A screen from my interactive display, Manchester Central Library

One of the major reasons which drew me to the Art Gallery and Museum Studies MA was the opportunity it allowed students to complete a work placement. I have just completed my placement at Archives+, which is located on the ground floor of Manchester Central Library. Archives+ is an initiative which is all about bringing the old, dusty archives to life and up-to-date, through digital and interactive media. After coming from a background in history, I was attracted to this placement because of the opportunity it allowed me to delve into the history of a topic and I was dying to get my hands on some ‘old stuff’.

During the placement I worked alongside two other students to create three interactive displays for the Archives+ exhibition. Each student focused on a particular debate which was important for the history of Manchester and which had rich relevant material in the physical archives. My topic was the Lake Thirlmere debate, an argument which ran from 1874-1894. My actual work on the placement required me to make extensive research into this topic by looking through reams of boxes and documents, mostly consisting of primary sources from the 1800s. My task was to then select several documents and images from the archives to digitalise for the exhibition. One of the most challenging aspects was the selection process and trying to gauge which images would best engage the widest possible audience. I then created text panels and an accompanying narrative to tell the story of Lake Thirlmere through these documents. My final task was to upload my work onto the digital interactive in the exhibition.

I will give you a brief overview of the Thirlmere story and what actually happened. In the late 1800s, the city of Manchester had expanded so much that it was running out of clean water. The Manchester Corporation’s solution was to turn Lake Thirlmere, in the Lake District, into a reservoir and pipe its water to the cisterns of Manchester. However, Thirlmere was also considered an area of natural beauty, which should be protected from industry. This led to protesters rising up to defend their landscape and the debate would last over twenty years.

Through my research into the archives, I have learnt that this dispute was not just an interesting local story, but an event which is very relevant for the modern-day. Although the actions of those who fought for the preservation of the lake failed, they forever changed the way that people viewed the environment. It could be said that the Thirlmere debate started modern environmentalism and an appreciation for natural landscapes. My placement showed me how difficult it was to access and use the archives, which were often unordered and poorly catalogued. This also proved how important the work of Archives+ is at raising awareness of and providing easy access to its collections and histories for the broadest possible audiences.