Our Research

Heritage Connects (Wellcome Trust)

Olwen Purdue (PI), Leonie Hannan (Co-I), James Greer (PDRA)

This Wellcome Trust-funded project explores the relationship between history, community, and social capital, looking at ways in which engagement with local heritage affects wellbeing in urban areas. Taking east Belfast as a case study, where levels of social capital and social cohesion have historically been low and health inequalities high, the project investigates the role of heritage in individuals’ wellbeing and health behaviours. Our study focuses on communities living around historic parks in two different socio-economic areas, Victoria in inner-city and Orangefield in suburban east Belfast, and explores with them the extent and nature of their engagement with historic spaces and places in their area.

Through engagement with local community groups and collaboration with a major MRC-funded study of the health impacts of Connswater Greenway (www.connswatergreenway.co.uk/reports-and-research/parc-study/working-groups/survey), we are testing the potential of heritage to increase physical activity and enhance individuals’ and communities’ sense of connectedness thus contributing to both physical and mental wellbeing.

The Photographs of Janet Mendelsohn (AHRC project, 2015-2016)

This project explored the photographic archive of Janet Mendelsohn, an American graduate of Harvard University who between 1967 and 1969 was a research student at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. The Centre was established in 1964 by the literary critic Richard Hoggart as a place for the academic study of popular culture; during Mendelsohn’s time in Birmingham she used photography as a tool for her field work, and focussed on Balsall Heath, an infamous ‘red light’ district and site of increasing ethnic diversity. Mendelsohn would take some 3,000 photographs in Balsall Heath, as well conduct scores of interviews with pimps, sex workers and their clients. She published a selection of this work in a local magazine in 1969, and showed it again at an exhibition the US in 1970. After that, her photographs would not be seen in public for more than four decades.

In 2015, the AHRC awarded Kieran Connell (QUB) and Matthew Hilton (University of Birmingham) funds for a project to give Mendeslsohn’s work a new and much larger audience. The project centred around a major public exhibition, held at the ikon Gallery in Birmingham in early 2016; a major symposium was staged on the legacies of Mendeslohn’s work, featuring talks from the Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas and the well-known artist Mishka Henner; a ‘pop up’ exhibition was put on in Balsall Heath, the same area that Mendelsohn had originally documented; and local residents took their own photographs that explored the nature of Balsall Heath today.

For more information about the project, see the Guardian’s review and a podcast that originally aired on BBC Radio 4. The historical context around Mendelsohn’s work is explored in an article by Kieran Connell in History Workshop Journal.