things for women? Industry? Social welfare? What was its global impact and how did colonial troops experience it? We invite you to explore your community's connection with the First World War and meet up with others already doing so.’ At each event we will also be offering an opportunity to learn how to digitise, record and preserve community's stories and memorabilia. 

Print culture

Mapping Print Culture in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1571-1790: Musical Print Culture in Early Modern Newcastle.

This project has engaged with Newcastle’s long history of bookselling and printing. By 1800, the city was a major national printing centre. While this history has been well-documented, it is not complete. One aspect of this past has been particularly neglected - printed music in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This project has sought to recover the musical narrative by documenting evidence of musical activity, music publishing and the sale and circulation of printed music, thereby creating an important new record of Newcastle’s publishing past.

It has uncovered significant evidence that the retail book trade in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Newcastle and Gateshead was both sustained and substantive, and that printed music, while a small and specialised market, was being sold and circulated. The research is contributing to the preparation of a large, cross-disciplinary project on Newcastle’s early print history (the ‘Mapping Newcastle Print Culture’ project).

These findings are of significance, not only for our understanding of the print history of Newcastle, but also for the history of music printing in general. A dynamic, open-access web map will make the research widely accessible by documenting the libraries, bookshops, booksellers, printers, publishers, subscribers and readers of early modern Newcastle. The project is conceived as an instance of public memory, forming a permanent record of Newcastle’s rich history as a city awash with printed texts.

Lead Academic: Dr Kirsten Gibson, SACS/International Centre for Music Studies and Dr Steph Carter, Research Assistant