Tomorrow is Mass Observation Day

Monday, May 12th, is Mass Observation Day. Mass Observation was an organisation founded in 1937 to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. Remote tribes of Africa and Amazonia have had every detail of their lives observed and recorded but no-one had thought to do the same for the people of Britain. Mass Observation recruited a panel of volunteers to write down the mundane details of their daily lives, from when they got up in the morning to when they went to sleep at night. On April 19th, 1945, a housewife wrote:

‘This morning I saw the sun which had just risen, and it was shining direct into my kitchen. As I turned to go out of the room, I turned instinctively to do what I always do when I leave a room – turn off the light. Imagine it. I had got so used to the black-out and turning off the lights that I, for a moment, went to turn off the sun…’ 

History records extraordinary events and extraordinary people. Mass Observation recorded the ordinary events of ordinary people and resulted in a fascinating archive of how they lived, what they saw and what they thought. The diarist who cooked her husband’s breakfast on Coronation day probably never imagined that even that detail is now interesting to a world where full cooked breakfasts, and wives automatically cooking them for husbands, are no longer everyday things. A statistician could probably chart the decline of the Full English Cholesterol though the diaries of Mass Observation.

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The original Mass Observation continued until the early 1950s; its archive is held in the University of Sussex. It has since been revived, and last year on 12th May the Mass Observation Archive asked for diaries for that day, from as many volunteers as cared to send them in. That day, coincidently, was the first day of the new coalition government. This year, they are asking again. Today, of course, they are asking not for notebooks as in the 50’s but for the diaries to be emailed in. May 12th 2011 is likely to be quite an ordinary day but they would still like to have your account of what you did today.

‘Write as much as you can about what you do, who you meet, what you talk about, what you eat and drink, what you buy or sell, what you are working on, the places you visit, the people you meet, the things you read, see and hear around you and of course what you yourself think’  is their guidance. Include a brief self-portrait of your age, where you live, whether you are married or single, your job; add the legal permission to use it that they supply on their website; and e-mail it to moa@sussex.ac.uk. Your diaries will be stored in the Archive, alongside the documents from 1937 onwards. As a data-source for future generations, they will be unique and invaluable.”

How to take part:

  • Diaries should be in electronic form – emails or as email attachments (as word documents or pdfs, preferably)
  • You should include a brief self portrait: your age, where you live, your relationship status, your present job or occupation if you are working and any other information that you think is important to record.
  • If 12th May was a typical day for you please say so. If not, please say why it wasn’t. Any reflections on the day and on how you felt while keeping the diary are welcome.
  • So that we can add your diary to the rest of the Archive for the future, please include the statement below at the end of your diary. If you don’t attach this statement, we won’t be able to keep your diary or make it part of the Archive.
  • Please submit your responses by email moa@sussex.ac.uk

I’m really looking forward to doing this tomorrow.

Thank you to my friend Yvette Eady for sharing.