Story of Yeovil Launch Event – 20 JAN 2023

Reported by Izzie Jobbin & Jess EganImage by Carolyn Lefley

On Friday 20 January we held a public forum to mark the launch of the Story of Yeovil with more than 70 members of the public and invited guests attending. It was hosted by Zoe Li and Natasha Rand from Yeovil Art Space, and had guest speakers Professor Steve PooleDr Rose Wallis, and Dr Laura Harrison from the University of the West of England (UWE); Bob Osborn, founder of Yeovil’s Virtual Museum; and Joseph Lewis from South Somerset Heritage Collection.

The launch event for the Story of Yeovil was filled with people wanting to find out more about the project as a whole and how it was going to run. Many attendees had an interest in local history and were familiar with Yeovil’s Virtual Museum and part of the Yeovil memories Facebook group – Bygone Yeovil. Despite a demonstrated interest in local history, Yeovil doesn’t have its own museum. Why is this?

Our guests spoke in depth about their interest in Yeovil’s history as well as their wider interest in the heritage of places. Bob Osborn arrived in Yeovil and wanted to record local history. He walked the town and pubs gathering stories. The history that people focus on in Yeovil is glove making. While this is an important part of Yeovil’s past, what other stories should be brought to the forefront? Joseph Lewis emphasised the importance of provenance and to never be complacent or think that you know it all. You never know what stories will turn up. Often, history is focused on metropolitan areas which creates a narrow record of lived experiences. The Story of Yeovil project hopes to bring the focus to our regional history, especially those events and experiences that may not already be recorded.

Professor Steve Poole, Dr Rose Wallis, and Dr Laura Harrison explained the project is about sharing their professional knowledge but very importantly listening to the audience. Our collective knowledge of Yeovil’s history matters now. Heritage is informed by the past; however, it is different from history. Heritage can also inform history that is being made in the present day. The team from UWE highlighted the connection between people’s memories and how they connect to heritage. Most people feel a connection to a terraced house because of their own experiences but not with a huge stately home. When something is similar to our own history and the everyday norm it can provoke memories. UNESCO rewards Universal Value to areas of historical importance, however, these areas often do not reflect universal experiences. For example, Bath is known for its architecture and Roman and Georgian heritage and has been awarded UNESCO status of Universal Value. However, these are just 2 points in time in a massive 2000 years of history. It does have value, but by certain people with a particular viewpoint. A history that collects more voices is enriched and is relevant to a greater number of people. Family history can present a unique perspective of a local area to a history that is already recorded, using the example of Fairfield House in Bath, home of H.I.M Emperor Haile Selassie I.

The event gave an opportunity for our guest speakers to highlight the history of Yeovil which is often ignored. Bob Osborn has been transcribing wills to create a recorded history of residents’ past. He often discovers family connections, giving people an opportunity to learn about each other and our own pasts. These are people who may have been forgotten and their wills may be the only information left about them. Joseph Lewis also has an interest in recording stories that connect with the modern day. Our local residents may not think the stories are important, but we can learn a lot from these unrecorded stories. Professor Steve Poole thought about the lives of those who came back from war, how their lives changed, and the impact it had on them. By focusing on these other sides of history we can enrich the heritage of Yeovil. We want this project to investigate making this history and heritage accessible to residents and visitors even without a physical museum.

Audience Questions:

Our forum gave the audience an opportunity to ask questions and find out more about the project. We also got to hear about one audience member’s campaign against the closure of Westlands. Sheila, a local resident, started a petition and got over 8000 signatures from local residents so that the closure of Westlands would be discussed at a council meeting. Her petition helped to keep Westlands open and shows the importance of local activism. Sheila was proud of her fellow Yeovilians and said, ‘You can change things’!

How will the outcome of the project look?

The outcome of the project may be exhibitions and a presentation of the stories that are collected. However, the focus of the project is working together with communities across Yeovil. We have a structure with activities and a program but the end result partly depends on what surfaces in the early stages and through each phase of ViewTaste, and Sound. We are evaluating and collecting as we go and therefore it is for us to build together. It is important that this project is preserved for future generations and we will look at ways we can archive it.

Is the project for residents of Yeovil or for bringing visitors to Yeovil and raising the profile of Yeovil?

The project aims to improve the view of Yeovil to outsiders. It will also focus on the identity of Yeovil by bringing together a group voice creating a collective legacy for Yeovil. There is an incredibly rich variety to create interest in the town and we can choose to put Yeovil on the map. Heritage can be used to galvanise the now.

Yeovil doesn’t shout about what it is or does, how can this project change this?

Yeovil depreciates itself and doesn’t celebrate its achievements or the good things about it. People can be embarrassed about living in Yeovil. We want this project to change that and celebrate Yeovil for what it is and what it has achieved. We can also give our community an access point for them to tell their stories.

The first forum for Story of Yeovil helped us to connect to the public and ensure their stories and views are included from the outset of this project. We will be hosting other forums around Yeovil so do keep an eye out for further announcements as well as other ways you can get involved.