(Thanks to Claire Langhamer who excelled herself as travel companion/carer)
I’ve just got back from the launch of Jersey Heritage’s new exhibition ‘Bergerac’s Island: Jersey in the 1980s’. I’ve been working with the team throughout the project’s development and can honestly say the whole experience has been brilliant. This exhibition is clever stuff. It speaks across generation, to the local and the global. But it is also touching, funny and engaging – that’s pretty much what I want history to be.
Time as an emotion.
One of the things that really resonated with me and my own work on the 80s was the way in which curator Louise Downie had imagined time spatially and emotionally. Whilst an exhibition structured chronologically could have been tempting, it would not have been very satisfying. Heritage and History are about more than lists of facts and objects; they are arguments, invitations, and attachments.
I had presented the team with my work on Observing the 80s, and the 80s as a compilation and montage. I took the keywords from two Mass Observation Project directives from 1986 and 1990 to map how change over time feels from within. Rather than an over-arching narrative or clear chronology, the themes that emerged are emotionally charged, and fit with what was ultimately quite a messy decade.
The Autumn 1986 Directive invited a reflection on the relationship between media representation and ‘experience’. In fact the responses suggest a complex, perforated, relationship between the two. Periodization was directed through public events against a domestic narrative.
In the Spring 1990 directive, respondents were invited to produce a retrospective of the whole decade. Again their experience is posited against media representation. Public events were marked against a more linear sense of personal domestic change.
When thought of as ideas, events and feelings the key words helped us to think about emotions and attachments as history rather than chronology. Louise, built spaces in the exhibition organised around emotions What made us argue? What made us happy? These simple questions allowed for some clever moves. They built an ‘us’ then and an ‘us’ in the now.
Us then and Us now
It shouldn’t really be surprising that Jersey’s heritage team have a complex sense of their History. The marks of the German occupation are still visible everywhere, memorialised in community projects, remembered in the promotional literature for hotels and its stories weave through conversations. The memory of the occupation has its own history. The memory a boom in the 1980s fed into the re-imagining of commemorative practices around Liberation Day and Holocaust Memorial Day and was marked by the Occupation Tapestry project which was unveiled in 1995. Fittingly, a new panel has recently been finished which records the History of 70 years of commemoration practices on the island. This is clever and nuanced stuff which brings with it complicated and complex memory, filled with disquiet around the lines between collaboration and resilience, self interest and resistance.
Indeed actor John Nettles who played the eponymous 80s detective Bergerac is himself a contributor to this contested history. Now more engaged with historical research than with detecting he has written about the occupation and presented a documentary uncovering stories of collaboration or survival. As a result he lost friends and received hate mail. Although there was no evidence of ill feeling for him when he spoke at the exhibition launch.
Whilst the exhibition’s structure invites the viewer to recognise themselves in the story of ‘us’ it does not shy away from a contested memory of the 80s in Jersey. This is not comfortable retro culture colonising a coherent past. The 80s was experienced as fragmented and divisive. On the one hand Bergerac’s Jersey stands as a symbol for Thatcher’s unregulated dream, and the glamour of off-shore havens, yachts and nightclubs as the finance sector filled the gap left by a declining tourist industry. But simultaneously Bergerac’s Island had sink estates, tolerated but illegal homosexuality, and high profile murders.
The exhibition utilises nostalgia but does not rest on it, The visitor has to work through their fears (AIDS, rabies, nuclear war) and arguments (the flooding of Queen’s Valley, connections with apartheid South Africa, social care provision) before they get to the fun bits. At the end of the exhibition, once all emotions have been worked through, there is a recreated 80s nightclub, with a playlist to choose from, flashing disco floor and a wall of crowd sourced photographs.
The community involvement with the exhibition invites an empathy that may easily be forgotten in the history of the 1980s. There may have been ‘no such thing as society’ but the exhibition’s 80s is filled with collectivity. The memory of the occupation, for example, triggering an outpouring of support and fund-raising for the Falkland islanders. Along with the rest of the UK we can also see themes of voluntarism, evidence of the rise of charitable giving and philanthropic provision.
That sense of community built the exhibition, literally. 140 different people were involved in putting it together. Objects were donated, photographs shared, and stories shared. Children created an animation using lego people to accompany a piece of archival sound, and parents and their children shared their own thoughts for a short film about what has and hasn’t changed since the Eighties. Families will be able to share their experiences of technological change at ‘Retro Games’ sessions.
One of the people involved in preparing the exhibition was one of my own students. Alex Boyle was employed to do some research on the project. Although it doesn’t happen often, just sometimes something you do on a History degree is actually properly useful. Alex had taken my course 1984:Thatcher’s Britain and had produced a successful independent research project on the 80s in Jersey, using Bergerac as a motif and touchstone. So when Louise asked if I knew anyone who had worked on Jersey and Bergerac in the 80s I was able to say, ‘funnily enough….’.
And of course The Assistants came along for the ride.