Events, News

From immersive exhibit to virtual tour: Using archive images to tell the history of charity shopping

On 18 November 2020 the project is running a virtual tour of charity shop history as part of the Being Human Festival of the Humanities. Before COVID changed everything, the ARP had been selected to feature as part of the British Academy Summer Showcase for which my colleague George Gosling and I had designed an immersive exhibit recreating a 1960s charity shop.

Oxfam’s shop on Broad Street Oxford in the 1950s. Reproduced courtesy of the Bodleian Library and Oxfam.

We wanted visitors to step back in time by browsing the vintage merchandise, trying the pre-decimal cash register and playing special-edition awareness-raising board games. We planned to source the store’s stock from charity shops, and to invite archivist partners to run object handling sessions using original archival materials. We even went so far as to digitise a Snakes and Ladders game from the Christian Aid archive at SOAS and to start bidding on vintage charity collecting boxes on eBay.

We hoped that by entering the pop-up shop, members of the public would come away both having learned something about the history of charity retail and with a better understanding how objects preserved in charity archives can help us to tell these stories.

A picture of the St Dunstan's shop on Regent's street, showing windows full of trays, baskets, and other goods made to support servicemen blinded in the First World War.
St Dunstan’s shop on Regent’s Street, London, opened in 1922. Reproduced Courtesy of Blind Veterans UK.

Of course, such an event was impossible in 2020, and we worked hard to adapt the format for these locked-down times. Instead of physical objects, we created a virtual tour drawing on the photographic collections of archive partners including Oxfam (deposited at the Bodleian Library), the British Red Cross Museum and Archives, Blind Veterans UK Collections and Archives and the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre. We uncovered images of the exteriors and interiors of charity shops and charity trade divisions covering over a hundred years of this history – which is longer and more varied that most people think. We’d like to thank all the archivists that helped us put the tour together.

Chaired by journalist and author of How to Break up with Fast Fashion Lauren Bravo, the virtual tour format mixes images and audio commentary to walk viewers through 150 years of charity shop history. In advance of the event, we also collected people’s memories of charity shopping via social media. It’s not the event that we envisaged, but our revised version still sparked imaginations and the topic was picked up by BBC radio 3’s Free Thinking.

By shedding new light on the familiar charity shop, we seek to enhance public understanding of the importance of charities to British society and promote awareness of the need to preserve the archives, records and material culture of voluntary organisations.

A black and white photograph of the Salvation Army's Trade HQ on Judd Street.
The Salvation Army’s Trade HQ on Judd Street. Reproduced courtesy of the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre.

More information

Read about the event and the wider project on the British Academy blog and the Social History Society Community Exchange.

Listen to Georgina Brewis and George Gosling on BBC Radio 3 show Free Thinking ‘What we cherish and what we give away’, available as a ‘Arts and Ideas’ podcast episode and to listen online here.

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About Georgina Brewis

Professor of Social History at UCL
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