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SHAPE Involve and Engage: How young people are exploring the forgotten history of Caribbean prisoners of war held at Portchester Castle in 1796

15 Dec 2023

Kate Astbury, Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, reveals the inspiration behind her recently awarded SHAPE Involve and Engage project, Freedom and Photography – in partnership with English Heritage and the charity Photoworks. A brand-new pilot funding scheme, the SHAPE Involve and Engage awards support humanities and social sciences researchers to push boundaries and seek imaginative new ways to engage with the public, via cultural institutions up and down the country.

For Freedom and Photography, I am teaming up with English Heritage and the Brighton-based charity Photoworks to run a project based on Portchester Castle in Hampshire. Together we will work with a group of 25 pupils from two local secondary schools to explore through photography the 2,000 Black prisoners of war from the Caribbean, including women and children, who were brought to the Castle in 1796 during the French Revolutionary wars.

The project will provide the group with a unique opportunity to learn photography skills from a professional and create their own, original responses to the prisoners’ stories. We will support them to create a virtual zine to showcase their photos, which will help to shape some learning resources for the Photoworks website so that other groups will be able to follow a similar programme. The project will build on English Heritage’s existing schools programme at Portchester Castle to serve as an exemplar of the way heritage sites can stimulate creative outputs and engagement with forgotten histories.

I have been working with English Heritage at Portchester Castle for about a decade to bring my research team’s findings about prisoners of war there to life. I had recently finished a big project on the castle with English Heritage and the National Youth Theatre and we were starting to wonder about what we might do next when the call for the British Academy’s SHAPE Involve and Engage scheme came out. The funding call catalysed conversations that would otherwise have taken much longer to happen. Receiving this funding has enabled us to turn our ideas into reality.

Most of our previous activities focused on the use of creativity to engage the public in the history of the site and to collaborate with us on research. Having used theatre and sound as ways of working with young people, photography seemed the next logical medium to try. Conveniently for us, local charity Photoworks and English Heritage have a long-standing relationship and had identified the Portsmouth area as one they’d like to work in, so our partnership just fell into place naturally.

It is so important that arts and humanities researchers find ways to engage the public. It gives purpose to our research and allows us to share our enthusiasm for our subject in more accessible ways. This project will enable participants not only to explore fundamental questions about human rights, discrimination, identity and power, but to tell the history of the site in their own way – and the questions they ask in the process will inform and generate new research and new collaborations, so it really is a virtuous circle.

Portchester Castle is in an amazing location and is very photogenic so I can’t wait to see how these young people take ownership of the history of the site and give space to unheard voices from the past. I'm grateful to English Heritage and Photoworks for making this project not just possible but also so enjoyable too.

Dr Dominique Bouchard, Head of Learning and Interpretation at English Heritage, said:

“English Heritage is responsible for the conservation and stewardship of the National Heritage Collection of more than 400 sites across England. Our national youth engagement programme aims to ensure English Heritage embodies an inclusive and welcoming culture for young people, brings in new perspectives on our sites and collections from young, diverse voices, to enrich the stories we share and to attract new audiences. Projects like this help change perspectives of heritage among young people, broadening definitions of heritage, and help promote youth voice and co-creation across the organisation. We’re passionate about helping young people feel connected to heritage and we’re thrilled to continue our collaborations with Kate Astbury and Photoworks to introduce this incredible story to a new generation of young people.”

Juliette Buss, Learning & Engagement Consultant at Photoworks, said:

“Photoworks is all about championing photography. This valuable partnership is a fantastic opportunity that will increase young people’s engagement with photography, demonstrate the power of photography as a creative vehicle for learning and encourage stronger connections with local heritage.”

Images: Copyright English Heritage Trust

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