Layers of London wins Birkbeck public engagement award 

Friday 12 June 2020

Layers of London, a web-based mapping project at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), School of Advanced Study, University of London, has triumphed in the ‘Collaboration’ category of the 2020 Birkbeck Public Engagement Awards.

Initiated in 2017 by Birkbeck, University of London, the awards celebrate researchers undertaking exemplary public engagement activities. Layers of London is a huge, multi-partner project with a rather ambitious aim: to map London's history over the past 500 years. 

Londoners can peel back time by spotting the differences between what they can see from their windows today, and what they could have seen 50, 100, 200, and in some cases almost 700 years ago. Included in the map layers is information about topics like WWII bomb damage, relative Victorian wealth and poverty using Charles’ Booth’s poverty map, ancient history and archaeology, and London’s worst disasters. As well as browsing through history, members of the public can view records contributed by Londoners from all walks of life or add their own stories and histories to the website. 

Opening the virtual ceremony for award winners, Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said: ‘These public engagement awards are of even greater importance because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. During the Brexit period we found that many members of the public were distrustful of what experts were telling them and wanted to go their own way. 

‘Now with the present emergency we are seeing a complete reversal of that. And that it is why it is so important that the results of research are made available to the public in a manner which is fully understandable and from which they can draw the appropriate conclusions. And that is what public engagement is all about.’ 

Layers of London is engaging with thousands of people across London and beyond with the history and heritage of the city. Working with key heritage partners who provide content in the form of historic maps, photos, films and other assets, the team has created a digital hub for new and existing heritage projects across the city. Partners include the London Metropolitan Archives, The Museum of London Archaeology, The British Library, Birkbeck, Historic England, The National Archives, the National Library of Scotland and London School of Economics.

Professor Matthew Davies, who has been directing the project since its launch in 2016 when he was director of the IHR’s Centre for Metropolitan History and pro-dean of the School of Advanced Study, said: ‘We are delighted at this award, as it is recognition not only of the work of the whole team, but also of the significance of the wider partnership with heritage organisations across London, and especially the crucial role played by thousands of volunteers in engaging with the city’s history and heritage and creating content for our website’

‘The challenges of the lockdown have thrown the nature of public engagement with heritage into sharp relief, and the team has been able to adapt quickly to the situation, holding very popular online events of different kinds over the past few months,’ continued Professor Davies, who is now executive dean at Birkbeck’s School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy.

Through this innovative mapping platform, the project’s team is creating valuable heritage assets and facilitating via public engagement and crowdsourcing the creation of significant new digital heritage content. It also delivers digital and historical skills training through workshops and other public events.

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