A ‘ghost lab’ at the Co-operative College revealed some of the hidden stories, tensions and possibilities that hide in the history of the co-operative movement.

The background...

Participants completing some of the ghost lab tasks

The ‘ghost lab’ was an outcome of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project on social haunting jointly undertaken between us and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). The project has focused on the former mining area of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, working with trade union UNITE, and Rochdale, formerly a Lancashire textile town which is regarded as the birthplace of co-operation, working with the Rochdale Pioneers Museum. ‘Ghost labs’ have also taken place in Barnsley and at MMU. A further social haunting workshop will take place at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum on Friday 23 October during Rochdale Festival of Literature and Ideas (11am-2pm), exploring themes raised in Robert Tressell’s classic novel the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists through comics and poetry.

The lab...

Participant reading to the group

The Holyoake House ‘ghost lab’ was attended by a number of colleagues and the Co-operative News, as well as others not drawn directly from the co-operative movement but interested in education, heritage, trade unions, activism and community education.

Mervyn Wilson, who recently retired as our Principal and Chief Executive, started with an introduction to Holyoake House, in which the College is based, and the so-called ‘Co-operative Quarter’ in which it is situated, as well as the wider historical significance of the area socially, economically and politically. George Jacob Holyoake, after whom the building was named, was a writer and journalist who was an adviser to the Rochdale Pioneers when they developed their ‘Law the First’, which Mervyn described as “the first step in how to change the world through co-operative work”. These ideas, said Mervyn, transformed the lives of people in Holyoake’s lifetime, and inspired Mervyn to speak and nod to the bust of Holyoake which he passed in Holyoake House every morning of his working life.

Story telling being recorded by participants

Using the techniques...

Poet Andrew McMillan then helped reveal new associations and juxtapositions through a series of co-operative and collaborative creative writing activities. Andrew explained: “Writing is a great way of getting things out which we’d never normally think we’d say. Sometimes the friction comes from what you’re not talking about. There are no right or wrong answers.” Andrew is from Barnsley, one of the areas focused on in the project, but now lives in Manchester. He explained that in Barnsley “it is not every easy to recognise the history of mining, as there is little obvious machinery left, whereas in Manchester you are surrounded by industrial history and it looms over you”.

Through poetry, the workshop aimed to “dig into language and abstraction and push on language, push on words, push on history”. Participants teamed up to create collective poems which flipped back and forth between Holyoake House and its surrounding area past and present, to “try and slam two different periods together” and reveal similarities and differences, from renovated buildings and gentrification to lingering poverty and homelessness.

Participants also came up with a list of words they associate with co-operatives, ranging from ‘local’ to ‘global’, ‘housing’ to ‘funerals’, ‘shops’ to ‘logo’, and including ‘alternative’, ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’.

list of words participants associated with co-operatives

Next steps...

These words were then explored in relation to a number of artefacts from the National Co-operative Archive, from a commemorative bell to a trophy awarded in a co-operative employees’ bowling competition, to a plate commemorating the First World War, which stimulated discussion around topics ranging from power and leisure to pride, values and working conditions. Andrew said: “Why are these words important? They’re not literal. As descriptions of words associated with co-operatives, they bring new meanings to clichés.”

Participants recorded memories using audio equipment

Dr Geoff Bright, Research Fellow at MMU’s Education & Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Principal Investigator on the Social Haunting project, commented: “The co-operative movement shows how some ghosts are battled over, and others are silenced. Visual artists are often better able to reveal to us the possibilities that remain in the cracks. These ghost labs, where people have been creating at ease together, have shown that people have the capacity for transformation and that we can do things together, in a way that is broadly educational. The process has been personally expanding, but we also grow together. It shows what’s possible through co-operation. We can interrogate how the past influences what kind of future we might decide to make collectively.”

You can learn more about the project and the methodology of social haunting by visiting their website here.