Mass-Observation was a social research organisation founded in 1937, by anthropologist Tom Harrisson with poet Charles Madge and British Surrealist Humphrey Jennings. It aimed to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ – a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain – and to report the results as widely as possible. It employed teams of volunteer ‘observers’ (including students, artists, writers, photographers, unemployed workers and local people) who recorded people’s conversations and behaviour in a variety of settings, and a national panel of volunteer writers, who either kept diaries or replied to questionnaires.
The most ambitious Mass-Observation project of the early years was the Worktown project, a major study of the towns of Bolton and Blackpool between 1937 and 1940. Harrisson was interested in both Realism and Surrealism as two very different ways of seeing – and also in how artists might react to the town of Bolton and how its inhabitants might react to art. He invited realist painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell, and Surrealist painter and photographer Julian Trevelyan to participate in the project, along with co-founder Humphrey Jennings and photographer Humphrey Spender.
The results of the artists’ involvement in the Worktown project are shown in this room and demonstrate an important moment in the history of the documentary form, when the seemingly disparate disciplines of sociology and art and the opposing concerns of Realism and Surrealism converged.