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From the Archives #4: Thatcher’s Handbag

12 May 2012

I spent part of the last week working at the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge. Whilst there I stumbled accross a fairly unlikely collection that included Margaret Thatcher’s famous handbag. Seeing this in person was a slightly surreal experience, and one that raises important questions about the historical use of material sources.

Most of us are used to seeing material sources as windows into the past. We are brought into contact with such sources by museums and family ‘heirlooms’ (whether old items of clothing, items of furniture or grandad’s ubiquitous ration book) from an early age. Even thinking about the way we navigate museums, it is clear that these items often allow a more vivid link with history than documents and written sources. And, like their written counterparts, they are sources that can be explored and engaged with.

Historians, however, have not always been so keen and have tended to concentrate their energies on more orthodox sources. Political historians could – as I noted in the previous ‘From the Archives’ post – be seen as a case in point. This is not to say that all history has remained tied to the written word. The last decade has – as I noted – seen the growth of a ‘New Political History’ that has been more interested in the relationship between political cultures and has been able to integrate a number of more visual sources into its practice. But, when set alongside the possibilities offered by the analysis of ‘material culture’, more could obviously be done.

Thatcher’s handbag provides one such possibility. It is a source that remains as ordinary as it is symbolic: one that demonstrates the complex interrelationship between the political, social and material cultures of the 1980s. And certainly one worth seeing in person.

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