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11.00  "Scrap Heap" Stories: Oral Narratives of Work Loss, Health and the Body in Deindustrializing Scotland

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Industrial heritage in Britain has tended to be romanticized in museum “cathedrals” and “theme parks” (like Beamish), with workers’ lived experience subordinated to the machines, buildings, and physical artifacts that dominate these spaces. Here workers’ lives are more often than not celebrated rather than critically reconstructed and interpreted. The politics, class relations and struggle, violence, poverty, and murkier side of working life is increasingly being neglected as the past is sanitized for public consumption in the name of positive image-building. Examples in Scotland would be the UNESCO site of New Lanark (textile mill), the Scottish Mining Museum near Edinburgh, and the recently opened Transport Museum in Glasgow. This links to wider debates around deindustrialization and “smokestack nostalgia,” which have identified a tendency to uncritically sentimentalize the industrial workplace. In this selective remembering, the lived and embodied experience of the people who worked in these spaces and were directly affected by deindustrialization is being airbrushed out whilst the industrial workplace sometimes appears benign, shorn of the class, gender, and power relations in which it is embedded. 

This paper will argue that oral history can play a key role in developing a refocused history of work and the impact of job loss and that the voice deserves to be integrated more systematically within public history in the UK. It will draw upon the work-life oral testimonies of over 100 Scottish industrial workers (including coal miners and metal workers) to investigate how such oral heritage can develop our understanding of the impact industry and deindustrialization have upon workers’ bodies: their identities, health, and well-being. How did they narrate their working lives and articulate the meaning of plant closures and job losses? How can this inform a more nuanced and multi-layered understanding of the meaning of work, of this emotional world and the complex relationships industrial workers had with their jobs? This paper builds on discussions along these lines in my recent book, Working Lives (2013), narrowing the focus to drill down deeper in one particular region: the industrial conurbation of West-Central Scotland. It will contribute to the wider conversation about the role that memory and the voice have played and should play in museums and heritage studies.

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