Research Meets Real Life
As a history PhD student, I have come to realise that my work, as thoroughly researched, as beautifully written, and as wonderfully entertaining as it is (at least to me) will likely never be read by the general public. The creation of outlets for snippets of interesting history such as HTTP are invaluable to PhDs as it allows us to practice writing about our topic and disseminate our work to a wider audience, but most of all, it gives the public a chance to read about what’s happening at researcher-level. It is humbling when a member of the public contacts you to tell you they found your piece very interesting; yet when they add that they have items of historical worth directly linked to your research and they want you to have them, well – it’s just incredible.
Back in March 2017 I wrote a piece for HTTP as it was Women’s History month. My subject was Rhoda Dawson (nee Bickerdike). Rhoda was a welfare worker for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in Germany between 1945 and 1947. As detailed in the previous article about Rhoda, she had been ‘shamed’ into applying for the role of UNRRA welfare worker by her philanthropic and humanitarian friend. Rhoda’s time with UNRRA is documented through a series of letters sent to the aforementioned friend as well as diary entries, letters to other friends and sometimes through personal recollection to fill in the gaps.
Rhoda is by no means famous and only a handful of historians dealing with post-war reconstruction, UNRRA, and international humanitarianism will have come across the ‘Stagnant Pool’ kept within the Imperial War Museum in London. Yet after the publication of my piece on Rhoda Dawson for Women’s History month I was then contacted by a woman who claimed to have a piece of art, painted by Rhoda Dawson during her time as an UNRRA welfare worker in Germany ready to be rehomed. Initially I thought the best possible place for this piece would be alongside the rest of Rhoda’s collection at the IWM as the collection not only houses the ‘Stagnant Pool’ papers but also a large collection of photographs that complemented the memoirs. The IWM, however, seemed disinterested in accepting any more of Rhoda’s pieces and never got back in touch with either of us after several attempts to donate the painting.
After waiting a few months for the IWM to make contact the owner of the painting, Mrs Best, contacted me to ask if I would like to have it. I readily agreed, the chance to own a piece of history was too good to pass up. Luckily for me, Mrs Best and her husband were about to attend a birthday party near my home town and we arranged to meet.
Sitting in the courtyard of The Vennels Café, a well-known hot spot for delicious cake, tea, and coffee situated in a gloriously restored 16th Century building, it felt like there was no better place to discuss this painting and the woman behind it. The painting itself is rather bleak in nature, showing the courtyard of a Displaced Persons (DP) camp during winter; a few indistinguishable black figures are walking across the courtyard in different directions. Rhoda worked in more than one DP camp during her time with UNRRA so, without confirmation, it is impossible to distinguish which DP camp we are looking at.
However, the content of the painting, although fascinating in and of itself, is not what led me to seize the opportunity to own this painting. For a historian, being able to speak to someone about your work and helping them understand more about a piece of history was an invaluable experience. The painting now hangs proudly above my work-desk at home, far out of reach from troublesome kitties, and serves as a reminder of how even the smallest piece of disseminated research can have an impact and lead to wonderful things.