Mass Observation on show

Childrens Graffiti, April 1938

Against the backdrop of political and economic upheaval of the 1930s, a social experiment entitled Mass Observation undertook to explore the lives of people across Great Britain.

Today we are used to being watched. From closed-circuit television cameras to life bloggers, society is captured and stored as it has never been before. Future generations will be able to look back on minute details of how we live, that is if they find a way to wade through the vast quantities of data.

But rewind just over 75 years back to 1937 when the Mass Observation project was born. It was set up to study the everyday lives of "ordinary" people in Britain and did this, as the title suggests, by observing people's habits and daily routines.

Washing observation

It was formed by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, journalist and poet Charles Madge and Surrealist painter and film maker Humphrey Jennings. with the aim to counter what they saw as an inaccurate representation of the nation in the press and by politicians of that time.

Trained fieldworkers were dispatched to gather information on a diverse range of subjects, from pub culture to shopping habits. Alongside this, an army of amateurs were issued with instructions to note the subjects of conversations in pubs, how ornaments were arranged on mantelpieces and sometimes to tail people, recording their movements.

One amateur even made a note of the order in which two women washed their front steps.

Photographers such as Humphrey Spender and Michael Wickham recorded life in towns and rural areas, images that are important social documents today.

Spender's work exploring the lives of the working class in the north of England is well known.

Parliamentary by-election - Children hanging around outside, 1937-38 Children hanging around in Bolton during a parliamentary by-election, 1937-28
Ashington - Washing in road between terraced housing, 1937_38 Washing in road between terraced housing in Ashington, 1937_38
Girl With Bobbin, 1937/38 Girl With Bobbin, 1937/38
Library Reading Room, 1937/38 Library Reading Room, 1937/38
Ashington - Pub interior, 1937/38 Ashington - Pub interior, 1937/38

With the onset of war the movement worked closely with government departments, analysing people's responses to politicians, fears of spying, art, happiness, shopping and even sexual habits.

Following World War II the observation turned to more commercial work and market research before the project eventually closed in the mid-1950s.

But in 1981 it was reborn, this time with a focus on gathering personal testimonies and histories, sometimes visually and at other times through essays and text submissions. Amateur snapshots, drawings and extensive personal accounts on daily life offer a chance to look back at how life and our surroundings have altered in the last three decades.

Today the Mass Observation Archive is held by the University of Sussex and a selection of work from the project can be seen at The Photographers' Gallery in London until 29 September 2013.

Britain Can Make It, Michael Wickham, 1946 Britain Can Make It, Michael Wickham, 1946
From Britain Revisited, by Michael Wickham, 1960 From Britain Revisited, by Michael Wickham, 1960
From Britain Revisited, by Michael Wickham, 1960 From Britain Revisited, by Michael Wickham, 1960
From British Circus Life, by John Hinde, 1948 From British Circus Life, by John Hinde, 1948
From British Circus Life, by John Hinde, 1948 From British Circus Life, by John Hinde, 1948
Taken from Housework and Maintenance, 1983 Taken from Housework and Maintenance, 1983
Taken from Images of Where You Live Cities, Towns, Villages (1995) Taken from Images of Where You Live Cities, Towns, Villages (1995)
Taken from You and Gardens, 2007 Taken from You and Gardens, 2007

Photographs courtesy:

Humphrey Spender: Bolton Council, from the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum services

Michael Wickham: Wickham Estate, Mass Observation Archive

John Hinde: National Media Museum

You and Gardens, 2007 and Housework and Maintenance, 1983: Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive

Phil Coomes, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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