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Museum Master

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Since February History Master’s Student Alex Bonnington has been on a work placement at Kelham Island Museum. Alex has been finding out information about Yemeni Steelworkers that can be added to our exhibitions and activities. Here’s Alex’s account of his experience.

I am currently studying for a Master’s degree in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield, so it may seem odd that I opt to take on a work placement at a modern industrial museum. Well my passion for Sheffield steel and its industry stems from Sheffield being my birthplace, so as a historian I have a natural interest in all the local history of Sheffield.

When I arrived at the museum I was excited to get started on the task at hand, I found out that the aim of the project was to understand the role of migrant workers in the Sheffield steel industry, most prominently focusing on the Yemeni community in Sheffield. This work had been started by Cathy Soreny in her excellent documentary ‘Sheffield Steel, Yemeni Dreams’ (available online), which was based around interviews with many of the men who had been involved in the steel industry from when the first Yemeni migrants arrived to the UK in the 1950s.

So we decided that it was my aim to build off of this excellent foundation to undertake more interviews with the Yemeni community with a focus on the steel industry specifically, as Cathy’s documentary had a slight lean towards the issues affecting the community as the men became elderly and the stigmas around health problems. Cathy proved to be an excellent starting contact as she was able to accompany me to Burngreave, an area of a considerable Yemeni community and introduced me to some of the local key people for finding out information.

At the start of the project it was agreed that some initial research on the Yemeni community in Sheffield should be done in order to contextualise them. I was able to access the Sheffield Library system and found very helpful staff to provide me with ample resources for the study of the community and I also went through the census records from the 1960s up to the 1990s. The most startling revelation I found was that apart from the 1961 census, where those from Yemen were listed under ‘Aden’ (the city in the south of Yemen that the UK had held from 1938 to 1963), was the relative difficulty I had in identifying the Yemeni community in Sheffield. Each of the successive census records changed the criteria for ethnicity which inhibited my ability to clearly see the progression of the Yemeni population.

Despite a positive start and regular meetings at the museum I was unfortunate that I was unable to secure any interviews with members of the community, this is where Cathy Soreny came to my assistance once more in providing me the uncut interviews from her documentary. Thus, it was decided after hitting this proverbial brick wall that transcribing the interviews, especially those parts associated with the steel industry, instead of conducting them myself. While I did feel disappointed about being unable to conduct original research I was motivated to help out the museum discover more about a significant portion of migrant steel workers in Sheffield.

As my placement draws to a close I feel that I have learnt much of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ workings of a museum, the need for a contingency plan when the best laid plans do not pan out in the way you expected and wider knowledge of the important community work that museums carry out to bring the museum outside to the community it serves. I have to thank all the staff members at Kelham Island who have helped and made me feel welcome at the museum, especially my main contact and supervisor Rebecca Walton, and I hope for the excellent work in the community that they carry out. This work helps to keep Sheffield’s past and the steel industry as relevant today as it was for those who worked with steel before the decline of the industry.

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