Welfare State International [WSI] often incorporated lanterns into their projects. Their headquarters, no longer in use, was itself a converted old warehouse called ‘Lantern House’. I think a fundamental reason for the frequency of lantern creation and usage in WSI’s history is, unsurprisingly, the “lighting of dark times and places”. The work of Welfare State helped to regenerate the communities and economic infrastructure of towns across the UK, such as Barrow-in-Furness and Ulverston. They illuminated communities trapped inside industrial shadows. Michael White wrote that these lanterns were “an extraordinary animated artwork that would be impossible to exhibit in a gallery or to ‘price’ as a commodity. They exist only for a few hours through a great deal of collective involvement and imagination”. This amalgam of ephemerality and memory is one that resonates with me at the present, as I reflect on my time as an archives intern. My experience here has vastly opened my mind to the variety of histories that are accessible thanks to the dedication of the Bodleian Archives.
For three weeks this Spring, I was fortunate enough to undertake the cataloguing of the Bodleian 500 Print Project: the newest addition to the Archive of Daniel Meadows. This series highlights some of Meadows’ most powerful, beautiful, and memorable work from across the span of his career. Meadows is a social documentarist noted for his photographic records of working class individuals, communities, and livelihoods across Great Britain. These records serve as a source of nostalgia and progress for many, and of post-industrialist woe for many others. Such affective features are shared with the work of Welfare State International. This organisation combined the nostalgia of folk traditions with socio-political ambition to reject the machinations of our industrial, capitalist milieu. The items in MSS. Meadows which intrigued me most were the photographs that documented the artistic spectacles of Welfare State International.Welfare State International co-founder John Fox, in Eyes on Stalks, reflects on the ambitions of Welfare State International right from the start. They “took [their] art into the street in order to reach an audience who wouldn’t normally cross the thresholds of elitist theatres and galleries”. This reality permeates lower class engagements with elitist cultural spheres to this day. I recall a conversation early on in my first year that made the reality of Britain’s cultural class divide feel much more real. I had visited my first gallery at 18, while my peers had crossed that threshold very early on in their lives. Theatre, galleries, and literature were a family event for them: something still difficult for me to imagine. When you grow up in poverty, art is hardly at the top of your priority-list. What WSI did for communities across the country gave people the space and opportunity to access the arts at their doorstep. Community was essential to making it happen. Their work encompassed not only carnivals and processions, but education for youths and collaborative projects that can transform a life weighed down by the constant anxieties of one’s socio-economic situation.
Daniel Meadows’ work relies on collaboration and community, too. This is visible across his oeuvre: photographic projects such as ‘The Shop on Greame Street’ and ‘The Free Photographic Omnibus’ are highly regarded now as a visual record of the changing landscape faced by the lower classes across the country. They emphasise the necessity of their voice and presence in all circles of artistic expression. What Meadows’ work also highlights is what is most relevant to my internship: all people deserve to be remembered. Archives should be filled with a more diverse array of lives and achievements. The world as we know it — its flairs and its flaws — has been transformed by individuals, organisations, communities across the socioeconomic spectrum. His photographic records of Welfare State International capture the collaboration of all these things, and all sorts of people, in action. Meadows’ WSI series keeps the spirit of their work alive today. Their manifesto acknowledges the “need for ceremony” in the lives of the masses, and these photographs capture and celebrate the ceremonies of the everyday.My favourite material to look at while completing this internship was definitely the the physical and digitised print of the image above. Its combination of people working together amid dilapidating Parliament imagery, construction equipment, and a cluster of typical council estate new builds encapsulates everything that WSI and Daniel Meadows seek to highlight in their work. The anti-capitalist power of WSI’s creative spectacles complements Meadows’ showcasing of a socially diverse Britain. Now that they have a presence in the Bodleian, the institution will be able to paint a much more complete and culturally rich picture of Britain in the archives. The work of Daniel Meadows helps to foster a positive, productive sense of national identity and progress. What it also does is break down the barriers of Oxford’s exclusivity. The archive of Daniel Meadows recognises his contributions to the cultural landscape of Britain over the past, and grants anybody interested the access to his creative projects and processes. The university can feel, at times, detached and alienating through its class divide. This is a common sentiment that pervades academia and beyond. The Archive of Daniel Meadows has been an honour to work with, and has empowered me with a greater sense of belonging in this institution.
The Archive of Daniel Meadows illuminates the working class experience across the latter half of the 20th century. The changing landscape of post-Industrial Britain left people – workers, families, communities – behind in its wake. What hasn’t changed is the socio-economic disparity faced by millions of people across the UK. An institution like Oxford must champion equal opportunity. The Crankstart Scholarship has been invaluable in providing me with access to this internship. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute to a more socially, culturally diverse Bodleian through the work of their archives.
Guest post by Olivia Hersey, Crankstart Intern, 13-31 Mar 2023.