Thackray Medical Museum volunteer, Tiantian Han, talks to us about her unique experience working on the More Than Oliver Twist project...
Being a volunteer researcher who is rooted in Chinese culture, this research is challenging, yet also fascinating.
Uncovering every single aspect of an inmate’s records makes me feel I am getting closer to their life. They are revealing themselves to me and to this modern world.
What do they want to tell us?
Occasionally, when digging further, I am disappointed, because the person I spotted ends up sharing the same name and some very similar information with the inmate I am looking for but ends up being a completely different person. Nevertheless, I start again, being excited and/or disappointed once more with each new path.
Some workhouse inmates reveal a glimpse of their lives, while some remain a silent mystery. Those which fall into the latter, based on limited records, we are not able to find much consistent information about them; the reasons vary. Maybe some record is missing with the passage of so many years. Maybe they did not manage to leave helpful clues, as they were not able to (e.g. constrained by policies at the time, or limited by their literacy), or they did not want to for their own reasons. Or, simply because I have not researched enough to release their voice.
I suspect this may apply to perspectives of poverty today. In any age, any society, there are people living in a way not expected by and not usual to other people. The public interprets them from a mere glimpse of their life, as the complete picture is probably never accessible to others. However, just like this project, every effort of exploring and thinking about others, more understanding and connections can be made.
As a member in this project, I am walking on a bridge connecting past and present, and thinking more about other people’s lives, who share the same or different backgrounds.
A big challenge for me is grounded in my cultural background. As a Chinese person, I knew little about Britain in the nineteenth century before I joined this project. However, researching has opened a door for me. In the process of examining society’s concepts of inmates and the Workhouse in the 19th, and early 20th century, digging out why an inmate was in a workhouse for a particular period of his or her life, understanding what a specific occupation meant 200 years ago, looking for locations of streets based on their old names, figuring out people’s handwriting on census records, and learning what roles the Parish plays in people’s life, pieces of information gradually gather. Step by step, more pieces construct a picture. To some degree, it is like a thick book under the name of British History and Culture. The need and my eagerness to continue this research motivated me to flip through the pages. Every effort I made helps to read and understand more about the book. I believe this is one of the most valuable things I have acquired from this project.
Thanks to the great people in this project, together with my husband and other relatives in-law who are all British (and are also interested in this project and encourage me to continue), I am not feeling alone. Mentors and others are teaching and guiding me all the way through my research. They offer advice and extra information for almost every move I make. I feel strongly connected to them and this project.
This research is about people. It is not merely about people in the past. For me, it is also about people in this project and more. We do not share the same cultural backgrounds, yet we have shared humanity. That is partly why we meet here, to explore and understand more shared humanity in this world.