Monday, 18 April 2016

Fact: Diets Can Help With Research. Here's how...

"Did you lose any weight?"

That's the question I'm asked most when visitors to Norfolk's Farm and Workhouse museum at Gressenhall find out that I have not only tasted real gruel, but lived on it for three weeks. 

(They also ask what on earth was the point of doing it.)

Roll back to 2014 and Norfolk Museums were bidding for funding in order to redevelop the Workhouse bit of this wonderful rural life museum in west Norfolk. Staff were asked to think of publicity ideas for the project, which was to be named 'Voices From the Workhouse'; I thought a bit of experiential research wouldn't go amiss, and "Living the Workhouse Diet" was born. 

Research of all kinds informs and illuminates the interpretation of museums displays. To this end, at Gressenhall teams of staff and volunteers have transcribed documents such as census, letters of thanks, orders for food and fabric and the minutes of Workhouse Guardians' meetings. The latter discussed important questions such as the eyesight of the schoolboys, whether the unmarried mothers should be allowed Christmas lunch and even a scandalous liaison between a schoolmaster and a female inmate. These are all tiny snapshots of workhouse life, teasing us to find out more, and challenging us to tell these stories as faithfully as we can to a modern audience. 

Research has enabled the partial restoration of the site's Victorian steam laundry to take place. Research has traced and clarified the complex architectural changes to the Workhouse buildings, from the more communal Georgian House Of Industry, through its development into the tough regime of Victorian Workhouse days and into its twilight years as Beech House Nursing Home. We can now retell this story in digitised model form.

My own experiential research into the workhouse diets of the 1770s, 1830s and 1900s feeds into the engagement of our visitors on a visceral level. We all know about food, and bowels, and hunger. Little Oliver Twist's plaintive 'Please Sir, I want some more' is embedded into our consciousness and makes us feel sympathy. It's the rallying cry for the commonly held belief that the workhouse system was incorrigibly cruel and unfair: that in effect, to be poor was a punishable offence. 

However, the 'Voices from the Workhouse' redevelopment is all about finding out the real stories, and the real stories don't always match the Dickensian myths. For example, not everyone ate the same; dietaries from the time tell us that children, invalids and the elderly were given better nourishment than less deserving inmates. Nevertheless living on the standard (horrible) workhouse diet,   I wasn't hungry. None of us expected that.

My experience was that the food was weird (1770s:'frumenty'- whaaat?) and too bland for my salt-and-sugar-ready modern palate. 

It was very boring eating the same thing repetitively. The 1830s diet was thin gruel for breakfast, bread and cheese for most other meals, meat once, and soup once in a week, and it was all too stodgy for my comparatively sedentary lifestyle. 1901 was the best of the bunch; I got jam roly poly. 

The beer for breakfast in the 1770s diet was unexpected, and wind-inducing. The strict, meagre 'Scientific Diet' of the 1830s was the worst week. No surprises there, but I didn't expect liquid bowels (sorry to mention it), nor the oppressive bone-weariness that kicked in at day three. And, to repeat, I was never actually hungry. 
You can't find that out by just reading a document. 

Now in 2016 the project - funding successfully granted - is nearing completion.

In the old dining hall at Gressenhall, where Victorian inmates hunched over their supper of bread and cheese, sky-high glass panels, glossy text boards and digital projections now tell us their stories. Children can weigh out 'food' portions and see for themselves how much or how little was served. A wafer of perspex separates visitors feet from the newly revealed and restored original schoolroom floor and, throughout the galleries, 'ghosts' of workhouse inmates and staff appear to give their opinions or relive their most notorious moments.

Sensitively displayed objects, chosen from the vast collection, will gently nudge visitors towards considering attitudes to the poor 'then and now', and attest to the ways in which the physical, educational and spiritual welfare of the workhouse inmates were attended; bibles and hymn books, a nurses cap, some modest toys. A few surprises too; letters reveal happy memories of the place from former inmates, and we discover that early piloting of the progressive pupil-teacher educational system took place here. 

Tomorrow I am filming a short silent movie about the workhouse diet for the redisplay, and, in preparation , once again I have gruel boiling on my stove. 

So- what was the the point of it all? Living the workhouse diet unearthed more questions than it answered (historians love it when that happens): Was the diet designed to make inmates lack energy in order to increase obedience? Did I feel worse or better than inmates would have, considering my usual standard of living? Did every workhouse adhere strictly to the dietary? 

Two years later I don't remember the all the tiny details, but I'll never forget how I felt. 'Living the Workhouse Diet' gave me vastly increased insight and empathy into the lives of those in the workhouse, which is something I'll always remember. 

In simple terms, my experiential research added a layer of real, relatable, experience to the masses of traditional research underpinning our splendid new workhouse displays. 

And no, I didn't lose any weight. 

By day Rachel is currently the Learning & Engagement Officer for Voices From the Workhouse at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse near Dereham, in Norfolk. By night she is a freelance live interpreter and public speaker. 

Her 'Living the Workhouse Diet' blog can be found here and the official Gressenhall museum website is here.

Contact Rachel via her website here and if so inclined you can also follow her on Facebook (What Queenie Did) or on Twitter (@WhatQueenieDid).